Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, April 29, 2021

America's Spruce Squadrons


The Sitka Spruce Can Grow to Over 300 Feet Tall
and 15 Feet in Diameter

By James Patton

The Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) is a coniferous evergreen tree native to the coastal forests between Oregon and Alaska. A hardy species, it can grow in many other ecosystems but usually not nearly as large as in their native range, where they can grow to over 300 feet high, with a trunk diameter exceeding 15 feet, making them by far the largest species of spruce. The wood is widely used for pianos, harps, violins, and guitars, as its high strength-to-weight ratio and regular, knot-free rings make it an excellent conductor of sound. All quality pianos have soundboards made of Sitka spruce. During WWI, these attributes plus the long, tough fibers that don’t splinter even when struck by bullets, made it the essential material for aircraft wing spars. 

From the onset of the war the lumber industry in the Pacific Northwest was the key supplier to the Allies of Sitka spruce, even though the stingy pay and dangerous conditions in the logging operations spawned violent unionization efforts, and strikes were frequent. Coupled with the lumber industry’s preference for other species that were preferred as building materials, the availability of Sitka Spruce varied widely.  After the U.S. declared war in 1917, the logging industry lost workers to the army, the labor strife intensified, and the supply further declined to about 2 million board feet per year. With the U.S. now planning to build its own aircraft, the War Department estimated that 10 million board feet per year would be needed. 

Accordingly, a former army captain named Brice Disque was hired to evaluate the situation and recommend how to obtain the needed production. Disque spent a couple of months touring and interviewing. His final report concluded that the army would have to reorganize and operate the whole industry itself. 

Soldier tallying planks at Vancouver

So on 29 September 1917 Disque was returned to active duty as a lieutenant colonel and placed in charge of developing the plans for the army take-over. Subsequently, on 6 November, the new Spruce Production Division (SPD) was created as a part of the U.S. Signal Corps’ Aviation Section. Disque was promoted to colonel and placed in command of the SPD. His headquarters were established in downtown Portland, Oregon, where several floors of the new 15-story Yeon Building were requisitioned. The main site for induction, training, and operations was set up at the Vancouver Barracks, the army base in Washington near Portland.  

An early obstacle to overcome was the union question. The rather notorious Industrial Workers of the World was striving to represent the entire workforce. Unionizing soldiers seemed to be  totally out of the question, but a Portland lawyer named Maurice Crumpacker proposed a devious solution—the SPD would form a company union, also known as a "yellow union" (a practice banned by the Wagner Act in 1935). Crumpacker was made the head of the new Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, or the “4Ls” which actually continued in existence until 1939, long after Crumpacker left; he was elected to Congress in 1924.  The logging companies and mills were required to negotiate with the 4Ls, which set wage rates higher than previously paid and implemented minimum requirements for work hours, lodging, and food, which in most cases exceeded anything seen before in the woods or mills. About 125,000 men were enrolled in the 4Ls. 

The SPD was initially authorized 10,317 officers and men. They signed up several thousand loggers and mill workers, although this often required a waiver because many of these men were over 40. Some of the draftees assigned had been classified at induction as "Limited Service," and the rest of the contingent was filled by assigning soldiers and officers who had volunteered for the Air Service. As production ramped up it became apparent that many more men were needed so the authorization was upped, reaching 28,825 in May 1918. 

Portland Headquarters Today

The officers and soldiers were assigned to various work duties. Each crew was designated as a squadron (this was the Air Service) and eventually there were 149 of them, ranging in size from 35 men to over 300. Most of these squadrons were assigned to lumber camps and sawmills. Most of these facilities belonged to private lumber companies although the SPD built some as well. The army men worked side by side with civilians in the forests and mills, and all were paid the same. 

Other squadrons were assigned to construction duty, building, and maintaining infrastructure including saw mills, housing camps, roads, and even railroads in the forests. The SPD also procured heavy-duty trucks. These improvements made it possible to access many stands of spruce that had been passed over by the lumber companies as too expensive to harvest.

 The SPD also built a "cut-up" plant at Vancouver, where several squadrons were assigned to process the lumber into actual airplane parts. This was an improvement as previously the wood was delivered in large lengths and the aircraft factory had to cut their parts themselves. 

To further insure protection from labor strife, a group of squadrons were assigned to protect the infrastructure from damage or sabotage, to expel agitators, to suppress strikes, and also to fight forest fires. These men were armed with .30-.30 Winchester 94 carbines, a very popular civilian model, rather than army rifles, which alleviated the need for the army to supply the ammunition. 

Mixed Civilian-Military Crew Handling a Log Section

By November 1918, about 28,000 soldiers were stationed in the Pacific Northwest, working with about 100,000 civilians. About 20,000 soldiers were engaged in logging, construction, and mill work in the field (in about 235 camps) with the civilian lumbermen. Another 4,000 worked at the cut-up plant in Vancouver. Finally, an additional 4,000 men were permanently located at Vancouver Barracks, to help with administrative and support structure plus the security force. 

The SPD produced over 143 million board feet of Sitka spruce wood as well as other woods needed for ship construction in just 15 months, halting work almost immediately after the Armistice, and all of the military personnel were promptly discharged. Wherever possible, SPD property was shipped back to Vancouver and auctioned off at bargain prices. Anything that couldn’t be moved was abandoned to the logging companies and mill owners.

The SPD had a large and lasting impact on logging in the region. The companies adopted working conditions similar to those of the SPD, and they took great advantage of the new sawmills plus the logging roads and rail lines that the SPD had built to access more timber.

Four L's Insignia

Shortly after the Armistice, Disque, who was by then a brigadier general, was accused by members of Congress of wasting taxpayer’s money, especially on a $4 million railroad built on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, but those allegations were never substantiated. In March 1919 Disque left the army and the lumber industry. 

Sources include Bob Swanson’s definitive Spruce Squadrons website: 


  1. Amazing how many personnel and so much effort and resource had to be expended for such a tiny part of the war effort.

    1. Yes, but spruce was a vital commodity. In military history we usually only read about the combatants, but there were thousands more in the background, without whom the combatants could not have functioned, and even if those people weren't actually being shot at, they often worked very long hours in uncomfortable and often dangerous conditions. Think of the shipyard workers, aircraft and vehicle factory workers, miners, and farm workers and many others. In Britain in 1944, one in ten 18 year-olds who were called up for military service were randomly selected to be sent to work in the coal mines - so you could have dreams of becoming a fighter pilot but find yourself down a mine while your mates went off to fight.

  2. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (Washington State) has a sign-board on the spruce production effort, near the Pearson Field hangar. There a few other WW I associated items, e.g., the George C Marshall House, a WW I memorial plaque on Officers Row housing area. It's an interesting place to visit with a lot of history.

    Steve Miller