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War redefines the Evergreen Post

Lewis grows to record numbers

NCO homes as they looked in the early 1940s at Fort Lewis. Some of these homes still stand on the base today. U.S. Army photo

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Unlike its reputation in the 1920s and 30s, Fort Lewis, after 1940, would never again be seen as a deteriorating, low-population installation. 

The post numbered 7,000 when the IX Corps' Headquarters arrived from San Francisco July 1, 1940 to oversee Lewis' impending and unavoidable growth.  Four months later, the post swarmed to 26,000 with the arrival of the entire 3rd Division - so many that thousands spilled over into Camp Murray and McChord for housing.  Fort Lewis was targeted to mobilize and train troops either drafted or called up through their National Guard units, which meant the need for new construction.

The building of North Fort Lewis began that same year on land called Third Division Prairie, which covered a two-mile by one-and-half-mile flat area near DuPont.  The $4 million building campaign was designed to house an entire division.

Soldiers relax inside their 1940s barracks at Fort Lewis. U.S. Army photo

The 41st Division, one of four National Guard divisions to train here, was formed from units around the western states.  They were first housed at Camp Murray when they arrived that spring, then moved onto North Fort once it was complete.  On March 26, 1941, several landowners were notified that the Army wanted their property to increase the southeastern border near Muck Creek, which was granted.  

Both the 3rd and 41st divisions trained during 1941 - 37,000 troops in all using sticks for rifles and beer cans for grenades because supplies had yet to catch up.  By fall, the population grew again to 50,000.

Eisenhower slept here

Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower in-processed at Fort Lewis in November 1940, moving his wife and son into Quarters 2310.  He arrived here with the 15th Infantry Regiment.  As an executive officer, recently promoted from major to O-5, he devoted his time to the training of his unit which were stationed in tents on McChord.  He referred to his stay at Fort Lewis as a turning point in his career.

"I could think of no better assignment," he wrote years later, "at a time when much of the world was at war."

After several weeks on post, Eisenhower was promoted to full bird colonel and assigned as chief of staff of the 3rd Division.  Four months later, he became chief of staff for IX Corps, headquartered on Fort Lewis.  By June, he was reassigned and PCSed to 3rd Army.

The 2nd Division marches in downtown Tacoma in 1946. U.S. Army photo


First Lt. Vernon Rice, assistant post adjutant, was finishing some paperwork in his office the morning of December 7, 1941.  In the next room, a duty officer listened to the radio.  

Rice told The Ranger newspaper that the music faded out and news of Pearl Harbor's attack rocked the post.  Soon cars began pouring back onto base - soldiers leapt out of bus windows to get to their units.  The 3rd Division moved into bivouac areas in full combat gear, the 41st Division manned road blocks and the 115th Cavalry Regiment patrolled local beaches.  All gates were closed tight, and that evening the post underwent a total blackout.

Five months later, the 3rd Division moved to Fort Ord, California, for amphibious landing practice, then pushed on for Africa.  When WWII was over, the Marine Division had amassed 531 days in combat and suffered more casualties than any other infantry division - 34,224 killed, wounded or missing in action.

The 41st also left the post around the same time, moving to Australia as a staging for efforts on New Guinea.  They earned the nickname "Jungaleers" because they fought more actual months in the jungle than any other division in the Pacific.  

North Fort became a staging area for processing troops after the 41st departed.  Thousands of troops went through there, then, when the war ended, roughly 200,000 returned to civilian life through there as well.  During the war, four divisions other than the 3rd and 41st trained at Lewis, including the 40th, 44th, 33rd and the 96th divisions - a total of 500,000 prepared for war here.

Madigan's beginning

In addition to other WWII-era construction, Section V of the Fort Lewis Station Hospital was completed in 1944.  Sections one through four were located in other places on the post, including on North Fort and near the DuPont Gate.  They operated autonomously until August 5, 1944, when they became the Fort Lewis General Hospital, renamed Madigan General Hospital later that year in honor of Col. Patrick Madigan, a distinguished neuro-psychiatrist who died in 1944.  

The various locations operated under one command, but over time Section V expanded to take on more and more of the main medical mission for the base.  A gym and swimming pool were added in 1946, and the parking lot was paved in 1949.  In 1952, 30 sets of family quarters and two enlisted barracks were also added.  

Welcome 2nd Division

As was customary after WWI, the Army shrank in population following World War II.  In fact, the Army only kept two and a third divisions on active-duty.  Lucky for Fort Lewis, one of those was kept here.  In 1946, Lewis was chosen to house the 2nd Infantry Division - the fighting Indianhead Division which landed at Normandy on D-Day Plus One and fought gallantly through the Battle of the Bulge and into Czechoslovakia.

Tacoma welcomed the 8,000-man division May 7, 1946, during a downtown Tacoma parade, which was followed by a dance and beauty contest.  The division settled into a training routine including at the newly opened Yakima Firing Center.  But they weren't the only ones - the Army had a total of 30,000 troops here during the second half of the 1940s, including basic training of new recruits.

McChord separates

McChord separated from Fort Lewis January 1, 1948, when the Army handed over the air mission to the newly minted United States Air Force. McChord Field was renamed McChord Air Force Base and received three new missions: air defense, humanitarian support, and transport and airlift.

Because of McChord's strategic location to Alaska and Asian countries, 1947 was a busy year for McChord as the Tactical Air Command moved the 62d Troop Carrier Group to McChord Field.

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