Almost exactly 100 years ago, officers began to converge on the brand new Camp Lewis, just south of Tacoma, to form the 91st Division. Soon after arriving in their new home, they would prepare to head to France to serve in the last part of World War I.
Camp Lewis, then 70,000 sprawling acres near American Lake, was paid for thanks to Pierce County voters, who passed a bond for $2 million to buy the land and donate it to the federal government for military use.
Western Washington turned out to be perfect training ground for the soldiers, said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Gary Volesky in a speech celebrating JBLM’s centennial on Friday afternoon.
“Today we honor the legacy of those who set the groundwork at Camp Lewis that has made JBLM the military installation of choice across the Department of Defense … soldiers in the Army ask to be assigned at JBLM ahead of any other Army installation,” Volesky said. “I’m sure the weather is a big selling point,” he added with a laugh.
“I can’t think of any other post that can prepare us better when our nation calls: Lt. Gen. Arthur Murray once said there is no finer Army post site anywhere in the United States, and this area there has every physical condition desirable for Army training and maneuvers,” Volesky added.
He rattled off some examples: Solo Point was used to practice beach landings. Mount Rainier was used to train for mountain warfare. And training areas south of Mount Rainier perfectly imitated the thick vegetation soldiers encountered in Vietnam, Volesky said, especially in the rainy season.
Over the past 100 years our own stories and our own capacity and ability to live up to our full potential has been made possible, time and time again, by the brave men and women here at Joint Base Lewis-McChord
Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib
Today, the old Camp Lewis is bigger and goes by a different name. It’s the U.S. Department of Defense’s largest operational joint base, home to 40,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guard, and 60,000 of their family members. It’s grown by more than 20,000 acres, and is by far the biggest employer in Pierce County.
On Friday afternoon, Civil War reenactors strolled the pristine streets of the base along with current service men and women. Ambulances and jeeps used in World War I were on display, shown off alongside the military’s contemporary vehicles. Visitors climbed into the Army’s giant, tank-like people movers and posed with 10,000-pound pieces of artillery.
Later in the afternoon, Volesky and Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib spoke about how things have changed and stayed the same in a century, what the base has accomplished, and what impact the men and women who serve and live at JBLM have made.
Habib spoke of the high number of service men and women — about 50 percent — who choose to stay in Washington after their military service. And he noted that, as it was 100 years ago, the United States is involved in conflict overseas.
“There are those who disagree with the vision and dream of our country, with the opportunities every American ought to have at birth and throughout their lives,” Habib said. “Over the past 100 years our own stories and our own capacity and ability to live up to our full potential has been made possible, time and time again, by the brave men and women here at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.”