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The end of an era

World War II-era buildings on JBLM North coming down

A construction worker on Joint Base Lewis-McChord North sprays down the siding of one of the barracks in D Block to prepare it for demolition. Photo credit: Jeannie Dimico

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As Joint Base Lewis-McChord has continued to grow and change around them, 193 buildings on JBLM North have remained mostly untouched throughout their 78 years here. Now, after outlasting their projected lifespan of five years, the buildings, known as D Block, will be demolished over the next year to make room to support new base requirements.

After securing funding for the project last year, asbestos abatement and lead paint removal began in the fall. The demolition started May 6 and is slated to last through November.

Originally built in only 90 days in 1941, D Block was part of a 1,000-building cantonment that housed soldiers training for World War II. The buildings weren't only barracks, but mess halls, post exchanges, chapels, libraries and theaters.

"Delta Block, was one of five blocks originally built and this just happens to be the last one that remains," said Mike Barton, JBLM real estate officer. "Most of the others on JBLM North have been replaced by more modern facilities. They don't support the modern missions that we have in the Army, and this space is now needed."

The structures have served the base in numerous ways since their construction, in addition to their historical significance and they hold sentimental value to the thousands of soldiers who lived and trained there over the years.

"You talk to so many people who have served in the military and everyone has a story about training over in JBLM North," said Lys Opp-Beckman, JBLM architectural historian. "There are a lot of living memories about that place still and we want to make sure that (D Block) is celebrated and respected."

The cantonment area was constructed by the Sound Bay Construction Company and Peter Kiewit & Sons Co. in 1941 for $7 million and were immediately inhabited by the 41st Infantry Division. The division trained for the war there until being deployed overseas in 1942.

Afterward, the cantonment became a housing area for over 200,000 soldiers from other divisions during the war, including the all African-American, 93rd Engineer General Service Regiment in 1944.

During the Korean War, the 57th Independent Field Squadron, Royal Canadian Engineers occupied the area as they trained with American soldiers, and eventually it replaced Fort Lawton, in Seattle, as the Pacific Reception Station for incoming troops. The station continued to operate well after the war, as it functioned as a center for processing and shipping troops to Alaska.

The cantonment was also used as the 6th Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy and an Army Training Center during the Vietnam War. It then remained empty until 1975 when "Operation Babylift" brought Vietnamese and Cambodian orphans to the area until they could be turned over to adoption agencies throughout the U.S.

In 1976, the buildings became a training center for the Reserve and National Guard. Eventually, the College ROTC program housed soldiers there each summer for their Leader Development Assessment Course until 2014 when the program moved to Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Joseph Piek, retired lieutenant colonel and JBLM Public Affairs officer, was one of those cadets in 1984.

"As a cadet, my Army ROTC unit lived in the World War II barracks when we trained at JBLM," he said. "When I got stationed at JBLM in 2001, one of the first things I did was seek out the building I stayed in during summer camp 17 years earlier. When I drove to D Block, memories of drill and ceremony in the gravel infields between the barracks and hurried meals in the mess hall flooded back. The first time I entered one of the barracks buildings again was in 2013, and no sooner had I stepped inside -- the scent, look and sentiment of the wooden structure took me back 29 years."

In the 1990s, the base decided to start building more modern barracks in the cantonment area, and slowly each block of the original construction was demolished until D Block was the last surviving zone.

The last use for the buildings occurred between November 2014 and February 2015 when hundreds of soldiers returning from missions in West Africa were quarantined there to watch for signs and symptoms of the Ebola virus.

Since then, the buildings have been removed from utilities awaiting demolition and remained empty of soldiers. Still, they hold memories for so many who passed through their doors.

"For construction that was supposed to be ‘for the duration' (meaning World War II), the Army has certainly gotten its money out of these buildings," said Dan Patterson, a retired Army colonel and director of Brigade Operations, 8th Brigade Headquarters, U.S. Army Cadet Command. "They were used by so many units for so many functions, and I think that's why ‘old-timers' look fondly upon them."

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