How a Military Installation came to Western Washington: A History

 

Environmental conditions played the most important role in leading to an army post at American Lake. Owing to its naturally poor soil, the region around American Lake had only marginal value for the settlers who arrived in Pierce County after the mid-19th century. Although the Hudson Bay Company and its subsidiary, the Puget Sound Agricultural Cooperative, attempted farming and livestock between the 1830s and 1860s, the large herds of cattle and sheep soon denuded the prairie of its natural grass and further aggravated the soil deficiency. As a result, the American Lake region featured only a scattering of tenants after the 1880s who eked out a living with small plots and orchards.

As early as the 1890s, however, some farsighted civic leaders in Tacoma visualized a permanent training facility at American Lake.  A federally-funded post would not only serve as a useful base for National Guard activities, but also increase Tacoma's financial opportunities and political power.  The Washington National Guard, established just prior to the state's official induction into the nation in 1889, soon began a tradition of using the American Lake region as a site for maneuvers.  A series of successful exercises held over the next two decades combined with strong lobbying efforts by Tacoma businessmen made the American Lake region an extremely strong candidate to host a National Army camp.

The political and financial elite of Tacoma spearheaded a successful campaign in late 1916 to convince the people of Pierce County to vote for a two million dollar bond to purchase the necessary land, overcoming the moral and economic concerns of some citizens and overriding the objections of the over 2,200 people who faced condemnation of their property.  After condemnation proceedings were completed against Tribal and American land owners, Pierce County donated 70,000 acres to the federal government to build an Army post.  The creation of Camp Lewis in the summer of 1917 was a fitting culmination of 25 years of military activities and a symbol of Tacoma's hopes for future prosperity.

Camp Lewis stood apart from the other 15 cantonments during World War I by virtue of its great size, relative isolation from the other camps and image as the cantonment of the "Wild West."  At 70,000 acres, it was by far the largest of the cantonments, featuring nearly twice the territory as the next largest camp. With nearly 50,000 men at its peak strength, Camp Lewis was also the most populous of the National Army cantonments. Its geographic position, nestled in the picturesque forests of Washington state nearly 1,800 miles from the nearest camp, gave Camp Lewis a unique sense of identity as the camp of the Far West. The camp also acquired a frontier image because its Soldiers, drawn from states across the West, exemplified for many observers the spirit of the Old West born anew in the men of the 91st "Wild Western" Division and the 13th "Horseshoe" Division.

Related Materials

Read more about Camp Lewis and Fort Lewis history by following the links to historical articles from  HistoryLink.org.

Fort Lewis, Part 1, 1917-1927
Fort Lewis, Part 2, 1927-2010
Clark, General Mark Wayne (1896-1984)
Eisenhowers in Washington State: Big Ike and Little Ike
Fort Lewis Golf Course
Love, Linnie (1893-1918): Singer Who Gave Life for Camp Lewis Soldiers
Stone, General David L. (1876-1959)
Fort Lewis: Gray Army Airfield
Eisenhower reports for Fort Lewis duty
Olympia's Servicemen Center, soon to become a USO club, opens in 1941
Two USO clubs open in Tacoma on February 9, 1942
Pierce County residents vote to purchase 70,000 acres that will become Camp Lewis on January 6, 1917

Camp Lewis

 

Joint Base Lewis-McChord began as Camp Lewis in 1917 when the citizens of Pierce County voted to buy land to donate to the federal government for military use. The only stipulation was that the tract must become a permanent Army post. Captain David L. Stone and his staff arrived at the camp site May 26, 1917, and a few days later, the initial construction began. In 90 days, Stone had supervised the construction of a "city" of 757 buildings and 422 other structures, for two divisions. The first recruits moved into their new barracks on Sept. 5, 1917. In 1917, Pierce County, through the process of condemnation proceedings (eminent domain) acquired for the Camp Lewis Military Reserve.

Following World War I, the camp population declined with the military drawdown. Camp Lewis became a virtual ghost town. The buildings were not maintained and many were lost to fires and neglect. By 1926, the condition of military posts across the nation created a national scandal. The U.S. Congress studied the issue and considered ways to improve quality of life. In 1926, the U.S. Congress passed a law authorizing the selling military lands to fund the construction of housing and hospitals. Two years later, Camp Lewis received funding as part of the general Army housing program and the post was designated a permanent Army installation, and renamed Fort Lewis.

Fort Lewis

 

The Construction Service of the Quartermaster Corps organized the nationwide program, which included post planning, building design, and monitoring construction projects. The Construction Service strove to develop efficient, cohesive, and pleasant environments within reasonable expenditures. They issued standardized plans that incorporated building design elements appropriate to the history and climate of the locations of the installations. Additional support in the building program came with the Depression era programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA) that did landscaping and constructed some of the permanent buildings.

At Fort Lewis, the Army used the principles of landscape design to help give form to military traditions and uses. The open parade ground became the axis for arranging and separating the residential areas of different ranks. Quadrangle barracks formations not only separated enlisted men from officers but also maintained the unity of regiments, which was necessary for military morale.

As World War II loomed in the future, Fort Lewis became more active with its population swelling to 37,000 troops. To house and support the new Soldiers, over 2 million square feet of temporary wooden structures were completed by March 1941.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, troops from Fort Lewis helped secure McChord Field, Camp Murray and Fort Lewis itself. Fort Lewis is responsible for training six Infantry Divisions, many brigades and several smaller sized units by the end of World War II.

After World War II, Fort Lewis continued to be an important military post. In 1950, the Fort Lewis’s 2nd Infantry Division became the first American division to leave the U.S. for Korea. The 4th Infantry Division left for Vietnam in 1966. In 1972, Fort Lewis became home to the 9th Infantry Division. By 1981, it was home to the I Corps. This senior headquarters is involved in the operation and training of active, reserve, and National Guard units from all over the country. Fort Lewis also supported wartime efforts throughout the Iraqi war and continues to do so in Afghanistan and Iraq.

McChord Air Force Base

 

McChord Field initially started out as the Pierce County Municipal Airport,  established in 1927. By 1938, the facility was acquired by the Army Air Corps and converted into a major air base. During this time, the base expanded in size from 900 to 1,232 acres. McChord Field was named after West Point Graduate, Col. William McChord, who died in a crash landing on Aug. 18, 1937. The field was named in his honor on May 5, 1938.

To construct the base, the Army Air Corps partnered with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The buildings were designed and built in modern and restrained style that included strong vertical window orientation and simple decorative elements to reflect the austerity of the time. Key built features from this era were four large hangers and a single barracks building known as ”The Castle”  that housed 1,245 men. This building still stands today and is known as Building 100.

The first groups to occupy the base were the 17th Bombardment Group and the 89th Reconnaissance Squadron. During World War II,  McChord supported training, aircraft alteration, surveillance and bombing raids. At the end of the war, McChord served as a processing and separation point for troops returning home.

In 1948 McChord Field became McChord Air Force Base, at that time it switched its mission to transport. The mission was supported by the arrival of the 62nd Troop Carrier Wing. The base expanded to 4,616 acres in 1950. The base remained busy during the Korean war collaborating with the Canadian Air Force. In 1964, McChord expanded again to accommodate F-106 Delta Dart fighters and protect Alaskan airspace from Russian intrusions. In 1966 the C-141 Starlifters arrived, these were employed transporting personnel to Southeast Asia. In the 1970s the base underwent modernization, women were integrated into dorms and recreational facilities were expanded. In June of 1983, the F-15B Eagle arrived at McChord, strengthening defense capabilities with features like improved radar.

In the 1990s McChord provided troop transportation support to Desert Shield and the Gulf War. In 1992, McChord provided relief to Guam and Hawaii during Typhoon recovery. That year the 446th Airlift Wing, an Air Force Reserve wing on McChord,  won the Air Mobility Command's premier Airlift Rodeo competition.

Post 9/11, the base transitioned from the C-141 to C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft. McChord transported troops during this conflict and supported airborne assaults. In 2005, base aircraft provided assistance to New Orleans after it was struck by Hurricane Katrina. On Oct. 1, 2010, McChord Air Force Base was joint-based with Fort Lewis at the recommendation of the 2005 Base Reutilization and Closure commission. Now part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Air Force operates, once again, out of McChord Field.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord

 

On Oct. 1, 2010, Fort Lewis joined McChord Air Force Base to form Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The combined installation has centralized services to become a more efficient and effective military installation. The Army assumed the lead position with the joint-base headquarters established at Lewis Main, but McChord Airmen were not lost in the merger. Today, Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the Department of Defense’s premier military installation on the West Coast. JBLM provides world-class support to more than 40,000 active, guard and reserve service members and about 14,000 civilian workers. It is home to I Corps and the 62nd Airlift Wing.