The Army in the Woods: Spruce Production Division Records at the National Archives

By Crosman, Kathleen | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Army in the Woods: Spruce Production Division Records at the National Archives


Crosman, Kathleen, Oregon Historical Quarterly


ONE OF THE MORE unusual duty stations for military personnel during World War I, and one that many genealogists might not be aware of, was located in the forests and mills of the Pacific Northwest. Men who had experience in the logging industry found themselves fighting the war not in the trenches in Europe but among the trees and lumberyards of Oregon and Washington. By the time the United States entered the war in the spring of 1917, the Allies were in desperate need of flawless, lightweight, and strong lumber to build the aircraft necessary to overcome the trench warfare stalemate and to battle the Red Baron over the skies of Germany. In May 1917, Charles R. Sligh was sent to Washington and Oregon to evaluate the lumber situation. In a letter to the chairman of the Aircraft Production Board of the Council of National Defense, he reported: "Every one has been taken aback by the magnitude of the combined demand. France and England each ask for as much as the present total production. Altogether the demand is more than trebeled [sic]." (1) Sitka spruce, available only in the coastal forests of Northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska, was the ideal material.

Getting Sitka spruce trees out of the forests and into the airplane factories was not easy. The lumber industry wanted and tried to meet the increased demand without government assistance. By November 1917, about 2 million feet of spruce was being produced per month, but the U.S. government was requesting an increase to 10 million feet per month in order to meet the demands of the Allies and its own military for wood to build airplanes. (2) Many stands of Sitka spruce were virtually inaccessible, however, due to lack of logging roads, railroad tracks, and mills. There were also problems with the workforce. Labor groups were gearing up to demand better working conditions and threatening to strike. Given these challenges, it seemed an impossible task to increase lumber production fivefold. So, the U.S. Army created the Spruce Production Division to unify all the groups involved --timbermen, loggers, millmen--to expedite production.

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The special military command consisted primarily of draftees, some volunteers, and some regular Army troops. Most had prior experience in logging, milling, and associated necessary tasks, such as building railroad lines to transport the logs to the mills. While many of the Spruce Squadrons worked in the woods, others supplied manpower to privately owned sawmills as well as those built and operated by the Spruce Production Division. The Traffic Section took care of the logistics of shipping the finished lumber to Atlantic ports for shipment overseas, which alone was a monumental task. As historian Gerald W. Williams points out, between "November 1917 and October 1918, spruce production jumped from 2,887,623 to 22,145,823 board feet monthly. For the same twelve month period, a total of 143,008,961 board feet of spruce was shipped from the Northwest forests, including two small units from Alaska and California." (3) This is a remarkable achievement for a military division in existence for a mere fifteen months.

The National Archives at Seattle (NARA) holds roughly 187 cubic feet of Spruce Production records. They include the correspondence of 150 field squadrons and companies, district offices, the headquarters cantonment at the Vancouver Barracks in Vancouver, Washington, and the Spruce Production Corporation, which was chartered in August 1918, in the State of Washington, by John E. Morley, Prescott W. Cookingham, and John P. Murphy. (4) The principal office was in Vancouver, Washington. With the war expected to last longer and with things well organized thanks to the work of the Spruce Production Division, the U.S. government decided to "de-militarize" many of the functions of the division. The real property of the Division, such as railroads and mills, as well as functions, such as traffic management, were transferred to the Corporation. …

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