Thursday, October 1, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Camp Murray On Quiet American Lake Offers Glimpses Of National Guard's Past

Cargo planes from McChord Air Force Base thunder overhead as you drive through the brick gates to Camp Murray, headquarters of Washington National Guard.

If it's a clear day, you can see Mount Rainier to the southeast. American Lake lies to the southwest, some of it used for training. Much of this camp lies on a kind of prairie, studded with oak and fir trees.

Although a military base may not strike most folks as a suitable place for an outing, such a place, blissfully free of rubbernecking hordes, fills a few hours pleasurably. It also offers special history lessons.

Past the guard booth - you must call ahead to get a free pass to visit Washington National Guard Museum in the basement of the Old Arsenal - a wide drive brings you to a historic marker. Nearby stretches the grass-and-cement plaza, complete with a correctly camouflaged artillery piece, an M-47 tank, an F-101 Voodoo aircraft, and a big stone monument.

The sign tells something of the camp's history: It has been in use since the so-called Indian Wars of 1855 by the United States Army, which formally commissioned the camp in 1889. Camp Murray became the National Guard's headquarters in 1922 - and it predates the establishment of Fort Lewis by 15 years.

With its Old Arsenal built in 1915, and summer encampments from then on, this camp has dispatched personnel for the Mexican Border Campaign, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Berlin crisis and Vietnam.

More recently, Camp Murray has sent personnel to assist citizens after the Snohomish County flood of 1975-76, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, and, since 1989, for anti-drug operations.

Around the plaza, you notice names on the bronze bricks and granite blocks - you can buy a brick for your name for $35, or a block for $300 for your group name. Proceeds from this fund-raiser helped complete this plaza, and future revenues go toward completing the Washington Army and Air National Guard Museum.

That mighty memorial rock - taken from the 161st Infantry Bivouac Area - "springs from the native soil, just like the Guard, itself," says Facilities Management Administrative Assistant John Murphy.

He points out that the way the plaza is laid out has symbolism: The distance between the aircraft and tank, 134 feet, represents the number of years between the first U.S. military use of the camp (Territorial Militia, 1855), until the Washington State Centennial (1989). Other distances represent numbers of Guardsmen mobilized, injured or killed in various campaigns.

Now you're ready to drive down to the Old Arsenal for your visit. You can learn more of the plaza's symbolic proportions on that tour.

(If you are currently or have been in the military services, or are a relative of someone in the service, you also may relax at a forested beach there, overlooking American Lake.)

The arsenal itself, in an old, armory-style building, contains a valuable research library on military history (second floor), plus the museum in the basement. Here you see displays of photos, equipment, other artifacts noting the Guard's efforts through history.

One of a handful of volunteers will take you through, answer questions, and possibly regale you with tales of military conflicts.

After you leave the Old Arsenal and Camp Murray itself, take a left just outside the gate, another left, and drive straight down the gravel lot to the public boat launch on the lake.

You can put out a lawn chair, swim or float a raft or boat over to one of the islands in the lake. It's a popular spot for youngsters and their dogs to gather, under the fir and oak trees.

This area, a well-kept secret, is a charming, low-key retreat from a busy morning or afternoon in the Tacoma area. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine, in this unusually restful spot, the crises the Camp has responded to over the past 100 years and more.

Got a great idea for a local getaway? Give us a call at 946-3970 or write to us at South County Life, 31620 23rd Ave. S., Suite 312, Federal Way, WA 98003. --------------------------------------------------------------- -- If you go: Camp Murray, Washington National Guard Plaza and Museum, south of Tacoma. From I-5, take Exit 122. Turn right onto Union Avenue, go 300 feet, turn left into the gate of Camp Murray. Call first to make an appointment for a tour of the museum, at (206) 581-8464.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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