Lewis Army Museum

Inspire. Educate. Preserve.

Fort Lewis – The Permanent Post is Established, 1927-1939

The Tacoma News and Tribune called 1927 the year of the “Big Push” at Camp Lewis. Quartermaster Corps architects drew a flexible plan allowing for the indefinite expansion of the post’s training center potential. In 1927 construction began on the first of the red brick quadrangle barracks on main post. The camp gained a new, permanent chapel, a new hospital (later to be Dispensary One), and the Broadmoor and Greenwood quarters areas. This construction, completed in 1939 at a cost of seven million dollars, was to have been more extensive but the war effort intervened and the Army, in 1939, changed over to building quick, cheap Quonset and wood structures.

Many partially-constructed building frameworks were in evidence on 13 September 1927 when Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, on tour after his solo transatlantic flight, dipped the wings of his “Spirit of St. Louis” over Watkins Parade Ground as a battery of French 75’s fired in salute. But the culmination of the “Big Push” came seven days later–on 30 September 1927–when the War Department issued General Order 15, designating the Camp as a permanent military post to be henceforth called FORT LEWIS.

The Fort, by autumn of 1929, had enough permanent barracks to quarter 1,500 troops; but an army-wide 119,000 troop ceiling was in effect. Fort Lewis manpower would not top 2,000 until 1937 when the 3d Infantry Division would be beefed up.

It was during this period of growth that a series of events occurred which have irritated the Post’s Commanding Officers ever since.

The western end of the main parade ground, now Watkins Field, had been allowed to grow up in fir saplings after WWI. In this grove of young trees, on Memorial Day 1930, the 91st Division Monument was dedicated. The monument was donated to the 91st Division Association by Colonel Frank McDermont of Seattle and sculptured by Avard Fairbanks, then head of the Division of Fine Arts at the University of Michigan. The monument was in turn deeded to the U.S. Government by the 91st Division Association.

Four years later, in 1934, the semicircle of senior officers’ quarters was built facing the rear of the monument. Later, when the parade field was again cleared, it became obvious that the view of Mount Rainier from those quarters was magnificent–to all but one, the largest home. Thus the Commanding General, in Quarters One, has no view of the mountain, only the back of the 91st Division monument.

Brigadier General David L. Stone, who oversaw the building of Fort Lewis as a captain in 1917, returned to the post as Commanding General in September 1936. He was promoted to major general in the next month and served as Post Commander until 3 April 1937. He died on 29 December 1959, and is buried in the Fort Lewis Cemetery.

A month of maneuvers was held at Fort Lewis in the summer of 1937 involving Regular Army and National Guard units from several western states. At the close of maneuvers, the largest military review seen in the Northwest since World War I was held on post. Horse and tractor-drawn caissons, plus 7,500 hundred soldiers wearing wool olive drab uniforms, “bandage leggings,” felt campaign hats, and shouldering 1903 Springfield Rifles paraded on the gravel flats between Engineer Bluff and Davis Hill near the aerodrome, approximately today’s “Division Area.” The review was commanded by Brigadier General George C. Marshall of Vancouver Barracks.

The final payment of the $2,000,000 debt that Pierce County had imposed upon itself was made in October 1937, with a check for $105,000. With this payment, the taxpayers of the County had paid a total of $3,250,345.85 for the Army post site since the bond issue was approved.

In March 1938, the 3d Infantry Division was strengthened by the arrival of 1,800 men of the 15th Infantry Regiment returning stateside after a twenty-five year tour of duty in Tientsin, China. A double row of block barracks to quarter the 15th was started in 1938. However, until the buildings (on the present site of the commissary) were finished, the “Can Do” troopers lived in pup tents.

In January 1938, construction of an airfield (later named “Gray,” after an Army balloonist who died in an air crash in Tennessee) was started on Fort Lewis; and by June 1939, two rough airfields were in existence in Pierce County. The other airfield, built partly on Fort Lewis land, was called McChord, and was constructed by 2,100 Works Progress Administration laborers.

In August 1938, a large airpower demonstration was held on a Fort Lewis training range. Fifteen B-18 bombers and twenty-one A-17-A fighters gave a civilian and military audience of 3,000 a vivid demonstration of the destructive capabilities of modern airpower. Using live ordnance, the warplanes dropped over 400 bombs on a mock city, completely destroying it. No cameras were allowed at the demonstration. The demonstration was of popular local interest since in the summer of 1938, Japanese bombers were prowling over large areas of China and Korea; and fascist bombers were laying waste to several Spanish cities in that nation’s civil war.