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Lewis comes into its own

In like a mouse, out like a lion

ROTC cadets learned the finer points of bridge building at Fort Lewis in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of James O'Ravez

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Soldiering at Fort Lewis was different in the 1930s than it is today. Those were the days when the troops wore wrap-around leggings, felt campaign hats and wool olive drab uniforms. Privates represented half the ranks.  Enlisted men rarely saw an officer except on paydays.  Many soldiers were considered "married" to the Army since first term enlistees were denied getting married, in fact anyone below sergeant was banned to re-enlist if they had tied the knot.

Promotions were slow, too.  Once enlisted, soldiers couldn't even transfer units without being demoted to private, even if the change was right across the street.  It was not uncommon for soldiers to spend years together in the same unit waiting for a promotion that rarely came.  Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, was a major for 16 years.

Work hours were ideal in the 30s.  It was the Great Depression and a job in the military meant security, and the average day ended at noon.  Wednesdays, Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday were duty free, too.  

McChord Field

The Army Air Corps continued to grow in the 1930s and situating an airfield next to Fort Lewis made great sense to military planners.  In 1938, the construction of McChord commenced on land already owned by the post plus 989 acres donated by Pierce County on a small civilian airstrip already in use.  Named after Col. William McChord, who died in the crash of an A-17 during training in 1937, the War Department spent $62,000 to add a couple hangars and a 6,000-foot by 600-foot wide runway.

A squadron of Douglas B-18 Bolos was the first aircraft to be stationed here in 1940, and by June 1947, McChord formed its first airlift wing to carry troops anywhere in the world.

McChord wasn't the only airbase built in 1938 - Gray Army Airfield was completed that summer as well.  To celebrate the addition of both runways, the Army built a mock city and subsequently destroyed it in front of 3,000 spectators with 400 bombs.

Troop explosion

Ten years into the rebuilding program at Fort Lewis, city leaders again began a campaign to lobby the War Department for more troops.

"It seems that this is the opportune time for us to press the matter of the establishment of Fort Lewis as a division post," Corydon Wagner, president of the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, told the Times on May 8, 1935.  

The chamber wanted the Pentagon to close smaller bases and pool its money to afford more troops at bigger posts like Fort Lewis.  

That sentiment fell on deaf ears, but a year later, Brig. Gen. David Stone, the captain who supervised the construction of Camp Lewis in 1917, returned to command the 3rd Division in September 1936.  He was awarded his second star a month later.  Stone died in 1963 and is buried in the Fort Lewis cemetery.

At first, the population growth here was temporary.  In the summer of 1937, 7,500 division soldiers conducted a month-long maneuver on the post.  Then, in 1938, 1,800 men from the 15th Regiment left their 25-year tour in China and returned to the U.S.  They lived in pup tents on Lewis and McChord until permanent barracks were built.  And by the close of the 1930s, the 3rd Division was at 5,000 troops, a number that would swell to 30,000 by the close of 1940.

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