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History before JBLM's history

Citizen-soldier and governor play a role

Soldiers engaged in bayonet practice at American Lake before there was a Camp Lewis. Photo credit: Washington National Guard Archives

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Being focused on the present can obscure the past.

This year, Joint Base Lewis-McChord celebrates its centennial.  Doing so affords the base the opportunity to look back over the past 100 years and note its accomplishments.

Those accomplishments are based on a history that transpired before 1917, before there was a then-Camp Lewis, later a Fort Lewis and now a Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The Army first used the area around American Lake in 1902 as a summer training encampment by what is today known as the Washington National Guard. Soldiers marched up from Vancouver and down from Seattle - while others came by horseback or train - to participate in the military exercises of the day.

The men lived in a tent camp and drilled for several weeks.  They soon named the encampment Camp Weisenberger in honor of Col. John Weisenberger.

He was a citizen-soldier.

Weisenberger had served as a city attorney, justice of the peace and the mayor of Whatcom (today's Bellingham).

In 1898, he volunteered to serve during the Spanish-American War. He was initially commissioned a major and given command of the 1st Washington Volunteers. Seattle's Volunteer Park is named in honor of these soldiers.

Weisenberger served with distinction in the Philippines, taking a leading role in the battles of Santa Anna, Taquig, Paters, Pasig and San Pedro Macati.  He was promoted to colonel in November 1899.

After the war, the annual training at American Lake continued. In 1915, however, Camp Weisenberger was renamed to honor Washington state's then-lieutenant governor.  That would be Louis F. Hart, who, in 1919, would become the state's ninth governor.  He served until 1925.

Camp Louis F. Hart and the annual training of volunteers ended when, in May 1917, Capt. David Stone arrived with orders and materials to construct what became known on July 16, 1917, as Camp Lewis, named after explorer Meriwether Lewis.

After America declared war on Germany and entered World War I, Camp Lewis quickly became one of the more than 30 Army bases used to gather and train troops to fight. The camp served as an induction center, and just like Camps Weisenberger and Louis F. Hart, was used for initial military training.

Many of the men who volunteered to serve came from Washington state, although there were also volunteers from Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, California, Nevada, Utah, Montana and the Alaska Territory.

Many of the men "were so eager to begin that they drilled in their civilian clothes," wrote KIRO TV producer, writer and historian, Feliks Banel, in an article entitled "The Forgotten Early History of Joint Base Lewis-McChord."

In the fall of 1917, these soldiers were organized into the 91st Division and soon acquired the nickname of the "Wild West Division." After nearly a year of training, the 91st boarded trains for the east coast where they then boarded ships bound for the fighting in France.

They returned home in late 1918 and early 1919.

The 91st Division Monument on the west end of Watkins Field commemorates their actions.

After the war, Camp Lewis remained in use, in part by the citizen-soldiers who had earlier trained on the shores of American Lake.

"I think the citizens' military training held at Camp Lewis this summer was a wonderful success," wrote Governor Hart, in a War Department Appropriations Bill in 1923, "and particularly so with regard to the wonderful advantage given to the state of Washington."

Some ideas in history never change.

Credit:  "The Forgotten Early History of Joint Base Lewis-McChord" by Feliks Banel

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