A 93-year-old veteran and former chief communicator aboard Air Force One will get one last wish fulfilled: when the time comes, E.E. “Van” Valkenberg will be laid to rest at the veterans cemetery in his hometown of Vancouver.
That wasn’t a foregone conclusion, despite Valkenberg’s military career that stretched from World War II to the Reagan administration. A recent administrative change at the Vancouver Barracks National Cemetery meant that Valkenberg wouldn’t have qualified for a casketed burial.
But Valkenberg, with help from a couple close advocates, was able to gain an exception from the manager of the Willamette National Cemetery — which oversees the Vancouver cemetery — in November.
“All of his preparation was so that he would be buried there at the Post Cemetery here in Vancouver,” said John Hilbrands, Valkenberg’s longtime friend and fellow veteran. “He’s ordered his casket — it’s already paid for — and his headstone.”
Jared Howard, director of the Willamette National Cemetery, confirmed that his office was working to grant Valkenberg’s wish based on past verbal promises.
“We typically don’t, but this is a unique scenario,” Howard said. “Van Valkenberg will be well taken care of.”
For more than a century, the Department of the Army oversaw the Vancouver Barracks Post Cemetery. That changed in March, when the Department of Veterans Affairs took over the 5.74-acre cemetery located just off Interstate 5 at Fourth Plain Boulevard. It was one of 11 cemeteries transferred from the Army’s rolls since 2018.
The change in management was accompanied by a name change, as well as a revision of the rules governing who could be laid to rest there. One change is that casketed burials are limited to eligible family members of those at existing gravesites. Other new burials are restricted to cremated remains. That measure was intended to make the most of the site’s remaining space, ironically to ensure the cemetery was accessible to more veterans and service members.
But for Valkenberg — whose health has been declining, and who made preparations for his passing before the swap from the Army to the VA — it had the opposite effect. The new limitations on casketed burials would exclude him from his planned resting place.
Enter Hilbrands and Bryan Bell, a fellow friend and executor of Valkenberg’s estate. The challenge, Bell said, was that Valkenberg’s agreement with the former cemetery management appears to have been verbal.
“The problem is some of the people (Valkenberg) was involved with have passed away since then,” Bell said.
Until recently, Valkenberg’s headstone was being stored at a warehouse at Fort Vancouver National Site. It’s since been transferred to Vancouver Granite Works.
“We just want to make sure if anything ever does happen that everything is in place for him,” Bell said. “If anyone deserves to be buried down there, it would be Van.”
A distinguished career
After Valkenberg graduated from what was then Vancouver High School, he went on to serve 37 years in the military. He served in the Navy during World War II, then later joined the Air Force Reserve in Portland. Valkenberg was tasked with training airborne communications personnel for the 400-troop carrier wing, which at that time was stationed there. Hilbrands was one of his trainees.
Valkenberg, who now lives at The Quarry Senior Living, said he had such a commanding knowledge of Morse code that he would subconsciously translate daily correspondence even off-duty.
“I can’t get rid of it. It’s in my mind,” Valkenberg said. “I’d drive down the highway and I’d read all the road signs in Morse code.”
His mastery of military communications translated into one of the most prestigious posts an airman can receive: service aboard Air Force One.
Valkenberg served as communications chief aboard the presidential jet for Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. His job was to keep his VIP passengers connected to the White House — and anyone else with whom they might urgently need to speak — at all times.
Valkenberg’s memory has since faded, but in a 2011 Columbian profile he recalled some of his most significant moments on the unique job. He once flew with Henry Kissinger to China, he said. At another point, Nixon once decided that he needed nine extra feet in his presidential stateroom; redesigning the jet to accommodate him cost $1 million.
According to Hilbrands, Valkenberg once told him that his favorite president to fly with was Ford. Ford knew his name.
“A lot of these other presidents, if you’re crew of Air Force One, you’re a bus driver,” Hilbrands said. “Ford would come on and he would actually take a moment and talk to Van … He’d put his hand on his shoulder and give a squeeze.”
Even after all his travels, Bell said, Vancouver is Valkenberg’s home. It’s where he’s always planned on being laid to rest.
“I don’t believe he’s ever had a Plan B. This is just something all us who have known him have known for a long time,” Bell said.