Lewis Army Museum

Inspire. Educate. Preserve.

World War II, 1939-1949

WWIIBy May 1938, the 3d Infantry Division and Fort Lewis boasted 5,000 men in garrison. Intensive infantry training and frequent field maneuvers were becoming the norm on post. A final prewar (1938-1940) spurt of construction gave Fort Lewis 455 permanent and temporary structures worth fifteen million dollars.

On 1 July 1940, the post garrison numbered 7,000 men with the arrival of the IX Army Corps from the Presidio of San Francisco; and the troop level would increase dramatically after September, when the one-year Selective Service Act came into being. With 26,000 regulars, guardsmen, and draftees on post by Christmas, living space became scarce.

Two officers who were to become famous World War II generals were stationed at Fort Lewis in 1940 and 1941. General Mark W. Clark, Chief of Army Field Forces, was stationed here as a major from 1937, when he graduated from the Army War College, until March 1940 when he returned to the War College as an instructor. He served with the G-3 staff of the 3d Division and also as division public relations officer.

General of the Army and President Dwight D. Eisenhower was assigned to the 15th Infantry at Fort Ord, California, in February 1940. He served as Chief of Staff of the IX Army Corps at Fort Lewis from 1 March 1941 to 24 June 1941, when he went to San Antonio, Texas, to be Chief of Staff of the Third Army.

The 41st Infantry Division, consisting of 12,108 officers and men, most of them Washington National Guardsmen, arrived at Fort Lewis in the fall of 1940. They were temporarily housed in “winterized” tents at Camp Murray. The nearly 3,000 tents were given wooden floors and plank side walls to help protect from mud and snow. The tents were connected by asphalt sidewalks to centralized wooden mess halls. Understandably, the troops called it “Swamp Murray.”

March 1941 saw 11,000 more troops planned for duty at Fort Lewis. This influx made necessary the hasty construction of an auxiliary training and troop center on the northern part of the Fort Lewis tract.

In the spring 37,000 troops were in maneuvers on the Nisqually Plain training area. Poorly equipped, with sticks as rifles, beer cans as grenades, and trucks as tanks, these poorly motivated citizen-soldiers played at their training, awaiting 16 September when their one year call-up would end.

If the training was haphazard, at least the combination of civilian construction crews and Army work details was making real progress on the raising of barracks and training ranges on North Fort Lewis. In April, the initial 2,000-acre North Fort complex was unadorned and unpainted, but it was fully ready for use by August 1941.

As spring waxed into summer, President Roosevelt asked Congress to extend the call-up by one year. The evacuation of the British Army at Dunkirk, the collapse of the French Republic, and the ever-widening area of Nazi rule in Europe were FDR’s reasons for this extension. Isolationists balked; but Congress, after a summer-long floor fight, passed the extension by a margin of one vote on 12 August.

During the extension controversy, the anagram “Ohio” became popular on post. “Ohio” meant “Over the hill in October,” but October passed with relatively few troops deserting.

The war games continued at Fort Lewis. In September and October, the troops trained in amphibious operations on Puget Sound using motorized wooden whaleboats as landing craft. On one such training exercise, the troops made a water-borne assault at Point Defiance Park, with several hundred spectators watching from a stone retaining wall as the doughboys slogged ashore.

The training of the 37,000 men of Fort Lewis, Camp Murray, and McChord Field continued through the autumn. Training remained hectic, but the weekend pass regulations on post were softened. After a training/work week of five and one-half days, a soldier–if he had performed his duties satisfactorily during the week and had passed the routine Saturday morning inspection–could take a 36-hour pass over the weekend and relax. This pass policy was popular and was in effect right up to Sunday, 7 December 1941.

Assistant Post Adjutant First Lieutenant Vernon W. Rice was working at his desk in post headquarters, Building 1010, that Sunday morning when his radio told of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Lieutenant Rice phoned the news to the Acting Post Commander, Colonel Ralph R. Glass. Colonel Glass, figuring that official Washington would probably be several hours in formulating a plan of action in the aftermath of this Sunday morning attack, moved to protect the three military bases in the Tacoma-Olympia area.

He first asked local radio stations to broadcast a bulletin that all personnel stationed at Fort Lewis, Camp Murray, and McChord Field were to report immediately to their units for further orders; that all leaves and passes were cancelled indefinitely. Colonel Glass then alerted unit commanders of the attack and ordered the 41st Infantry Division to establish tight perimeter security on the three bases. The Third Infantry Division, dispersed with full field gear, was sent to the Fort’s training ranges to erect antiaircraft batteries, and the 115th Cavalry Regiment was trucked to the area’s beaches for shore patrol and coast-watching duty.

Personnel returning to Fort Lewis found all gates barricaded by rolls of barbed wire and covered by machine-gun nests. Traffic-snarled military police checkpoints were manned by armed MP’s and infantrymen who were searching all vehicles and questioning their occupants in an effort to stop possible saboteurs. For the next few weeks, scare rumors of sabotage and impending invasion ran rife on the Northwest coast, especially when joined by false reports of night sightings of unidentified submarines surfacing in the Sound, and of unknown aircraft spotted over the Olympic range.

As the weeks wore on into 1942, the rumors and scares eased off a bit. The Pacific Northwest with its seaports, shipyards, railroads, iron foundries, hydroelectric dams, and a vital, modern aircraft plant, all necessary to a successful war effort, was considered to be a prime target for a Japanese attack, especially after the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians. A constant watch stretching 700 miles from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to Astoria, Oregon, was set on the Northwest Pacific Coast. An enemy aircraft early warning system was established along the coast and in the forests around Puget Sound, consisting of rough-hewn log watch-towers, manned by military or Civil Defense personnel. The Northwest’s first line of defense consisted of coastal artillery batteries and air/sea antisubmarine patrols.

In June 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled sparsely-populated Estevan Point on Vancouver Island. Moving south, the submarine may have tried to shell Fort Stevens on the mouth of the Columbia River. Finally, the submarine surfaced off Seaside, Oregon, and fired nine shells harmlessly at a deserted beach and submerged, never to return. During the war years untold numbers of aerial balloons came to earth in the Northwest. The paper balloons, released in Japan, followed the warm air of the Japanese Current down the North Pacific Slope before snagging in the conifer forests. Most balloons carried only propaganda leaflets, although a few were armed with high explosives. Six civilians were killed in Oregon, the only casualties due to enemy action in the continental U.S. in World War II.

Eventually, the enemy task force was routed from the Aleutians, and the immediate Japanese threat to the Northwest was ended. The likelihood of a Japanese invasion to follow-up their quick Pacific victories, or of a surprise propaganda raid on the U.S. mainland, faded as it became clear imperial Japan lacked the men, materiel, and advance bases to stage such a risky undertaking.

By March 1942 the 41st Division was on its way to Australia and then to New Guinea, where it fought under I Corps in the Papuan Campaign. One month later the 3d Division moved to Fort Ord, and then on to North Africa.

Before the end of World War II, the post had trained and sent off some of the War’s outstanding fighting units, including the 3d, 33d, 40th, 41st, 44th, and 96th Infantry Divisions, plus many brigades and smaller size units.

A camp for prisoners of war was established in July 1943 and was continued for three years.

The need for increased hospital facilities in the Northwest was growing, and once again the War Department looked toward Fort Lewis. Plans were announced in 1943 for the construction of a $3,000,000-addition to the Fort Lewis Hospital, which would make the center one of the largest in the nation. The hospital was dedicated in 1945 to Colonel Patrick S. Madigan, a distinguished neuro-psychiatrist. The hospital had eight miles of corridors and hundreds of wards spread throughout the reservation in various sections.

Also in 1943, action was taken to enlarge the installation’s training space. Condemnation proceedings began in March on over 18,000 acres south of the Nisqually River, which became known as Rainier Training Area.

In July 1944 Fort Lewis was redesignated as an Army Service Forces Training Center. In a few months, Fort Lewis became the largest Service Forces Training Center in the nation, training medics and engineers exclusively.

Members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC’s) first arrived at Fort Lewis in the waning months of 1943 and were well established by the spring of 1944. They arrived, were trained for specific administrative functions, and served in that capacity.

At the end of the war, the northwest Fort Lewis staging area became a separation center and discharged its first World War II veterans in November 1945.

The 2d Infantry Division (Indianhead), one of America’s first units to be returned home after World War II, came to Fort Lewis in April 1946 after a short stay at Camp Swift, Texas. The 2d Division brought with it a record that had few parallels among combat divisions in the Army. Organized in France in October 1917, the Division fought in six major World War I campaigns, suffered more casualties, and earned more decorations than any other division in that war.

In World War II, after training at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, and undergoing maneuvers in northern Michigan for a projected invasion of Norway, the Division went to England in September 1943 and landed in Normandy on 7 June 1944–D-plus-one. After Normandy, the Division helped capture Brest, took a prominent part in stemming the German drive through the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, fought through Germany, and ended the war in Czechoslovakia.

In the coming months and years, the Division’s large Indianhead shoulder patch was to become a familiar emblem to Tacoma and Pierce County. It represented two states–the Indianhead for Oklahoma, and the star for Texas, since during World War I the Division was originally activated with men from those two states.

Although World War II was over, 11,000 youthful inductees were receiving intensive training at Fort Lewis Basic Training Section in May 1946, prior to being sent overseas for occupational duty.