Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base merge to create Joint Base Lewis-McChord on October 1, 2010.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 8/18/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9900

On October 1, 2010, Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base merge to become Joint Base Lewis-McChord. This merger had been directed by the 2005 Base Realignment Commission. This joint basing is intended to better support war-fighting missions and make base operations more efficient. The consolidation brings together two historic bases, Fort Lewis and McChord Field. They will now operate as one installation under army lead. If Joint Base Lewis-McChord were a city it would be Washington’s seventh largest.

The Move Toward Joint Basing 

On February 1, 2010, Joint Base Lewis-McChord achieved initial operational capability. The formal consolidation of the two former separate bases occurred on October 1, 2010. This combining of bases followed years of planning and overcoming resistance from some to the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force living and working together. The 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) directed that 26 stateside military facilities consolidate into 12 joint bases.  

Joint basing is a culmination of an effort since the mid-1980s to unify the services and bring about more effective inter-service operations. A culture of collaboration was the desired result. With joint basing many historic names would be altered. Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base would become Joint Base Lewis-McChord or JBLM. In New Jersey, McGuire Air Force Base, Fort Dix, and Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst would be renamed McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Joint Base. 

Although the main thrust was to improve war-fighting skills and readiness. Joint basing was also instituted to bring about efficiencies and cost-saving. At JBLM an integrated computer system produced substantial savings. Combining the two emergency services operations created a more effective and less expensive service. With respect to policy differences between the air force and army the goal is to find the best practices.  The consolidation did not change missions, and each service would remain in charge of its military training and operations.

The main emphasis would be managing the new “city.” If Joint Base Lewis-McChord were a city it would be Washington’s seventh largest. In 2011 JBLM is home to 42,000 active duty service personnel, 54,000 family members, 17,000 civilian employees, and support to thousands of local military retirees. An army colonel commands and is in effect the JBLM “mayor” with responsibilities greater than a city mayor.  The garrison commander has to ensure that all residents have the needed support, with much broader management duties, to include housing, feeding, and medical care. The typical city has many agencies, governments, and private entities responsible for various aspects. The deputy garrison commander is a colonel from the Air Force.

McChord Air Force Base 

Each base brought a distinguished history to the merger. McChord Field was constructed between 1938 and 1940 as part of an air base expansion program. The airfield took over the Tacoma Airport that had opened in 1930. When the Army Air Corps begin construction, the former Tacoma Airport had one hangar and a 5,400-foot-long runway. The initial McChord construction would be about 400 buildings. The Public Works Administration constructed four hangars, maintenance shops, warehouses, a hospital, a 1,285-man enlisted barracks, ammunition storage bunkers, and housing. Thirty-one buildings and three structures from the Public Works Administration building effort are now elements of the McChord Field Historic District, National Register of Historic Places.       

McChord Field was named to honor Colonel William C. McChord (1881-1937). McChord graduated from West Point in 1907 as a cavalry officer. He completed his aviation training in 1918 and then had various aviation duties and commands. In August 1937 while in the Plans Division, Office of the Chief of the Air Corps, he was flying a single engine attack bomber from Bolling Field, Washington D.C., to Randolph Field, Texas. The aircraft developed engine problems and he crashed while attempting an emergency landing. He died in the crash and on May 5, 1938, McChord Field was dedicated in his honor. During World War II bomb groups trained here.  In 1947 with the formation of the U.S. Air Force it became McChord Air Force Base.   

Fort Lewis

Fort Lewis had its origins in World War I as Camp Lewis, named to honor Meriwether Lewis, leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The initial training and mobilization camp was built in 90 days during the summer of 1917. After the war, the camp fell into disrepair and was then reborn as Fort Lewis with permanent construction replacing the wood buildings. Six-hundred new buildings were constructed between 1929 and 1939. They included barracks, family houses, a chapel, theater, a bakery, warehouses, and ammunition storage.

Today these buildings comprise the garrison historic district, eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. During World War II 1,500 temporary wood-frame buildings were erected. Across the Pacific highway (today I-5), North Fort Lewis, a new cantonment went up. Now as part of JBLM it is renamed Lewis-North.  Also, renamed for the fourth time in its history was the Logistics Center. Now, the Lewis-Logistics Center adjacent to Lewis-Main was previously known as the Fort Lewis Motor Base, Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot, Mount Rainier Army Depot, and Fort Lewis Logistics Center. 

Joint Base Lewis-McChord

Joint Base Lewis-McChord serves as an important training and mobilization installation. It is a power projection platform where soldiers and airmen can deploy to trouble spots and wars. Deployment points are Seattle and Tacoma ports, McChord Field, and the commercial Sea-Tac International Airport.  

Critical in deployment is the 62d Airlift Wing that came to McChord Air Force Base in 1960. Since then, the 62d has accomplished numerous airlift missions. The 62d Airlift Wing, a unit of the Air Mobility Command (AMC), has transported missiles, brought home American prisoners of war from Vietnam, carried out humanitarian airlifts including recent relief support to Japan following the deadly 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The 62d has also directly supported peacekeeping and combat missions around the world. A Reserve partner, the 446th Airlift Wing provides additional airlift capability.  The 22nd Special Tactics Squadron is another McChord Field unit. The U.S. Air Force structure is maintained by the 627th Air Base Group. Also, the Western Air Defense Sector (WADS) is stationed at McChord. This unit tracks and monitors aircraft flying in Western air space. Canadian Forces Air Command and Washington Air National Guard personnel operate this air defense.  

Since 1981 Fort Lewis has been home to I Corps (pronounced First Corps), one of four active U.S. Army corps. First Corps commands most of the Lewis units. It is a contingency corps, capable of deploying on short notice worldwide. I Corps has participated in peacekeeping, humanitarian, and war deployments since coming to Lewis. The units assigned to Lewis have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2011 three Stryker brigades (equipped with the mobile Stryker vehicles and other vehicles suitable for antiterrorism operations) are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Brigades of the 2nd Infantry Division. Additional units include an artillery brigade, the 17th Fires Brigade, 42nd Military Police Brigade, 62nd Medical Brigade, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, 201st Military Intelligence Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, 555th Engineer Brigade, and 593rd Sustainment Brigade. 

Lewis has tenant or resident units including the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), Western Region Cadet Command (managing Reserve Officer Training Corps courses and training), and Reserve component commanded by the 189th Infantry Brigade.   

With joint basing these units are expected to operate more closely and speak the same language.

Sources: Adam J. Hebert, Don Kramer, “Traffic, Job Security Key Issues,” Northwest Guardian, September 30, 2010, p. 1; “The Joint Base Dispute,” Air Force Magazine, October 2008, website accessed August 15, 2011 (http://airforce-magaizine.com/); Jack Murphy, “Bases Get New Names in Realignment,” Homepage of the United States Army website accessed August 16, 2011 (http://www.army.mil/);  1st Lt. Joseph Wingard, “Progress Ongoing in Creating Joint Base Lewis-MChord,” 446th Airlift Wing website accessed August 18, 2011 (http://www.446aw.afrc.af.mil/); “Our History: McChord Air Museum,” McChord Air Museum website accessed August 15, 2011 (http://www.mcchordairmuseum.org/).

Related Topics:   War & Peace

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You