Fort Lewis: 41st Division Cantonment

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 12/28/2011
  • Essay 9899
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North Fort Lewis was a 1,000-building cantonment constructed near Fort Lewis in Pierce County to house the 41st Infantry Division, a unit of the Pacific Northwest National Guard. Named in honor of explorer Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), the cantonment opened in 1941. North Fort Lewis trained divisions for combat in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In the years between wars, the facility was neglected and became a ghost town. Since the 1990s, new construction has made it a modern facility that is central to the operations of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The Cantonment

On March 16, 1941, contractors Sound Bay Construction of Seattle and Peter Kiewit of Omaha, Nebraska, completed the 41st Division cantonment. They had built 1,000 buildings, including 301 barracks, 22 bachelor officer quarters, 150 mess halls, 12 post exchanges, four service clubs, three clubs, three theaters, 17 headquarters buildings, 11 medical clinics, five chapels, and shops and warehouses. The cantonment could house 24,000 officers and enlisted men. The contractors had started work on October 5, 1940, and were initially given 90 days to complete the job. However, a lumber strike and a contract revision adding another 500 buildings at Fort Lewis delayed completion.

The buildings were wood-frame, laid out in a grid fashion -- an aerial view showed row after row of barracks and administrative buildings. There were five major "blocks," each one with three to six living areas. Each living area had 12 barracks (with about 80 men per barracks), four mess halls, two supply rooms, and four day room buildings. In front of the barracks complexes were service buildings, such as chapels, service clubs, post exchanges, headquarters buildings, and medical facilities. The five blocks, designated A through E, were laid out clockwise with Block A located at the entrance to the fort from Highway 99 (today's Interstate 5). Block A housed the headquarters, sports arena, clubs and social services.   

World War II

The 41st Division was made up of National Guard units from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. The division had trained at Fort Lewis before the war, including a week in 1940 to enhance soldiering skills. On September 16, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) inducted the 41st Division into federal service for one year. The division moved to a tent encampment at Camp Murray near Fort Lewis until the new post was ready. Soon after completion, the cantonment was named North Fort Lewis to honor Captain Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. While it appeared to be part of Fort Lewis (also named, as Camp Lewis in 1917, to honor Captain Lewis), which was located across the highway, North Fort Lewis was a complete city in and of itself, and it became more central to the training of divisions for war than the main Fort Lewis.

The cantonment's appearance underwent a dramatic change when the buildings received a coat of paint. While the War Department had considered painting an unnecessary expense, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), the president's wife, had another view. She argued that painted buildings would be more cheerful. The paint industry was making similar arguments, as well as claiming that paint would act as a preservative. The War Department changed its position and painted its mobilization buildings -- 1,743 buildings at North Fort Lewis and the main post were painted a cream color in the summer of 1941.

On March 19, 1942, the 41st Division went overseas. The division fought at New Guinea, Biak Island, and the Philippines, and served occupation duty in Japan before being inactivated on December 31, 1945. The division lost 743 men killed in action. When the 41st left North Fort Lewis, other divisions moved in, trained, and then served in the war. Four divisions totaling more than 200,000 soldiers trained at North Fort Lewis in World War II. As part of the national drawdown North Fort Lewis closed on August 8, 1947. One year later, on August 6, 1948, it reopened to house units of the 2nd Infantry Division.

The Cantonment and African Americans

During 1944, the 93rd Engineer General Service Regiment, a black engineers unit, arrived after working on construction of the Alaska Highway. In the segregated society and army of that time, discrimination policies came into play. Separate and segregated facilities were provided, and a black service club opened. The theater that served blacks as well as whites had to have a separate restroom for its black patrons, who sat in segregated seating. To provide this bathroom an addition was built at the rear of the theater. To use the black restroom, patrons had to exit the theater and walk outside to the facility. On a more positive note, the War Department recognized the 93rd Engineer Regiment for outstanding work on the remarkable Alaska Highway construction.

In 1945, the North Fort Lewis Service Club Totem Library (Block A) opened with a new librarian, Marie Lindsey (b. 1924). With an undergraduate degree from Hunter College and a Masters from Columbia University, she came with strong credentials. What was unusual was that Lindsey was a black woman running a library for white soldiers. When she started, her desk was within view of the entrance door. Seeing her, some white soldiers refused to enter the library. Lindsey quickly had soldiers from the 93rd Engineer Regiment build her a new desk not visible from the entrance. Once inside, most white soldiers remained.

Lindsey was promoted to chief librarian of the Fort Lewis library system in 1951. She designed three new libraries, including a larger North Fort Lewis branch in 1954. She worked with architects to design two new libraries on the main post, and since both deviated from the army's standard designs she had to obtain army approval to get them built.   

The Korean War Era

In 1950, the 57th Independent Field Squadron, Royal Canadian Engineers, occupied North Fort Lewis. They trained with American units for one year and then departed for Korean War service. Units of the 2nd Infantry Division were also housed at North Fort Lewis before combat in Korea. The 38th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd dedicated the famous World War I monument, Rock of the Marne, on the North Fort parade ground on June 23, 1950.

Troops returning from Korea and the rest of Asia were processed through Fort Lawton in Seattle, but the facilities at that reception station proved inadequate. Renovation was considered but ruled out as too expensive. North Fort Lewis could be renovated at a much lower cost so it replaced Fort Lawton as the Pacific Reception Station. Buildings were repaired, four chapels opened, two Service Clubs, six Post Exchanges, and 29 day rooms refurbished and supplied. A telephone center opened so troops could call home and keep their families informed.

North Fort Lewis also served as an overseas replacement center, processing and shipping out soldiers bound for Japan, Korea, Okinawa, and Alaska. With the end of the Korean War the reception and replacement duties declined and the post went quiet again. One block would serve summer training needs of reservists and guard units.

The Berlin Crisis and the Vietnam War

The replacement center continued to process and ship troops to Alaska following the Korean War. On October 15, 1961, during the Berlin Crisis, the Wisconsin National Guard 32nd Infantry Division was mobilized. The division, numbering about 10,000 soldiers and officers, came to North Fort Lewis and prepared for combat. The troops remained 10 months and then returned to their civilian jobs. The 32nd experienced what previous troops had gone through. On some winter days a haze and annoying smoke from coal furnaces filled the air, and soldiers had night duty to keep the coal furnaces burning.

With the American entry into the Vietnam War, North Fort Lewis became a busy place again. In September 1964, the 6th Army NCO Academy was established there, and barracks and training areas were used by the National Guard and reserve units. On May 2, 1966, an Army Training Center was activated. It included three basic training companies, Advanced Individual Training, and a drill sergeant school. The Basic Training Course would eventually graduate 233,000 soldiers, with the last graduate completing training in December 1971. To better train soldiers for Vietnam combat, the nine-week Advanced Infantry Training course turned out 3,600 soldiers a week. The North Fort Lewis Army Personnel Center had an Overseas Replacement Center, Returnee Station, and Transfer Station. These stations sent and received soldiers from Alaska, Japan, and Korea. During the mid-1960s improvements included replacing the coal furnaces with oil heaters and sheathing residences with asbestos cement shingles. 

After Vietnam

When the Vietnam War ended, North Fort Lewis again became a ghost town. The buildings were mothballed, but for a brief period in 1975 the barracks were reopened to house Vietnamese orphans coming to America for adoption. 

Maintenance and repair crews reopened North Fort Lewis on April 7, 1976, as a training center for reservists and the National Guard. Limited use of the post continued into the 1980s. While the fort stood vacant, three events greatly impacted its history. The U.S. Congress undertook a study of military barracks and found the surviving World War II wood buildings to be unsafe and with inadequate living conditions. In the mid-1980s Congress ordered their demolition. But demolition was not immediately funded, so some North Fort Lewis barracks were renovated for the 1st Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery, with the open barracks converted to one- and two-person rooms. Laundry rooms were added and the bathrooms received new walls and privacy partitions.  

North Fort Lewis Becomes Lewis North

The 1987 renovations still failed to meet modern army recruiting standards. During the 1990s, the World War II wood barracks were removed to make room for new barracks in a construction effort that continues to the present (2011). In October 2010, McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis became one base, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. With this change, North Fort Lewis became Lewis North. As of 2011 some 200 World War II-era buildings survive that are used for training and reserve summer camps, but Lewis North has become a modern, well-designed facility serving the Joint Base Lewis-McChord community.

Today some Lewis North buildings honor war heroes. The Sports and Fitness Center is named for Captain Benjamin F. Wilson (1922-1988) of Vashon Island, who received the Medal of Honor for heroic actions in the Korean War. A medical and dental clinic is named to honor Technician Fifth Grade James Okuba (1920-1967), who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in World War II. Okuba grew up in Bellingham and during the war joined the army, serving in K Company, 100th Battalion, 442nd Regiment. Okuba left the army to become a dentist in Detroit and died in a 1967 auto accident.

Sources: "Guard Housing Work Started," The Oregonian, September 11, 1940, p. 7; "41st Division Camp Building Behind," The Seattle Daily Times, January 5, 1941, p. 35; "Army Planning Big Paint Job," Ibid., May 23, 1941, p. 17; "Canadians' Commander Due Tonight," Ibid., November 14, 1950, p. 8; "Reception Center for Ft. Lewis O.K'd," Ibid., August 31, 1952, p. 3; "Fort Lewis Future Depends On Viet-Nam," Ibid., July 27, 1968, p. 22; "Orphans Wonder, 'Where's America," Ibid., May 1, 1975, p. 33; "War Department Honors Famed Negro Regiment," Tacoma News Tribune, October 18, 1944, p. 8; "Honoring a Nisei Veteran," The Ranger, February 28, 2002, p. 1.

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