The Wild West Division

The first from Camp Lewis to fight

By J.M. Simpson on May 11, 2017

A memorial honoring the 91st Division stands silent at the western edge of Watkins Field at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The field honors the heroic actions of MSgt. Travis Watkins during the Korean War.  

Dedicated on May 30, 1930, the monument, which features six statues and a 40-foot tall obelisk, honors the division's loses during World War I.

Constituted on August 5, 1917 on the nearly constructed Camp Lewis, the 91st Division was comprised of drafted men from Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

By September of that year, the conscripts began to arrive at Lewis, which was then under the command of Maj. Gen. Henry Greene.

The draftees took physicals, received shots and trained in trench warfare, land combat and the use of gas masks.

In December 1917, Greene departed for France to familiarize himself with the Western Front. In his absence, Brig. Gen. Frederick Foltz assumed command.

Aware that many of the soldiers under his command were cowboys, Foltz gave the division the nickname, the Wild West Division.

Returning to Camp Lewis in March 1918, Greene expressed reservations about the nickname, thinking it might suggest a lack of discipline.  Nevertheless, he let the name stand.  

Under the command of Foltz in June of 1918, the 91st began its movement to east coast ports of embarkation for transport to France.

By the end of July, the division was training in France in preparation for its first test against the German army.

By the end of August, Foltz had been demoted to colonel for disobeying orders and replaced by Maj. Gen. William Johnston, who led the division through its trial by combat.

During that summer, Gen. John Pershing, commanding general of the 1st Army, had led an American assault that captured Saint-Mihiel.

From there American forces moved to an area between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest to mount a massive final assault.

On September 26, 1918 the Camp Lewis trained 91st Division faced its first trial by combat in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.

Over the next several days, the Wild West Division engaged in a back-and-forth struggle with the German army.  

Casualty figures for this encounter were 133 officers and some 3,000 men wounded or killed.

From the end of September until October 3rd, the 91st continued to battle the Germans.  On the fourth day, the division was moved to a reserve position.

Later in October the Wild West Division moved from France to Belgium in support of the French Army during the Ypres Lys Offensive.

By this time, the German army was in full retreat, and the war came to an end on November 11, 1918.

During its engagements in the two offensives, the 91st Division had spent 26 days in combat. Its losses totaled 1,454 killed and 4,654 wounded.

During April and May of 1919, the Wild West Division returned to Washington; Camp Lewis became a discharge point for many soldiers.

As peace returned, most of the Wild West Division's soldiers returned to civilian lives. Reunions occurred over the years.

During the September 1926 reunion, a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a monument took place on the west side of the then Camp Lewis parade field.

Frank McDermott, the president of the Bon Marche Department Store had contributed $50,000 for its construction; Avard Fairbanks, a noted sculptor designed the monument; and John Graham, a Seattle architect, designed the forty-foot high sandstone shaft.

On Armistice Day, 1967 over 400 Wild West Division veterans attended a wreath laying ceremony.  By 1974 only ten remained.

Today the monument stands in silent recognition of the sacrifices of Joint Base Lewis-McChord's Wild West Division, the first to fight.

Credits:  The JBLM Cultural Resources Program and the Lewis Army Museum contributed to this article.