Wild West Division: Washington in World War I

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 6/19/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10648

Washington men and women served with distinction in France during the First World War. The main land fighting force from Washington was the 361st Infantry Regiment of the 91st Division. This regiment was made up of 4,700 mostly drafted men from Washington and Oregon. The 91st Division, nicknamed the Wild West Division, was organized in 1917. After training at Camp Lewis in Pierce County, the division had its first combat in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in France in the fall of 1918, where it fought gallantly in the battle that has been called the crucial victory of the war, effectively ending German resistance. Due to its combat effectiveness, the 361st Regiment became known as the "pride of the Northwest." The 91st Division as a whole spent 26 days in combat; 1,454 men from the division were killed in action or died of wounds. Colonel William D. Davis (1869-1918), commander of the 361st Regiment, was the highest-ranking officer of the division to be killed in the war. In April 1919 the 361st was demobilized at Camp Lewis and one month later the division demobilized.

The 91st "Wild West" Division

The 91st Division was organized on August 25, 1917, under War Department General Orders 101 and 109. The division had two infantry brigades, the 181st and 182nd, and each brigade had two infantry regiments. The 181st contained the 361st and 362nd Regiments. In the 182nd Brigade were the 363rd and 364th Regiments. Medical units, field artillery, and engineers provided division support. The total division strength was 25,000 men. The enlisted men were mostly draftees from eight states -- Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming -- and Alaska Territory. An effort was made to keep the men from each state together. For example, the 361st Infantry Regiment was composed of men from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, while the 362nd Infantry Regiment drew from Montana and Wyoming. Officers came from the regular army and reserves.

As the men were being drafted, a training camp was under construction. Camp Lewis, in Pierce County, was the temporary home for the 91st Division as it prepared for entry into the war. The camp was one of 16 new army training and mobilization camps. In September 1917 troops began to arrive there by train. As the new soldiers arrived, they were processed and then assigned to their units. Once they had received shots, physicals, and tests, they trained in trench warfare, land combat, and use of gas masks.

Major General Henry A. Greene (1856-1921) was the division and camp commander. He became very popular with his troops and in the local community. In December 1917 General Greene went to France to become familiar with the front. During his absence, Brigadier General Frederick S. Foltz (1857-1952) assumed command and gave the division a nickname, the Wild West Division. This nickname referred to the many cowboys and the overall western influence in the division. General Foltz also named the amusement park adjacent to the camp Greene Park in honor of the division commander. Upon his return in March 1918, General Greene had some reservations concerning the nickname Wild West Division but let it stand. He did not want the nickname to suggest lack of discipline. Greene was pleased with the then-emerging Greene Park amusement zone with its theaters, pool halls, restaurants, and hotel.

In the spring of 1918, an army investigation team came to Camp Lewis to look into alleged financial abuses at the Greene Park amusement zone and unfair awarding of food-purchase contracts. The latter issue had been raised by W. H. Paulhamus (1865-1925), manager of the Puyallup and Sumner Fruitgrowers Association. He had sent a letter to Washington's U.S. Senator Wesley L. Jones (1863-1932), protesting the uncompetitive selection of Thurston County fruit producers for the large Camp Lewis vegetable and fruit purchases. Greene had given the contract to Thurston County growers without allowing Puyallup growers to bid. The army found sufficient evidence to demote Major General Greene to brigadier general, and instead of leading his troops in war in Europe he was named commander of American forces in the Philippines. His aide, Major Maurice D. Welty (1887-1961), who oversaw the Greene Park operations and the food purchases, was demoted to captain and reassigned. Both officers managed to recover. Greene retired in late December 1918 as a major general and Welty reached the rank of colonel before retirement.

Meuse-Argonne Campaign 

On June 9, 1918, the 91st Division started the movement to east coast ports of embarkation and transport to France. Brigadier General Foltz commanded the division. By July 26, 1918, all elements of the division were training in France. On August 31, as Foltz was to receive his second star and complete the division's training for battle, he was demoted to colonel for disobeying orders and reassigned. Major General William H. Johnston (1861-1933) became the division's commander and led it through the tough battles that followed.

During the summer of 1918, the Allied forces, reinforced with combat-ready American troops, had pushed back the German army. In September General John J. Pershing (1860-1948), commanding the U.S. First Army, launched a massive American offensive and captured Saint-Mihiel. From there the American forces moved to an area between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest. There 300,000 troops mounted the final offensive of the war. The 91st Division was part of this massive final push.

The Meuse-Argonne campaign was launched on September 26 with the 91st Division attacking through Bois de Cheppy (Cheppy Woods) to Epinonville. In its first day of combat, the Wild West Division met strong resistance but managed to advance and capture prisoners and weapons. The division reached the village of Eclisfontaine, where Lieutenant Deming Bronson (1894-1957), a University of Washington forestry graduate, led an attack and received deep cuts on his head from a grenade explosion. He fought on, helping capture an enemy dugout and taking prisoners. That afternoon he was hit in the arm by a bullet. A medic gave him first aid and ordered him to the rear, but he refused to go. The next day Lieutenant Bronson was again part of the assault on Eclisfontaine and with his troops captured a machine gun and killed the gunners. Eclisfontaine was taken but lost when heavy enemy artillery fire forced a withdrawal. Lieutenant Bronson was the last man to withdraw and, while assisting in the pullout, he was hit by an artillery shell. Finally, he was evacuated to a field hospital where he recovered. On September 28 Eclisfontaine was recaptured in a fierce battle.

The 91st Division that day moved forward one and one-half miles in severe fighting. The next day it encountered a reinforced German defense and stiffer resistance, halting its advance. German artillery killed and wounded many. There also had been periods of rain that impeded American resupply over the rough terrain. In four days the American Meuse-Argonne advance was six miles. The 91st Division casualty figures for that period were 133 officers and some 3,000 men wounded or killed. On September 29 the American offensive continued the movement north, with the Wild West Division advancing to the village of Gesnes. Next came the most terrific battle of the offensive. From October 1 to 3, at the Hindenburg Line, a strongly fortified German defense line, heavy casualties were inflicted on both sides. The 91st Division was moved to reserve on October 4, replaced with fresh troops. For the Meuse-Argonne campaign, the division had 850 killed and more than 3,700 wounded. A number of the fallen were buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

Major General Johnston was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism during the Meuse-Argonne campaign. Known as the "fighting general," he had shown exceptional bravery during battle, visiting his front lines while they were under attack by enemy artillery, machine guns, and sniper fire. In December 1924 Johnston assumed command of Camp Lewis and the Third Division. He retired to Seattle on October 19, 1925. Several years later he moved to Nice, France, and died there.

In Flanders Fields

The Wild West Division was in reserve until mid-October when troops were needed to support the French Army of Belgium in Flanders with the Ypres Lys Offensive that had been underway since September 28. The 91st and 37th Divisions were dispatched to Waereghem, Belgium. On October 30 the two American divisions and a French division attacked eastward towards the Escaut River. Initially, the 91st came under heavy attack, but then enemy fire diminished as the German troops had retreated.

On November 1 the 91st Division was close to the village of Audenarde. That day Colonel William D. Davis, commanding the 361st Infantry Regiment, was killed by an artillery shell explosion. Colonel Davis had gone to the front line near Audenarde to monitor the battle situation. He stopped about two miles from the front and, as he was observing his regiment's movement, an enemy artillery barrage hit. Killed by the same shell were Captain Howard Hughes (1881-1918) and Private Harry Requa (1895-1918). Hughes had been an automobile dealer in Seattle and Requa was from Everett. Colonel Davis was the highest-ranking officer of the 91st Division to die to battle. His remains were returned to the United States and buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The 91st Division occupied part of Audenarde on November 2 and the entire town on November 3. The next day both the 37th and 91st Divisions halted their advance. However, on November 10, with the German forces in full retreat, operations were resumed. Both divisions made rapid eastward advances, but it was a short action. The armistice signed on November 11, 1918, ended the war.

During the action in Belgium, the 91st Division had 1,000 casualties. A number of those killed were buried in the Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium. A monument to the division is located in the cemetery. Most of the fallen were returned to the United States for burial. In its two offensives, the 91st Division spent 26 days in battle. The division in World War I had 1,454 killed in action or died of wounds and 4,654 wounded.

Honoring Heroes

In April and May 1919, the 361st Infantry Regiment returned to Washington and to welcome-home events. On April 25 a train carrying 500 soldiers of the 361st stopped in Spokane and they were greeted by cheering crowds. The regimental commander, Colonel Avery D. Cummings (1881-1936), and his officers were provided breakfast in a local restaurant. The colonel's parents had come from their home in Marcus, near Kettle Falls on the Columbia River, to greet him. Colonel Cummings had earned the Distinguished Service Cross in France. He remained in the army until retirement in 1929 and is buried in the Fort Lawton Cemetery in Seattle. Spokane gave the regimental soldiers a luncheon that included a silent toast to the 400 comrades who died in France and Belgium. That evening, the train departed for Seattle and a parade there. At Tacoma the soldiers were given free coffee, doughnuts, a meal, and passes to the theaters. Following these welcome activities, the Wild West veterans went to Camp Lewis to be discharged.

After the war, 91st Division veterans mounted a campaign to recognize the heroism of Lieutenant Bronson in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Finally, after 11 years, on November 19, 1929, Deming "Dick" Bronson received the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism. Colonel William D. Davis, who received the Distinguished Service Cross, was recognized at Fort Lewis, later Lewis Main of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, with the naming of a major hill in his honor. Major George W. Farwell (1885-1918) of Seattle, who led his soldiers to capture enemy positions near Gesnes, France, on September 28-29, 1918, and died on September 30, 1918, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Major Farwell is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. He had been a member of the Washington National Guard, 2nd Washington Infantry.

Veterans of the 91st

Probably the most famous 91st Division veteran was First Lieutenant Earl Warren (1891-1974), who served as the 30th governor of California and became the 14th Chief Justice of the United States. During his tenure as chief justice, from 1953 to 1969, the Warren Court made many landmark decisions. For part of his time on the court, Warren sat alongside another 91st veteran, Harold Burton (1888-1964), who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1945 to 1958. Burton joined the army from Idaho and as a captain led a company through the Meuse-Argonne and Belgium campaigns.

Most 91st Division veterans returned to their civilian careers. In later years they had reunions in their respective states as well as at Fort Lewis. To permanently memorialize the division, private funds were raised to build an impressive monument at Fort Lewis. Seattle businessman Frank McDermott (1869-1944) contributed the largest amount, $50,000. The monument, with six statues and a 40-foot shaft, was dedicated on May 30, 1930. It stands at the head of the Lewis Main parade field. The 91st Division was inactivated in 1919 but reactivated in World War II, during which it trained at Camp White in Oregon and saw combat in the Italian campaign. After World War II, the 91st became an Army Reserve division.

By the early 2000s, national attention turned to the last World War I survivors. In the small group was a 91st Division veteran and Yakima resident, William J. Lake (1895-2004). He was drafted into the army on October 4, 1917, and sent to Camp Lewis. As a Montana man, he was assigned to the 362nd Regiment, composed mostly of men from that state. He became a machine gunner in the machine-gun company and saw action in France. He was discharged at Fort D. A. Russell in Wyoming, returned to Montana, married, and became a farmer. Recalling that Washington was the most beautiful place he had ever seen, he moved his family to Puyallup. His wife wanted to return to Montana, so she divorced him and left. Lake moved to Tacoma for a while and then took up permanent residence in Yakima. Over the years he was honored for his service, including being a special guest of the Fort Lewis commanding general.


Sources:

Richard Rubin, The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013); Alice Palmer Henderson, The Ninety-First: The First at Camp Lewis (Tacoma: John Barr Publishing, 1918); American Armies and Battlefields in Europe: A History, Guide, and Reference Book (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1938); Russell Freedman, The War to End All Wars: World War I (Boston: Clarion Books, 2010); "Camp Lewis Work Nears Completion," The Seattle Daily Times, August 25, 1917, p. 4; "Johnston and Allen, Noted Generals, Die," Ibid., February 20, 1933, p. 7; "Troops Are Classified," The Oregonian, August 29, 1917, p. 13; "War Zone Viewed," Ibid., March 4, 1918, p. 9; "Philippine Berth Gen. Greene's Lot," Ibid., June 21, 1918, p. 1; Colin Dyment "361st Infantry Is Pride of Northwest," Ibid., April 20, 1919, p. 10; "Soldiers of 361st Valiant in Battle," Ibid., April 21, 1919, p. 5; "Spokane Is Host to Overseas Veterans," Ibid., April 26, 1919, p. 9; "Camp Lewis Head Removed From Post," Ibid., August 3, 1919, p. 1; "General Greene Dead," Ibid., August 20, 1921, p. 1.


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