Fort Lewis: 9th Infantry Division

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 12/27/2012
  • Essay 10131

The U.S. Army's 9th Infantry Division was first formed during World War I. It saw action in World War II and Vietnam, and over the years was inactivated and reactivated as the needs of the military changed. It was last reactivated at Fort Lewis on May 20, 1972, as a test division for improving soldiers' quality of life in the new volunteer army and for testing "motorized infantry" innovations. Quality of life improvements included dropping kitchen police duties and early morning physical fitness routines. The 9th would be the army's first all-volunteer division, with much of its force drawn from the Pacific Northwest. On the operational side the division tested infantry fighting from fast attack vehicles. The fast attack vehicle experiments failed and the division reshaped itself as motorized with High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, or Humvees. With the end of the Cold War, the division was again inactivated in 1992.

The "Old Reliables"

Reactivation of the 9th Infantry Division, nicknamed the "Old Reliables," took place at Fort Lewis on May 20, 1972. The division would be critical in reshaping the U.S. Army in the 1970s and 1980s as it was transformed into a voluntary force and reshaped to fight a new type of war. It would be the first division formed entirely under the all-volunteer concept.

As a "new" division the 9th could do many things differently. It would focus on recruiting soldiers from the Pacific Northwest, and the army guaranteed enlisted personnel that they would remain with the division for at least 16 months. The division would test changes to the army routine to make it more attractive to a volunteer force. These included ending mess hall, or kitchen police (KP) duties, a more regular work week, and better living conditions. On the tactical side, the division served as a high-technology and motorized light-fighter warfare test bed. This included developing and field testing fast-attack vehicles such as modified dune buggies and all-terrain fighting vehicles.

The 9th Infantry Division fought in Vietnam from 1967 to the summer of 1969, when the 1st and 2nd Brigades were withdrawn. The 3rd Brigade remained in Vietnam, under the control of the 25th Infantry Division, until October 1970 when it came home and the division was inactivated. Its reactivation, planned in 1971, increased the army's size to 13 divisions. The 9th had its reactivation ceremony on May 26, 1972, on the Gray Army Airfield runway. The main speaker was General William C. Westmoreland (1914-2005), who discussed the division's success in the Vietnam War and the plans for its future. Standing with General Westmoreland was the division commander, Major General William B. Fulton (1919-2006), who had led the division's 2nd Brigade in Vietnam in 1967. The public at the day-long 1972 reactivation event saw parachute jump demonstrations, combat medical events, infantry tactical demonstrations, and equipment displays.

A High-Technology Test Bed

In 1980 Fort Lewis and the 9th Infantry Division were selected as the army's High Technology Test Bed (HTTB) and would evaluate equipment and tactics for a light infantry division. The test bed had the freedom to acquire equipment without going through the regular, slow procurement process. The goal was to create a light infantry division built around small, mobile fighting vehicles. The new infantry would be neither a heavy infantry, with armored vehicles and tanks, nor a very light infantry, but rather an infantry supported by fast-attack vehicles carrying mounted weapons.

Vehicle development and planning continued into the mid-1980s. The division tested fast-attack vehicles, basically dune-buggies with a mounted machine gun or grenade launcher, intended to bring highly mobile firepower to battle. Testing of the vehicles at Yakima Firing Center (today the Yakima Training Center) would lead to alterations and renaming the buggies "Desert Patrol Vehicles." One serious flaw was detected -- the vehicles had a tendency to roll over. The resulting injuries suggested that the use of these attack vehicles should be limited to special operations. Tests also found light attack units to be especially vulnerable when facing traditional units supported by armored personnel carriers, tanks, and artillery. The light attack infantry had little cover or safety when facing such heavier mechanized forces. These findings ended the fast attack experiments. The Desert Patrol Vehicles were transferred to U.S. Navy Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) units for mission use and saw service in 1991's Operation Desert Storm.

With the failed fast-attack vehicle experiment, the 9th Infantry Division and Fort Lewis became the test bed to develop a motorized division. In 1985 the 9th received the military's first High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, commonly called Humvees. These would replace the venerable Jeep as high-mobility transport with weapons capabilities. The 9th Infantry Division was then renamed from "light infantry" to "motorized."

The motorized division was tested at Fort Lewis and Yakima Firing Center from 1985 to 1991. Two brigades were formed and ready for battle testing in 1989 at the high-desert Yakima facility. The brigades had three battalions each, with one battalion designated light attack, one light combined arms, and the third, heavy combined arms. It was a division designed to counter the Soviet Union's motorized divisions. In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the concept was dropped, but the testing had contributed to improved battlefield mobility and movement tactics. 

Improved Quality of Life for Volunteers

As the army became a volunteer force there were efforts to create a better quality of life for soldiers. At enlistment, soldiers signed a contract that specified where they would take basic training, where they would be permanently posted, and their specific job. Should the army break the contract, soldiers they were entitled to leave the force. Pay was increased and improvements made to medical care and family housing. 

Other efforts to make life more hassle-free included ending kitchen duty (KP), an irritant that was taken over by civilian hires. Soldiers did not have to get passes to go to town, but were free to come and go. Barracks life was transformed, with individuality emphasized. Soldiers were provided rooms rather than the large open-bay barracks of past. They could decorate the rooms and were given more privacy. Education received more attention as well, with college courses taught on-post by professors from nearby colleges. The 9th Infantry Division opened its college, called "Old Reliable University," in a former atomic-warfare training center.

Many longtime non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and army veterans worried about the relaxation in military discipline. But the majority of the 9th Infantry Division's quality-of-life programs proved effective and became accepted army-wide, although a few of the features did not fit the military mission and were altered or dropped. Overall, the attention to quality of life did improve living conditions, and the division achieved its goal of recruiting people from the Pacific Northwest, with over 60 percent enlisted from this region. The Fort Lewis experiment helped demonstrate that the volunteer army worked and worked well.

The History of the 9th Infantry Division

The 9th Division's history is preserved in published records. It was organized during World War I but did not go overseas and was inactivated after the war. In 1940 the division was activated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, trained there, and went overseas. Along with Washington's National Guard 41st Infantry Division, the 9th was one of the first divisions to go into battle. It landed in North Africa on November 8, 1942, saw combat, and then participated in the liberation of Sicily. It would land on Utah Beach on June 10, 1944 (four days after the D-Day invasion), and fought battles in France and Germany. The division had 264 days in combat, with 4,581 soldiers killed in action and nearly 17,000 wounded. Four division soldiers received the nation's highest decoration, the Medal of Honor.

Following World War II the division went through periods of inactivation and reactivation. In 1966 the 9th Infantry Division was reactivated for service in Vietnam. It fought in the Mekong Delta (1967-1969) as a Mobile Riverine Force in cooperation with the U.S. Navy, using gunboats, helicopters, and barracks ships to search for the enemy. Enemy forces in the Mekong Delta were decimated. When the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched the 1968 Tet offensive, the 9th fought in Saigon and the delta, dealing the enemy another serious blow.

The division's record in Vietnam included 1,869 soldiers killed in hostile action. Ten division soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. These included Thomas James Kinsman (b. 1945), who was born in Renton and grew up in Issaquah, Washington. On February 6, 1968, Private First Class Kinsman was in a group of eight soldiers cut off from their unit. While under heavy attack a grenade landed among them. Kinsman alerted the others and threw himself on the grenade, blocking the explosion with his body. He was severely wounded while saving the lives of others. Promoted to specialist fourth class, Kinsman spent four months recovering in Madigan Hospital, Fort Lewis, before returning to civilian life.

The division named its headquarters building on Lewis Main (Fort Lewis) in honor of Specialist Fourth Class Edward A. DeVore (1947-1968) of Torrance, California, who received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroic actions. Today DeVore Hall in the Lewis-Main historic district still honors his sacrifice. On March 17, 1968, while serving as a machine gunner on a reconnaissance mission near Saigon, Devore and his force came under intense enemy attack. The force was pinned down, but DeVore, under heavy hostile fire, assaulted the enemy positions. Despite being hit in the shoulder he continued his attack on the entrenched enemy. His actions allowed his force to escape, but he died of his wounds.

The Legacy

With the end of the Cold War the army looked to reduce its force structure to realize a savings, or "peace dividend." In 1991 the 9th Infantry Division turned in its equipment, reassigned soldiers and families, and worked out the inactivation process. Some of the division's artifacts went into the Lewis Army Museum, where today several Fast Attack Vehicles are displayed. Most things went into storage. 

Other divisions have since trained at Fort Lewis, now Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The legacy of the High Technology Test Bed has continued to shape combat tactics. The contributions of the 9th Infantry Division, in war and in peace, have left their mark.


"9th Infantry Division Is Slowly Being Rebuilt at Fort Lewis," The Seattle Daily Times, May 25, 1972, p. 48; "Civilian K.P.s at Work, Fort Lewis," Ibid., December 6, 1972, p. 28; "9th Division Slimming," The Oregonian, March 27, 1984, p. 18; "Fort Lewis," 9th Infantry Division Society website accessed April 26, 2012 (; Major General Ira A. Hunt, The 9th Infantry Division In Vietnam: Unparalleled and Unequaled (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky 2010); Shelby L. Stanton, Order of Battle: U.S. Army World War II (Novato, California: Presidio Press 1984).
Note: This essay was revised slightly on June 9, 2015.

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