An enduring history

91st the first to form at Camp Lewis

By J.M. Simpson on November 10, 2017

The 91st Infantry Division occupies a slender chapter in the 100-year history that characterizes Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Built in 1917, Camp Lewis cost the least to build and was constructed in the least amount of time. A Congressional subcommittee investigating war expenditures wrote that Camp Lewis "was the cheapest, best, and most rapidly constructed of any of the cantonments."

The Army raced to grow to meet the challenges of World War I (it only had 25,000 regulars in 1917), and it needed thousands more soldiers in order to fight in France.

With the revival of a draft, men from Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and Montana were sent to Camp Lewis for training.

The growth of the Army demanded organization, and on Aug. 5, 1917, the 91st Infantry Division was constituted at Camp Lewis.  Exactly a month later, Sept. 5, the first draftees arrived for training. Many began training in their civilian clothes.

Amid the continuing construction and road scraping, the sound of hammers on nails competed with the sound of 1903 Springfield rifles firing bullets into training targets.

By the early summer of 1918, the 91st, now known as the Wild West Division (with a fir tree as its insignia to symbolize its traditional home in the far west), the unit departed for England. By August, the division landed in France, where it continued to train for a month.

On Sept. 26, 1918, the division engaged in combat for the first time in the Meuse-Argonne sector. Its entrance into The Great War met with success; the division captured more artillery, machine guns and prisoners as it advanced a greater distance under fire than other divisions with much longer combat experience.

Just before the conflict's end, the division helped finish off the German army; this contributed significantly to ending the war Nov. 11, 1918.

In 1919, the 91st was inactivated at the Presidio of San Francisco. Reconstituted in 1921 as part of the organized Reserves, the division served as an administrative control center for the next 21 years.

As the Second World War grew, the Wild West Division was reactivated at Camp White, Oregon. Soon after, in 1944, the division's soldiers departed for Europe to fight in Italy.

On the Italian Front, elements of the 91st became the first to reach the Arno River, leading to the fall of Italy into allied hands. In September 1944, the division crossed the Sieve River, outflanked the famous Gothic Line, and captured the Futa Pass.

The end of World War II in Europe was in sight, and the 91st had played a significant role. For its part, the division was awarded the North Apennines, Po Valley, and Rome-Arno campaign streamers.

At the end of the war, however, the 91st returned home, where it was inactivated in December 1945 at Camp Rucker, Alabama.

In late 1946, the Wild West Division was again reactivated at the Presidio as part of the Army Reserve.

In 1959, the division was reorganized as the 91st Division (Training). Thirty-four years later, the unit was reorganized as the 91st Division (Exercise) and again in 1999 as 91st Division (Training Support).

The training doctrines developed played key roles in the Persian Gulf War and the Global War on Terror.

Despite its relatively short time at today's Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the spirit of the Wild West Division is visible. Standing at the west end of Watkins Field in silent remembrance to what JBLM means to the nation's history is the 91st Division Monument.

It is one of the most impressive monuments on any base, and it is a reminder of soldiers' duty to country.