Q&A: Military historian says Fort Lewis, WWI inextricably linked

A century ago America was an isolationist nation with a third-rate military more concerned with border wars than anything happening overseas.

The Great War changed all of that.

What would come to be known as World War I spurred the creation of a vast military post south of Tacoma — today’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

South Sound military historian Alan Archambault is an authority on JBLM’s predecessors, Camp Lewis and Fort Lewis. As a supervising curator at the Center for Military History in Washington, D.C., he ran 14 Army museums, including the one at Fort Lewis.

Archambault is also the author of a book on the history of Fort Lewis.

Q: What military presence predated Fort Lewis in the area?

A: The first military installation, only a few miles away (from Fort Lewis), was Fort Steilacoom in 1849. Obviously, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were the first military unit in what is now the state of Washington (in 1805-1806), but they were along the Columbia River.

Q: How did Camp Lewis come about?

A: After the Spanish-American War (the U.S. Army) realized how out of touch a lot of the state militias were with current military activities. In 1904, they established the National Guard Act. (It regulated age requirements and formal training.)

As part of that effort, they had joint maneuvers between the regular Army troops and the National Guard of Washington, Idaho and Oregon. They used American Lake as the base.

These maneuvers lasted a couple of weeks in July, and they realized what a wonderful region this was compared to Louisiana or something. It offered water, hills, valleys and few mosquitoes.

Q: Did the local economy see a boost?

A: Oh, yes. They loved it. The businessmen of Tacoma realized all these soldiers go to town and buy things. The businessmen lured the Army into establishing a post here. Congress passed an act as they got closer to World War I that allowed the Army to accept donations of land. In fact, (the predecessor of) The News Tribune played a big role.

Q: What else happened during these maneuvers?

A: As an added attraction (the Army) would put on a mock battle at the end of the maneuvers as entertainment (for the public.) There were huge crowds watching.

In 1904, they were still using horses. They brought over the Ninth Cavalry from Montana — the Buffalo Soldiers. They made quite an impression. They said they were like centaurs — man and horse — the maneuvers they could do with the horses were just incredible. The National Guard guys just lumbered along.

Q: Who was on the land when the army took it over?

A: In 1916, (the Army) established that 70,000 acres around American Lake was the land they wanted. A lot of it was vacant. The Nisquallys did give up some land.

Q: What were the pressures facing the U.S. leading up to our involvement?

A: In 1914, the Germans were built up as real monsters. We were starting to become aware that foreign enemies were becoming considerable. Before that, we were concerned with the British up in Canada and the Native Americans.

We began to look outward — all the news from Europe about big battles, poison gas and the instruments of war being ramped up. And then to look at the U.S. Army, which was pretty primitive by European standards. We were a small, Third World army. And we were having problems in Mexico with Pancho Villa. We knew we had a military that couldn’t handle these things.

Q: Until then we were isolationists?

A: President Wilson had been trying to keep out of the war. But the Germans sunk the (British ocean liner) Lusitania. Germany backed off for a while, but then they got desperate and went back to unlimited naval warfare. It was sort of in-your-face to Wilson.

Also, British intelligence had found a coded telegram from the Germans to the Mexicans, basically offering them New Mexico, California, Arizona in return for their support in World War I. It all added up. England and France were really putting pressure on us to get troops over there.

Q: When did Camp Lewis officially begin?

A: Construction began on July 5, 1917. For a couple of weeks it was known as Camp American Lake. On July 18, 1917, they officially named the post Camp Lewis in honor of Meriwether Lewis.

The camp was constructed for the lowest cost and in the shortest time of any camp built during World War I. For the original cost of $7,723,000.51, 1,757 buildings and 422 other structures were erected in 90 days. The first troops arrived on Sept. 5, 1917.

Q: During the World War I era, how many soldiers were at Camp Lewis?

A: By December of 1917, there were 37,000. These are recruits. There were a lot of guys who had never used indoor plumbing or electricity. A lot came from rural areas.

Q: How did that influx affect the surrounding communities?

A: It was crazy. With the excitement around entering the war, these guys were being cheered and feted. The local community just swarmed in to help.

(The Army) established an amusement park, Greene Park, on the post. That’s where the (Fort Lewis) museum is. They could be monitored. And think about the transportation — 37,000 men trying to get into town.

Q: And that was long before I-5.

A: Exactly. Gen. Greene was trying to provide good clean recreation for the guys. They had ice cream parlors, photography studios, anything you wanted.

Q: What’s the connection between Fort Lewis and Thornewood Castle, the home of Chester Thorne?

A: Capt. David Stone oversaw construction of the camp in 1917. He was a real dynamo. He oversaw every penny — that’s how you get the 51 cents. Later on he came back as the post commander in 1936. He married Thorne’s daughter Anita. (Both are buried at Fort Lewis.)

Q: What physical or cultural artifacts from the World War I area still exist at Fort Lewis today?

A: The main gate is the symbol of Camp Lewis and Fort Lewis. It was built by the workers who built the post. They built it as a gift to the camp. The workers took up a collection for the stones and lumber.

They built it in 1917 to be a replica of a pioneer era block house. During the Indian wars, that was a common practice. It allowed the settlers to take refuge. They called it Liberty Gate.

When I-5 was built, they had to move it. Originally it was across Highway 99 from Greene Park. They took it apart in 1956, numbered all the parts and put it back together.

Q: Anything else?

A: The (present day) museum building. That was built by the Salvation Army as a guest house in Greene Park. Originally they called it the Red Shield Inn because that’s the symbol of the Salvation Army. The Red Shield Inn didn’t open until 1919. The war was technically over. But there was still a huge troop strength there.

Q: What effect did the end of World War I have on Fort Lewis?

A: The war ended rather unexpectedly in November 1918. The American presence really turned the tide. They signed the armistice long before they thought the Germans would throw in the towel.

The real peace agreement wasn’t signed until 1919. And then we occupied Germany for a while. The troops really didn’t leave in great numbers until the end of 1919. The post was really jumping. Then in 1920 and 21 there was a real letdown.

Q: What happened then?

A: That’s when The News Tribune and the city fathers said time out. The contract (between Pierce County and the Army) said men would be trained there, not just a garrison. If not, the land could be returned to Pierce County.

Q: They wanted a big military presence here to permanently boost the economy?

A: Of course. By 1921, the place had become a ghost town. Later, in 1921, in order to keep the faith, they moved the headquarters of the 3rd Division to Camp Lewis. In 1927, Congress finally authorized the post be a permanent army installation, and that’s when the name changed from Camp Lewis to Fort Lewis.

Once again, Congress was looking overseas. There was fighting here and there. World War I was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.” But that was clearly no longer the case.

Congress then authorized money to build permanent buildings. That’s when the brick buildings you associate with the post were built. It wasn’t going away.