On July 16, 1918, the U.S. Army's 13th Division is activated at Camp Lewis in Pierce County to train and prepare to join the ongoing World War I fighting in France. The division, which will be nicknamed the "Lucky 13th," is formed from skeleton regular army units brought up to strength with conscripts, a large percentage of them from Washington. Brigadier General Cornelius Vanderbilt III (1873-1942), recently returned from duty in France, becomes the division commander in August. While training at Camp Lewis the 13th undergoes several trials. One is the deadly Spanish influenza, brought to the camp by soldiers transferred from other army posts. During the influenza crisis, the division attempts to set a record by raising the world's largest flag on the tallest pole, but does not quite succeed. In another dramatic incident one of the division's brightest officers is shot and killed during a field exercise; two soldiers will be charged with the officer's murder, tried, and found not guilty in a case that receives national attention. All the excitement will fade away when the troops are demobilized in 1919, after the war ends, and the division becomes inactive.
13th Division Formed at Camp Lewis
The 13th Division was activated on July 16, 1918, at Camp Lewis, which had opened in southern Pierce County the previous September following U.S. entry into World War I in April 1917. (The army post was subsequently renamed Fort Lewis and later became part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.) The division was to be trained and prepared at Camp Lewis to join the battle in France. Conscripts from the west coast, with Washington providing the largest number, would fill out existing regular army units.
Brigadier General Cornelius Vanderbilt III, of the famous and wealthy family, arrived at Camp Lewis on August 20, 1918, and assumed division command. Vanderbilt's return follows the policy established by General John J. Pershing (1860-1948), commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, of returning soldiers with battlefield experience to stateside camps to train units scheduled to depart for Europe.
Vanderbilt had served with the 27th Division in France, where he was promoted to brigadier general in July 1918. With his promotion Vanderbilt returned to the United States to train new units for combat duty. He brought along his son, Private Cornelius Vanderbilt IV (1898-1974), who had been a driver in France. The younger Vanderbilt would continue as his father's driver.
Hospitality and Hostility
Receptions for Brigadier General "Neily" Vanderbilt were more fashionable than those given other local commanders, probably due to his civilian fame. His formal reception was held at a camp gym with elaborate decorations. Fir branches covered the 30-foot-high walls, and colored streamers and Allied flags hung from the ceiling. A functioning water fountain in the center of the gym gushed water. The Camp Lewis Liberty Theater orchestra played for and entertained more than 1,000 guests. Prominent citizens from Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia attended, including Washington Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919).
Division soldiers were welcomed by the local community with social events and entertainment. Typical was an August 4 picnic, where Tacoma and Olympia citizens attended and gave a warm greeting to the 13th Division. Division soldiers showed off their athletic skills in a track meet, then the troops enjoyed a picnic lunch provided by the visitors.
In Seattle the Sunset Club and other organizations held parties for the officers and enlisted troops. Citizens of the Pacific Northwest were urged to extend the same hospitality to the 13th that they had for the 91st Division, which had departed for France in June 1918.
But Cayton's Weekly, published by Horace Cayton (1859-1940), Seattle's first African American journalist, was highly critical of General Vanderbilt after he barred black troops from the camp's most popular recreation center. In early September, Vanderbilt had segregated the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) Hostess House. The Hostess House was famous for its homemade pies, selling 200 pies, one piece at a time, on a busy day. Soon after the newspaper's complaints, Vanderbilt lifted the ban.
On October 5, 1918, Major General Joseph D. Leitch (1864-1938) assumed command of the 13th Division. An 1889 West Point graduate, Leitch had served several tours in the Philippines. With Leitch taking command of the 13th Division, Vanderbilt became commander of the 25th Brigade.
Vanderbilt's wife Grace G. Vanderbilt (1870-1953) and daughter Grace Vanderbilt (1899-1964) arrived the first week of October and took up residence in the Tacoma Hotel. Tacoma socialites rushed to welcome the pair and to introduce both to local society affairs. However, Grace G. Vanderbilt did more than just socialize at teas; she was active in Red Cross war support efforts. The Vanderbilt family later moved to more spacious quarters in a summer home on Gravelly Lake in Lakewood, Pierce County.
Spanish Flu, a Fight Song, and a Giant Flag and Pole
Unfortunately, even before General Leitch took command of the division, the Spanish influenza epidemic that was sweeping the nation, and the world, had reached Camp Lewis. The base reported its first cases on September 21, and by the end of that month it was averaging 10 flu deaths a week. Then the 213th Engineers, destined for assignment to the 13th Division, arrived in early October with many more sick men. In an effort to halt the epidemic, Leitch ordered a quarantine on October 19.
Despite the rising tide of illness, that same month a recent conscript, former Seattle songwriter (and future Hollywood producer) Private Arthur Freed (1894-1973), composed a fighting song for the 13th. Titled "Until We're Thirteen Miles Past Berlin," the song, taught to the entire division, went:
"Thirteen, they say, is an unlucky number.
That bad luck cannot miss.
But they're all wrong, just bet your life,
What do you think of this?
Woodrow Wilson has thirteen letters
In his well-known name;
Thirteen stripes in the flag of Old Glory,
For those thirteen states of fame.
With those thirteen stripes as our only mascott,
The 13th Division must win,
For we'll never stop, on the long, long trail,
Till we're thirteen miles past Berlin.
Thirteen you'll find is the unlucky number
Only for the Huns.
For it's the number of a division
Of fighting sons of guns.
("Song Taught to Soldiers").
Liberty Day, October 12, 1918, saw the culmination of a patriotic Tacoma Daily Ledger fundraising campaign to purchase and raise the world's largest flag on the tallest flagpole. On Liberty Day, a holiday to celebrate the discovery of America, an attempt was made to raise the 60-by-90-foot American flag on a 314-foot-tall Douglas fir pole. This historic Camp Lewis event was sparsely attended, given the Spanish influenza outbreak. When the massive flag was raised on the tall flagpole, a loud crack was heard as the fir pole broke into three pieces.
However, the patriotic effort was not yet doomed, and on November 12, 1918, a new shorter-but-still-tall 214-foot pole was dedicated; this time protected from hoodoo by a gold piece placed under its base at the insistence of the experienced shipyard riggers who installed it. A large crowd watched and listened as Major General Leitch delivered an acceptance speech for the public-donated pole and flag. As he spoke, a loud ripping sound was heard as the flag shredded into two pieces, but Leitch delivered his speech undaunted. A new, more manageable flag replaced the massive-but-torn version.
An Accidental Death?
Another event that October would be talked about for many years to follow. Major Alexander P. Cronkhite (1895-1918), an officer in the 213th Engineers who arrived early that month, went to the camp hospital soon after his arrival. He was released on October 21 and instructed to rest. On October 25 Cronkhite, probably still weak, joined his unit for field maneuvers.
When he reached the area where the engineers were taking lunch, Cronkhite engaged in target practice, a violation of army regulations that restricted weapons firing to authorized ranges. Cronkhite fired several shots at a tobacco tin on a fence post, then turned to comment to his orderly and a captain standing nearby that he was a skilled shot. One shot then rang out and Cronkhite fell, saying he had been hit. Major Cronkhite died at the scene.
Though the death was ruled an accident, Cronkhite's father, Major General Adelbert Cronkhite (1861-1937), demanded an investigation, believing his son could not have shot himself. The case received national attention. Alexander Cronkhite's orderly and the captain present at the shooting were arrested, charged with murder, tried, and found not guilty. The incident was ruled an accidental death.
Lucky 13th Misses the War
With the armistice on November 11 ending the war, the 13th Division was not needed. Though the soldiers were jubilant, Leitch ordered that no celebrations be held. Three days after the armistice, the division started releasing men who were needed at home to care for family members or support their families. Officers could request release without family need.
With peace Camp Lewis turned to patriotic events. Civilians were invited to the camp to watch a huge parade on November 22, 1918. General Leitch stood on a review stand observing the 13th Division parade down what would later become Watkins Parade Ground. A two-mile-long column of men marched past the reviewing stand in one hour and 15 minutes. Local citizens also watched, both from their cars and standing along both sides of the parade ground. Leading the 25th Brigade troops in the parade was Brigadier General Vanderbilt. To the rear of the parade were the mounted men of the field artillery.
Vanderbilt did not seek immediate discharge after the war's end, staying on in the area with his family, which was then living at the summer estate of Tacoma businessman Paul J. Fransioli (1869-1919), whose main ventures were hay, grain, and feed. On December 5 the Vanderbilts had a scare upon returning home from Tacoma, when they found a note nailed to the gatepost reading "Beware" and also discovered that the telephone lines to the Gravelly Lake home had been cut. Fearing for the family's safety, the Camp Lewis military police established a 24-hour guard at the home. No danger followed, and Vanderbilt obtained his discharge in January 1919. He would for the rest of his life be called "General Vanderbilt."
The 13th Division kept up the Camp Lewis tradition of fielding an outstanding football team. The 13th's team did not reach the distinction of the 91st Division team that had played in the January 1918 Rose Bowl, but it also dominated most of the teams it played. Often, it held its opponent scoreless or to just one touchdown, as happened when it took on the Oregon Aggies (now Oregon State University) and won 21 to 6.
When 1919 arrived the entire division received demobilization orders, with all draftees to be discharged. On January 7, Private Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. was discharged, and he went on to pursue a newspaper career. The regular army First Infantry Regiment, minus conscripts, would garrison Camp Lewis, which remained open to care for wounded troops arriving at the base hospital.
On February 6 the 13th's demobilization was temporarily halted when orders were received from the War Department for duty during the labor unrest in Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett, that would become the General Strike of 1919. That day Brigadier General John L. Hayden (1866-1936), commanding the 13th Field Artillery Brigade, proceeded to Seattle with orders to protect government property and assist in crowd control, should the governor ask for military help. Infantry units, a machine gun company, and headquarters personnel were sent to Seattle and Tacoma. The soldiers were largely kept out of public view and were not needed, as no major confrontations or violence occurred. On February 15 the troops were returned to Camp Lewis. Discharges resumed on February 25, and men quickly left the army for civilian life.
An official uniform patch finally arrived just before the division's final hours. The patch was a blue circle, featuring a white number 13 with a black cat above, both within a red horseshoe open at the top. The horseshoe stood for good luck, while the black cat represented hoodoo that the Germans could not overcome. It would be a patch worn by veterans, because the division was officially deactivated on March 19, 1919.
Remembering the 13th Division
The Major Alexander Cronkhite shooting continues to interest historians, with numerous articles and analyses of the case being published. Soon after Cronkhite's death, fellow 213th Engineers erected a monument in his honor at the site of the shooting. As of 2017, the monument survived in an active Joint Base Lewis-McChord training area.
In 1943, during World War II, the 13th Division was reactivated as the 13th Airborne Division, out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The 13th Airborne arrived in France on February 6, 1945, but did not see combat. The division remained in France until August that year, then returned to Fort Bragg, where it was deactivated in 1946. For two wars the division had trained hard and made ready for war, but missed combat in both.
The 13th Division's time at Camp Lewis is memorialized by a prairie in the Joint Base Lewis-McChord training area named the 13th Division Prairie.