91st Division monument is dedicated at Fort Lewis on May 30, 1930.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 4/22/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9354

On May 30, 1930, an impressive monument is dedicated at Fort Lewis honoring the army's 91st Division. The monument, featuring six statues and a 40-foot tall shaft, recalls the division's wartime contribution and honors its war dead. Sculptor Avard Fairbanks (1897-1987) designed the statues and noted Seattle architect John Graham Sr. (1873-1955) designed the monument. Frank McDermott, president of the Bon Marche Department store, donated the funds to build it. Since its dedication, the monument has become a prominent Joint Base Lewis-McChord symbol, where it continues to honor national sacrifice.

91st Division in World War I

The 91st Division was constituted as part of the National Army (drafted men) on August 5, 1917. It was made up of draftees from Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. These future soldiers started to arrive at Camp Lewis, located in Pierce County, in September 1917. Here the recruits trained and readied for battle. During the summer of 1918 the division shipped out to England and then France. In the war, the 91st became known as the "Wild West" Division because its troops came from the Western states. The division also carried the cowboy nickname, "Powder River, Let'er Buck."

The division's first battle experience came in the St. Mihiel Offensive. In the Meuse-Argonne Offensive the Wild West soldiers made a tremendous advance and contributed to the destruction of a German division. Five of them earned the nation's highest honor, the Medal of Honor. The soldiers came home to victory parades, with many receiving their discharge papers at Camp Lewis. Following the war, the division demobilized in May 1919. In 1921 the army reconstituted the division as part of the Organized Reserves. In World War II it became an active army division and fought in the Italian campaign. Again the division went through inactivation after the war and three years later reactivation as an Army Reserve division.

Division Veterans Honor Wartime Service

Soon after their return home in 1919, the Wild West Division veterans organized an association. Membership would come to include many prominent individuals including a Washington lieutenant governor, judges, and business leaders. In 1920 the association held its first reunion in Seattle and for the next 10 years had annual meetings. The reunions were held around September 25, the anniversary of the division's entry into battle in the Argonne. During the seventh reunion, in September 1926, the association dedicated three memorials at the Camp Lewis gate and discussed a large permanent monument. A Portland, Oregon, attorney, Lamar Tooze (1895-1971), a former first lieutenant in the division's 364th Regiment, headed the monument committee. Tooze had a strong commitment, as his brother also fought in the division and was killed in action.

During the September 1926 reunion the committee proposed an arch over the Pacific Highway (today's Interstate 5) but the $100,000 cost and anticipated maintenance issues led to dropping this proposal. Brigadier General Robert Alexander (1863-1941), the Camp Lewis commander, recommended a memorial stadium that included an arch entrance, with sections of the stadium named in honor of division units, but the veterans were more impressed by young sculptor Avard Fairbanks's presentation outlining war monument designs. They decided that a monument with sculptures would best honor the fallen. The association then sought War Department approval to build at Camp Lewis (the camp had just been designated for permanent construction to replace the 1917 temporary buildings). The association would pay for the monument and donate it to the War Department. On August 24, 1928 the War Department approved.

"Father of the Monument"

Frank McDermott (1869-1944), the president and general manger of the Bon Marche Department Store, donated the $50,000 needed to build the monument. This earned him the designation "Father of the Monument." McDermott had a long record of patriotic duty and charity. During World War I he contributed the funds to build a large Knights of Columbus Hall on Camp Lewis (this building would after the war be used as the Noncommissioned Officers Club through the 1970s). Major (later Colonel) McDermott, an officer in the Organized Reserve Officer Corps, had served as a civilian with the Knights of Columbus in France during the war.

A ground-breaking at the monument location took place on September 26, 1926, with former Lieutenant Governor and 91st Division veteran William J. "Wee" Coyle (1888-1977) officiating. Reverend John W. Beard (1883-1951), 91st Division chaplain, spoke of "the boys we left over there." Frank McDermott expressed his pleasure in witnessing the beginning of the memorial. General of the Armies John J. Pershing (1860-1946) sent greetings and remarked how fitting it will be to have a monument erected to the memory of the 91st Division dead. The ground-breaking took place during that year's reunion and local veterans arranged free transportation for any who needed a ride to Camp Lewis. Following the afternoon ceremonies, the veterans visited their old barracks.

Monument Design and Construction

Avard Fairbanks, who designed the heroic statues, started sculpture at an early age and at 17 years was accepted for study at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Artes in Paris. However, the start of World War I ended his overseas studies. Fairbanks returned home and worked with his brother on a sculpture in Hawaii. Following the war he produced an Idaho war memorial, a Doughboy statue, and other distinguished work. His sculptures impressed the University of Oregon which hired him in 1920 as a sculpture instructor. He left Oregon to obtain a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Yale. Fairbanks returned to the Pacific Northwest and in 1926 the 91st Division Association sought his advice and he presented sketches at the reunion. The sculptor carried these drawings to Europe during his 1927 Guggenheim Fellowship study. In 1928 he came back to Seattle and attended the University of Washington Master of Fine Arts program. He was asked by the 91st Division Association to create the monument statues. The design would become his Master's thesis.

Fairbanks conferred with 91st Division veterans in refining his design and then giving the statues a likeness. The six figures are an idealized group with a crusader at the top. The crusader represents that right shall prevail. Below on either side are soldier sentries, portraying soldiers on duty. Fairbanks also said that the two soldiers indicate duty to country. In the lower group are three figures. At the bottom is a fallen soldier aided by a nurse and a welfare worker leaning over him. The welfare worker symbolized the organizations who gave voluntary service. Fairbanks also designed a dedication stone, a relief with eagles on both sides and inscription "To The Ninety-First Division A-E-F."

Fairbanks started creating the statues in the fall of 1928 and finished the model the next spring. A California casting firm completed the statues that fall and shipped them to Portland, Oregon. During the Christmas holidays the statues were trucked to Fort Lewis where Fairbanks waited to direct their assembly. The delivery of the statues proved stressful for the sculptor: The load was too high to go under some highway overpasses and the truck had to take alternative routes, delaying its arrival. The statues arrived late but safe and their installation was completed by New Year's Day.

John Graham Sr., a distinguished Seattle architect, designed the forty-foot tall Wilkeson sandstone shaft and setting for the statues. Graham had designed many of Seattle's most significant commercial structures, including the Frederick & Nelson Department Store building (now Nordstrom's). Around the time of the monument work Graham designed Physics Hall on the University of Washington campus, Dexter Horton building, and other significant Seattle buildings. On February 11, 1929, he completed the architectural drawings. The shaft would be a setting for the statues and a tower reaching for the sky. The Walker Cut Stone Company of Tacoma cut the Wilkeson sandstone and transported it to Fort Lewis.

Dedication Ceremonies

On May 30, 1930, a large crowd gathered at the monument, at the northwest end of the parade grounds. The audience included Wild West division veterans. William "Wee" Coyle presided. Former Captain Arthur A. Murphy (1878-1971), 362nd Infantry, 91st Division, made the principal address. Murphy who received a serious combat injury, returned to Seattle in 1919 and became a Union Pacific Railroad executive. He spoke of the heroes who had not returned. Messages from President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley (1883-1963), and General of the Armies John J. Pershing were read. The flags around the monument were released by Etta Robinson, a 91st Division Gold Star Mother (she had lost her son, Corporal Glen H. Robinson, in the war). The memorial was presented by Avard Fairbanks, sculptor, John Graham, architect, and Frank McDermott. Brigadier General Joseph C. Castner (1869-1946), Fort Lewis commander, accepted the monument.

Every Armistice Day from 1930 into the 1970s had a group of 91st Division veterans conducting a ceremony and placing a wreath at the memorial. In 1967 400 Wild West division veterans attended. By 1974 attendance had dropped to 10. Although few veterans attended, the ceremony remained a moving event. A 21-gun salute and playing of "Taps" recalled soldier sacrifices. The monument survives as one of the most impressive on any military installation and continues to recall soldier sacrifice and duty to country.


Sources: "Death Summons F. M'Dermott," The Seattle Daily Times, January 1, 1944, p. 12.; "91st Division Memorial Is Given To Fort," Ibid., May 30, 1930, p. 11; "Men of Old 'Wild West' Division to Honor Comrades Who Gave Their Lives in Battle; Reunion Held Here," Ibid., September 26, 1926, p. 7; "General Asks Stadium," Ibid., September 10, 1926, p. 22; "Conservation Assessment Report: 91st Division Monument," 2001, Zaik, Miller, DiBenedetto Architects & Planners, National Park Service, in possession of Cultural Resources Program, Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

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