Frederick Gilbreath grew up on a farm near Dayton, Washington. He attended Whitman College until accepted into the United States Military Academy at West Point. Gilbreath graduated in June 1911 and was commissioned as a cavalry officer. He served a tour of combat duty in the Philippines. His most important assignments were administrative and included commanding the San Francisco Port of Embarkation during World War II. This was one of the nation's most important ports and it contributed significantly to victory in the war in the Pacific. In 1944 Major General Gilbreath established the Army Service Forces Training Center at Fort Lewis in Pierce County, Washington. The Gilbreaths retired to Walla Walla in 1946, living there before moving to Austin, Texas.
Washington Farm and West Point
Frederick Gilbreath was born on a farm outside Dayton, Washington Territory, in 1888. He was the youngest of 13 children. Samuel Love Gilbreath (1825-1906), his father, had come to the Oregon Territory in a wagon train in 1852. His mother, Margaret Fanning Gilbreath (1844-1922), had come west to Oregon at the same time. They met and married in 1859 and homesteaded a farm in Columbia County. Frederick worked on the farm and became a skilled horseman with a great love of riding and competition. He attended Columbia County Grade School, Dayton High School, and Whitman College (1905 to 1907). In 1907 Washington Senator Levi Ankeny (1844-1921) obtained an appointment for Gilbreath to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Although Gilbreath was a good student, he found himself punished with forced marches in the barracks area, what is known as an "area tour." This happened enough times that he was called an "area bird." He overcame his academic issues to be recognized as a promising cadet and made an acting First Sergeant and a Cadet Lieutenant. His horsemanship was demonstrated on the West Point polo field. Frederick Gilbreath graduated in June 1911 with a commission in the cavalry.
From Cavalry Officer to Effective Administrator
Second Lieutenant Gilbreath served with the 8th Cavalry in the Philippines. He was awarded the Bronze Medal for combat duty at Jolo Island in the southwest Philippines, from 1912 to 1913. This was followed by assignment to Fort McIntosh in Laredo, Texas, in 1915 and promotion to First Lieutenant.
In the fall of 1916, Gilbreath taught military science at the University of Puerto Rico. Returning to Laredo, he married Edna Brown (1892-1986) of that city on December 21, 1916. She would thereafter accompany him to most of his duty stations. Next he had two cavalry postings in Arizona, where he was advanced to Captain in August 1917. At this point his duties shifted to administration. During World War I he was detailed to the Quartermaster Corps for overseas duty. Gilbreath performed supply and logistics work at the Port of Embarkation in St. Nazaire, France. He then became the Assistant Quartermaster, 4th Division, and advanced to Quartermaster, 2nd Division. In October 1919 he returned to the United States. During the 1920s he attended training schools critical for advancement. In 1922 he was a distinguished graduate from the School of the Line, the cavalry and infantry school. The next year he attended the Command and General Staff School and became an instructor there.
The National Defense Act of 1920 cut military spending, with the cavalry taking a large cut. At the same time the army began to mechanize, further diminishing its cavalry operations. As the horse cavalry declined, its officers increasingly turned to mounted sports to keep traditions alive. The top army brass supported and encouraged horse sports such as polo, steeplechase, fox hunts, and shows. While maintaining cavalry traditions, Gilbreath was spending more time in administrative positions. In 1927 he attended the Army War College. Following the War College he served four years with the War Department General Staff. Next, he returned to the cavalry and was assigned to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Fort Bliss and Fort Riley, in Kansas, were then the army's main cavalry posts. Gilbreath's duties at Fort Bliss included oversight and operation of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps in the area.
For off-duty enjoyment, Major Gilbreath had his own thoroughbred hunter named "Zephyr King" that he rode and showed. In 1934 he transferred to Fort Riley and became a member of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America. Colonel (later General) Jonathan Wainwright IV (1883-1952) of Walla Walla, Assistant Commandant of the Fort Riley Cavalry School and Master of the Cavalry School Hunt, honored Gilbreath by making him a joint master. When Wainwright left Fort Riley, he gave Gilbreath his favorite hunting coat and a sporting brake, a two-horse riding vehicle. Wainwright and Gilbreath would remain friends for the rest of their lives. Colonel (later Major General) Horace Fuller (1886-1966) gave Gilbreath equipment for his sporting brake. Gilbreath donated the complete sporting brake and fox-hunt jacket to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and a future museum. When the Fort Leavenworth wagon shop closed in 1939, its collection of historic wagons and donated items became the Old Rolling Wheels Museum. Today this is the large and impressive Fort Leavenworth Frontier Army Museum.
World War II Service
In 1939 Gilbreath became Assistant Commandant of the Fort Riley Cavalry School during the army's transition to a mechanized force. The next year he moved back to Fort Bliss, serving as Commanding Officer of the 7th Cavalry as it reshaped itself. This was followed by an assignment on December 18, 1941, to Fort Mason and the San Francisco Port of Embarkation. He was selected to be commanding officer of the San Francisco Port of Embarkation and its subsidiary, the Oakland Army Terminal. It was an extremely busy port with more than 4,000 voyages by freighters and 800 troopships originating there during World War II. The port performed a significant role in resupplying U.S. forces in the Pacific. Major General Gilbreath's headquarters was at Fort Mason, adjacent to the port. During Gilbreath's command, the commanding general's quarters was converted into an officers' club. The house had been the residence for many of the army's most famous generals. Captain Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), the future president, may have dined there. He was a liaison officer in Gilbreath's command until his transfer to the Army Air Force to make films. The former quarters survives today as McDowell Hall.
Gilbreath was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service as Commanding General of the San Francisco Port of Embarkation during the period from December 18, 1941, to June 12, 1944.
On June 12, 1944, he arrived at Fort Lewis, in Pierce County, to command the Army Service Forces Training Center. This was a new command, combining different training schools into one. Engineer, medical, signal, and other schools were combined into this training center. This streamlined the program, freeing up a number of instructors and support staff to go overseas for combat duty. The entire engineer school from Camp Abbot in Oregon moved to North Fort Lewis, allowing Camp Abbot to close. Also, the medical training center from Camp Grant in Illinois moved to Fort Lewis to be part of the new training center. Once the training center was established and operational, Gilbreath was selected as Commander, South Pacific Base Command, with headquarters at New Caledonia. This command was responsible for the supply and operations of army facilities in the South Pacific. During his command Gilbreath made an effort to meet and greet service personnel from Washington. Among those from Washington was Colonel (later Brigadier General) Lacey V. Murrow (1904-1966). Murrow was the oldest brother of the noted newscaster Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) and a decorated officer, and had been Washington's Director of Highways before entering military service. The I-90 floating bridge on Lake Washington is named in his honor.
In May 1945 Major General Gilbreath assumed logistical duties in Manila, the Philippines. He was responsible for organizing and preparing material shipments for the invasion of Japan. With the sudden end of the war, the invasion was not necessary. The general then went to Tokyo, where he was responsible for Sixth Army occupation logistics.
Retirement to Walla Walla
On November 12, 1945, Gilbreath departed Tokyo, Japan, for physical evaluation at Brooke General Hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. He was medically discharged in August 1946. While Frederick was being evaluated at Brooke General Hospital, he and Edna house hunted in Walla Walla. In the spring of 1946, they purchased a home at 126-128 East Birch Avenue. Their friend General Jonathan Wainwright IV wrote ahead to the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce letting the community know of their arrival. The general and his wife quickly became active in local affairs. Edna joined and participated in the programs of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R) Walla Walla chapter. The general attended award ceremonies at area bases. A typical ceremony was one in June 1946 where he awarded the air medal posthumously to the widow of flight officer Jackie Daves (1924-1945) who was killed in the air war over Europe. Gilbreath also represented the military ground forces at a September 1946 fair.
In 1947 the Gilbreaths moved to Austin, Texas, and spent the remainder of their lives there. In 1954 Frederick Gilbreath donated his commander's flag and photographic and book collections to the Dayton Public Library. The photographs included images of horse cavalry days and his time at the San Francisco Port of Embarkation. His book collection included volumes signed by leading World War II officers. Frederick and Edna Gilbreath are buried in the National Cemetery at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. In 1970 Building One, the headquarters of the Oakland Army Terminal (closed on September 30, 1999), was named in Gilbreath's honor.