Category Archives: History

From the archives: Bremerton soldier shares Holocaust’s horrors


Frank Wetzel’s journalism career began while he was a soldier at the end of World War II. The Bremerton native, whose illustrious journalism career included writing the preeminent history of the city’s World War II era, penned an article describing the horrors of the Holocaust.

In Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, I chronicle Wetzel’s life from a teen to his penning “Victory Gardens and Barrage Balloons.” HIs first byline? The July 31, 1945 edition of the Bremerton Sun. The topic? Wetzel’s impressions of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

The thing that impresses me most is the maturity of his writing. We’re often told journalists write the first draft of history, but Wetzel’s story here, documenting the tragedies of the Nazi death camps, feels like it could have been written yesterday.

Here’s the entire story he wrote:

Horrors of Buchenwald Told In Letter From PFC Wetzel

The Bremerton Sun, Tuesday, July 31, 1945

(The following letter to the editor was written by PFC Frank Wetzel, 19, son of Mr. and Mrs. Scott Wetzel, 1606 Gregory Way, who is now in Bavaria with the army. Pvt. Wetzel graduated mid-year from Bremerton high school to enter ASTP at the University of Idaho. After finishing there, he was sent to Buckley field in Denver, then made a plane dispatcher and transfer to Mississippi. He was then transferred to the infantry in Georgia and from there left the State for active duty in Europe where he fought with Patton’s Third army in the 76th division—editor.)

By Pfc. Frank R. Wetzel

Wetzel in his youth.

SOMEWHERE IN EUROPE — I just returned from Buchenwald and I feel what I saw should be common knowledge to every citizen of the U.S. in order to more fully understand the cruel and sadistic nature of our recently defeated enemies. This is not the work of just a handful of men— every German condoned with his silence this project of mass butchery, and is, in part, responsible.

Buchenwald is small — only about the size of two city blocks — yet the suffering that took place there is indescribable in its scale and intensity. It is located near the city of Weimar, in a part of the most beautiful sector of Germany, but the spector of death hovering in the vicinity dins any appreciation a visitor might once have had, for it is here that over 51,000 humans were tortured, burned or starved to death.


A German-Jewish guide, formerly a prisoner in the camp, met us at the gate and volunteered to show us around. Three months of good food had erased all outward signs of malnutrition, but his broken English was made harder to understand by the loss of most of his front teeth, knocked out for a minor infraction of rules by an SS guard.

Our first stop was at one of the barracks, typical of the camp. It was a one-storied wooden building about 200 feet long. Along each side were bare shelves, starting with the floor and reaching the roof. These were beds. An indication of the living (?) conditions is the fact that between 700 and 900 men were crowded into these structures. The one meal per day, consisting of thin soup and bread, was not only insufficient in bulk but gave many diarrhea. The woeful lack of sanitation facilities made long lines throughout the day and night inevitable.


Perhaps the grimmest part of Buchenwald was the eight ovens used for burning the dead. By stuffing two bodies in each oven, 32 could be cremated per hour — even so, the Germans had to work day and night to dispose of the dead. The ashes were irregularly collected and used for fertilizer. Evidently proud of his work, the manufacturer had his name stamped on each oven. I’m sure that none of the inmates would recommend them for him, however.

I could go on — tell you about the SS men who took their children on a tour of the camp for being good, or the pitiful scratches in the concrete walls, made when prisoners were being strangled, or even about Herman Pister, the “beast of Buchenwald,” who personally murdered 2800 human beings whose only crime was the courage to cry out against the outrages of the Third Reich. But why go on? For Buchenwald is beyond description. The only way to fully believe it is to see it.

A journey through Ivy Green’s history


For about $3,000*, you could be buried at Ivy Green, Bremerton’s municipal cemetery. The hallowed grounds, whose grave sites powerfully convey the history of early and mid-century Bremerton, still has about 2,000 plots left before its vacancy vanishes.

On Saturday, about 130 people joined me for the latest Kitsap Sun Story Walk. We were so fortunate to have a group of speakers with a great knowledge of the approximately 14-acre site. Here’s some of the things we learned along the way.

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Original Charleston Cemetery map. Courtesy of Russell Warren.

Ivy Green Cemetery didn’t start out as just one burial ground. It was two: Charleston, a separate city at the time, established the first burial ground in 1897. Bremerton followed five years later, according to Fredi Perry’s book “Bremerton and PSNY.” When the two cities merged in 1928, the cemeteries also became one.

Ivy Green includes one of only 10 Tomb of the Unknown Soldier memorials in America, Bremerton resident and memorial preservationist Mick Hersey pointed out. Bremerton’s was born when a traveling exhibit actually stopped in the city and decided to stay for good. It’s a replica one-half the size of the original in Arlington National Cemetery. There’s differing views on when it got here, which we are trying to sort out.

One last note on the Tomb: no one is buried there.

The cemetery includes a Medal of Honor recipient: John Nibbe. At age 17, Nibbe stood his ground aboard the USS Peterel as Confederate forces in the Yazoo River of Mississippi fired on the ship. Just about everyone died. But not him. Awarded the honor by President Lincoln, Nibbe then set sail (via Cape Horn) for the west coast, first coming to Point White on Bainbridge Island. In 1896 he opened a general store in downtown Bremerton and also served as postmaster there. He died in 1902 of Bright’s Disease.

Saratoga Memorial.
Saratoga Memorial.

A grave surrounded by Rhododendrons is perhaps the cemetery’s best known. It honors 64 people who died aboard the USS Saratoga when it came under heavy fire from Japanese forces during World War II in 1945. The ship limped back to Bremerton with dead sailors and marines aboard. Those who could not be identified were buried in this collective grave. Hersey explained that it was not until 1992 that the remains were identified.

The cemetery is full of prominent Bremertonians of yesteryear. They include Benjamin and Angie Harrison, creators of the hospital that still bears their name; Charles Dietz, a businessman whose Dietz building still stands in downtown Bremerton; and Warren Smith, a prominent landowner who is the namesake of both Warren Avenue and Smith Cove in Evergreen-Rotary Park.

Wesley Harris’ gravesite.

One of my favorite things about our Story Walks is that we all learn together. It also gave me an idea: a digital map of the grave sites, something I hope we can produce in the future.

If you were along, I encourage you to leave a fact or story you learned below. In the meantime, I’ll get to planning our next walk for May.

*The cost of burial there is 25 percent more if you live outside city limits.

Forgive my handwriting.
Forgive my handwriting.

Bremerton’s Chase building will have its rocks checked


No rock will be left untouched. 

You may have noticed scaffolding now surrounds the Chase Bank building on Pacific Avenue (pictured). There’s good reason for that, as the building’s property managers are embarking on a two-week project that will secure every rock in its rather unique facade and will add a sealant and epoxy over them to ensure they don’t go anywhere in the future.


“We’re going to make sure the exterior is maintained,” said Melissa Marsh, a senior property manager with Beverly Hills, California-based Cardinal Equities. Cardinal manages the building for its owner, Bremerton Capital Group, also based in Southern California.

Marsh said that other options to remake the facade proved too costly. So, for those fans of the Mo-Sai architecture, you’re in luck: it’s here to stay. I was amazed at the range of the 80+ Facebook responses Wednesday when I asked a simple question: what do you think of the building’s facade?

“I love it, and so do my kids,” Sara Lyn commented. “I like the earthy, Natural feel to it, versus brick and mortar everything, and my kids love to examine the cool rocks!”

“Hate it,” Will Maupin wrote. “Looks like a cheap 1960s apartment building.”

And every opinion in between.

One thing’s for sure: it’s recognizable. As Craig Johnson noted on my Facebook post, which contained an oddly angled picture (above) of the facade, “Notice how everyone knows what it is, even from a somewhat abstract photo?”

Photo contributed by Colleen Monroe.
Photo contributed by Colleen Monroe.

The building was built in the site of a former Methodist church (pictured) which was demolished in the mid-1960s. In its place first rose the First Federal Savings & Loan. Its architects built it in the Mo-Sai style (see pictured ad), a series of quartz rocks that filled the sides of the seven story building like some kind of a vertical beach. (The city’s Carillon bells also happen to ring from the top of the building).

At some point, a rock or two was bound to become loose from the facade.

In November, staff at the Department of Labor and Industries — which has an office in the building — expressed concern after a customer brought in three rocks he said had fallen off the building.

Photo contributed by Colleen Monroe.
Photo contributed by Colleen Monroe.

“As you can imagine, we are concerned that a rock could potentially fall on a pedestrian,” Lori Oberlander, an office manager with L&I, told the city’s Department of Community Development in an email.

City staff attempted to investigate, but had no way of contacting the man without his name or contact information. 

The property management company decided to nip any potential problems in the bud. They’ve hired Applied Restoration to perform the masonry work over the next two weeks. Each rock on the building will be individually checked, to be on the safe side, Marsh said. I’ll keep an eye on the project as it proceeds.

Lastly, I must add the pun-filled Facebook comments of Jeff Coughlin, who happens to be a NASA scientist living in Bremerton: “I think it rocks, but we probably take it for granite. A change could be gneiss. Perhaps clean the slate and lime it with some sort of trendy new schist.” Oh, dear.

Photo by Meegan M. Reid.
Photo by Meegan M. Reid.

Harry Truman returns to Bremerton

President Harry S. Truman impersonator Michael King, of Seattle, heads up Pacific Ave. on his way to the plaque that commemorates the location where Truman spoke during a campaign stop in 1948 and the slogan "Give 'em Hell, Harry!" was coined, on Monday, March 7, 2016. King was on his way to speak to the Bremerton Rotary Club. (MEEGAN M. REID / KITSAP SUN)
President Harry S. Truman impersonator Michael King, of Seattle, heads up Pacific Ave. Monday.  (MEEGAN M. REID / KITSAP SUN)

Harry Truman made his second sojourn to Bremerton on Monday, venturing to the Fifth Street and Pacific Avenue spot where the former president addressed the masses on June 10, 1948 in a campaign speech. The spot is marked with a plaque and is the place where the 33rd president first heard a supporter’s rallying cry, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry.”

Truman, in this case, was Seattle attorney Michael B. King, who has taken to appearing as the president in front of Rotary groups around the state since 2012.

King appeared in front of the Rotary Club of Bremerton at the invitation of Rotary member Tim Quigley. Making the Rotary circuit, King was not aware of the significance of Bremerton on that 1948 campaign tour through the Pacific Northwest, until Quigley told him about it.

Though some have offered skepticism that the phrase was first uttered here, a member of Rotary offered a first-hand account that it was indeed.

Chuck Henderson, who manages downtown properties for developer Ron Sher, was revealed by a fellow Rotary member to have been at the speech. Henderson confirmed that he heard it.

“Everyone laughed and clapped” after the man in the crowd said it, Henderson recalls from that day. He said he was 8 or 9. 

King spoke to Rotary members — as Truman — on the topic of “Making the Tough Decisions.” Pointing out that the president is much more popular through the lens of history than he was while in office, “Truman” talked about the “paradox” of leadership in a democracy.

“Sometimes the leaders in a democracy have to be willing to tick off the people who put them in office to do what’s best for the country,” he said.

President Harry S. Truman impersonator Michael King, of Seattle, sports a polk-a-dot bowtie and a small FDR button.(MEEGAN M. REID / KITSAP SUN)
President Harry S. Truman impersonator Michael King, of Seattle, sports a polk-a-dot bowtie and a small FDR button.(MEEGAN M. REID / KITSAP SUN)

Three of the toughest decisions Truman had to make, according to King: His decision to remove General Douglas Macarthur from command in 1951 (“He was a little bit like the girl in the nursery rhyme — ‘When she was good, She was very good indeed, But when she was bad she was horrid’”); his decision to desegregate the Armed Forces in 1948 (“We had defeated the most racist power in the history of the globe, yet this country was stained with racism”); and the decision to drop the atomic bomb to end hostilities with Japan in World War II.

What politicians of today can learn from the Truman of yesteryear, King, ur, “Truman,” told the audience, was the importance of being in touch with the people. The president is the president – not a king, or an emperor. The people in a democracy are sovereign. There are so many layers today between our country’s top leader and the people, he said, remarking on Secret Service caravans.

 “If we could figure out some way to peel those layers back…”

The Rotary Club of Bremerton meets at noon on Mondays. 

In the bushes of Bremerton, a family mystery emerges

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Last fall, a Bremerton couple made an unusual discovery within the hedge along their driveway: numerous vintage film reels in varying shapes and sizes. 

Most of the reels contain clues to their owners: “Nov. 71, Becky’s 6th birthday,” “Florida Vacation, 1959-60,” or “Ostrander Picnic 1963.” But beyond that, it’s hard to know who they belong to — unless the owner were to recognize them.

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Bremerton Police Officer Jeff Schaefer responded to the 600 block of Roosevelt Avenue last September to collect them from the curious couple. He believes they may have been discarded there by a thief who’d broken into a nearby home, but he can’t say for certain.

He’s since tried to find the owners, but has realized that without getting word out to the masses, the reels may just end up collecting dust in the department’s evidence room.

“I knew that when the reporting party turned these reels over to me, they were someone’s family treasures,” Schaefer said. 

Schaefer says the discovery was one of the most intriguing of his career.

“Ever since I took custody of them, it’s been very important to me that I do all I can to get them back to their owner,” he said.

I’ve posted more photos below in the hopes that they’ll jog someone’s memory. Schaefer hopes so too.

“It would be my hope that someone out there would recognize the names or the events printed on the reel cans and be able to claim them,” he said. “I know that I would be elated if I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of my family history like these films will for someone out there.” 

UPDATE: I am excited to announce that representatives of the family have claimed the film reels! I plan to post a more thorough update once I interview them.

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Quincy Jones still speaks fondly of his Bremerton roots

Jones on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Jones on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

You can make a convincing argument that Quincy Jones is the biggest name ever to come out of Bremerton. The legendary musician and producer spent his teenage years here, and, most notably, discovered music on the shores of Sinclair Inlet.

Though born in Chicago, Jones’ family moved to Bremerton in 1943. I always enjoy hearing him tell stories about the city, and he did so most recently on CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

In the interview, the host asked Jones — winner of 27 Grammy Awards — about the first instrument he ever played. Jones mildly exasperated Colbert by avoiding answering that question for some time, instead focusing on his “gangster” youth. But Jones does indeed get to his Bremerton days.

“What happened was … we wanted to be baby gangsters and like, rule Bremerton,” Jones said. “It was Bremerton, Washington.”

What I find delightful is he just says Bremerton, like everyone knows what he’s talking about. He quickly elaborates that it’s a city within Washington. But I think it speaks to his roots here, that even beyond his time in Seattle, Chicago and elsewhere, he would still mention our city without a state attached to it, given his familiarity and memories of the place.

He goes on to tell the story of being in an armory here where there was rumors of lemon meringue pie and ice cream cones, which he and his “gangster” friends promptly ate upon discovering them.   

“That sounds like gangster work my friend,” Colbert jokes.

They also broke into all the offices inside. He mentions a Mrs. Arends by name, and it was inside her supervisors’ office that he found a piano.

“I didn’t know human beings played instruments,” he told Colbert.

“I touched it,” he said, “And every cell in my body said this is what you’re gonna do the rest of your life.”

Though he went to Coontz Junior High School near downtown, he studied music with band teacher Ron Gillespie, future Bremerton High School principal, at Dewey Junior High School (where Mountain View Middle School sits today). He would ultimately graduate from Garfield High School in 1950, according to Sun archives.

And the rest is history.

Watch the entire interview below:

A Roxy rendezvous

Roxy today, Roxy yesterday. Photo by Meegan M. Reid.
Roxy today, Roxy yesterday. Photo by Meegan M. Reid.

At the height of the second World War, Bremerton was dotted with theaters. A city of more than 80,000 — double what it is today — had a seemingly insatiable demand to escape to the movies or take in live theater. There was the Tower on Fourth Street. The Rex and the Rialto on Second Street. Even the Bay Bowl, on Bremerton’s east side, started as a theater.

The only two still standing from that era are the Admiral and the Roxy. The Admiral was restored and reopened in 1997. The Roxy remains shuttered.

Here’s how Frank Wetzel, author of the famed World War II-era Bremerton book, “Victory Gardens and Barrage Balloons,” described the Roxy Theater’s opening:

“Even more important for youngsters was the new Roxy Theater on Fourth Street, advertised to cost $150,000 for construction and equipment. The Roxy hired the best-looking girls in town as usherettes; they were permissive in letting their friends sometimes sneak (local vernacular was “leach”) into the theater without charge and also, some said, in other ways as well.

The Roxy opened on May 31 with Hollywood-type searchlights probing the sky and a swing band led by Jackie Souders. The opening attraction was “The Devil and Miss Jones.”

As you probably read in today’s Kitsap Sun, there’s a new effort to restore the Roxy. I packed the article with as much history as I felt could get past my editor. But the place just has so many stories.


So on Thursday night, we’re going to revive as many of those memories as we can. The Kitsap Historical Society and Museum has invited me to give a talk and tour of some of downtown Bremerton’s most historic buildings. It’s my latest Story Walk. My main focus will be the Roxy but we’ll take a stroll around the block to see some of the other famous buildings of Bremerton that remain standing (and so that aren’t).

Some goodies that are in store for Thursday: an old uniform from the Roxy, old ticket stubs and even a five minute newsreel documenting the theater’s opening in 1941.

Hope you can make it.


IN PHOTOS: In search of Bremerton’s biggest Rhododendron

This is a rhododendron. Really.

It’s the state flower of Washington for a reason. This time of year is just spectacular in Bremerton and beyond as rhododendrons pop with radiant colors.

But there’s one rhodie I look forward to every year in this city. No, not the ones in my own yard but rather on Fifth Street, not far from Kiwanis Park.

And it’s huge.

Ben Anson, a retired cop who lives in Illahee, told me about it a few years back. “You must go see it,” he’d say. So I did, and I didn’t regret it.


The thing must be 20 feet tall and at least that wide. Owned by the Wilson family, its hundreds, if not thousands of magenta-colored flowers put on a dazzling show each year. Many people who see it don’t even realize it’s a rhododendron.

It made me wonder: is there any bigger, more spectacular rhododendron in Bremerton? Or in Kitsap County, for that matter?

“This is quite a spectacular rhododendron!” Olaf Ribeiro, a tree pathologist and arborist on Bainbridge Island. “It is  probably the biggest one I have seen in Kitsap county!”

But he knew, as did I, that I needed to talk to Bremerton Arborist Jim Trainer, who has spent a career not only studying trees but the biggest ones among them.

Trainer told me that, yes, there is one he knows of even bigger than the one on Fifth Street. At somewhere around 35 feet tall, it reigns over the Krigsman’s property in Illahee. Not long ago, we wrote a story about an old copper beech tree on their land that is believed to have been planted by Dr. Henry LaMotte, chief surgeon for President Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.


The variety of rhododendron, as well as the soil in which it is planted, make a big difference in how massive they can get, Trainer said. In his book “Trees of Seattle,” plant expert Arthur Lee Jacobsen lists the largest rhododendron “fortunei” hybrid at 40 feet tall and a Rhododendron “catawbiense” at 20 feet tall and 23 feet wide.

“So, if your Rhody is a catawbiense it is certainly a champion tree!” Ribeiro said.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to be definitive in this case. As Trainer points out: “I haven’t been in everybody’s backyard,” in an effort to find the biggest one.

We at the Bremerton Beat will continue to investigate just how special this Rhododendron is. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to drop me a note — and preferably a photo to go with — if you think you’ve got an even bigger, even more stunning rhodie than this one.


Bill Clinton to ferry crewman: ‘I’m your president’

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Craig Salt can tell some great stories about working the Bremerton ferry run. For 35 years, Salt (above, middle) worked for Washington State Ferries, taking passengers and cars  back and forth across Puget Sound.

For me, one story stands out: Salt’s encounter with none other than our 42nd president, Bill Clinton.

Salt most frequently worked the Bremerton run and particularly enjoyed the passenger-only ferry the Tyee. He has found memories of all his time in the system, which he retired from a few years ago.

“It wasn’t a job,” Salt said. “It was an adventure.”

Clinton came to Blake Island in November 1993, a fact you should know because it was featured on my President’s Day video. Salt was selected as one of the seamen who would accompany the president, along with other country leaders that make up the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group.

Salt was surprised to find Clinton ventured out to the rear of the boat, taking in the Seattle skyline with great interest. He started asking questions.

Salt is quite the conversationalist and local historian himself, so filling Clinton in about the Yeslers and the Mercers of Seattle’s past was not only an honor, but something easy to do.

But when Salt realized he was going on a bit long and felt he was keeping the leader of the free world from his counterparts, Clinton put him at ease.

“He said, ‘I’m not their president, Craig,'” Salt recalled. “I’m yours.”

So Salt went on.

He still has the White House photo (above), though not much else from the visit. What’s left is mostly in his memory. But it’s a visit he says he’ll never forget.

“He was a nice man,” Salt said.

One note of caution: please don’t determine this post to be political. It’s not. I just wanted to recognize a nice memory from a man who helped drive a ferry back and forth for more than three decades. 

The mystery of the red star on Chester Avenue


While doing a story at the Frank Chopp apartments last October, I looked across the street to find a faint but visible red star in the concrete off the sidewalk. 

The star, at the base of the steps to the home at 711 Chester Avenue, intrigued me. Where did it come from? Why was it there?

711 Chester Avenue's star.
711 Chester Avenue’s star.

I turned to the power of social media, specifically the “If you grew up in bremerton, WA … remember when …” group, to help. There’s more than 7,800 members in the group and while I did not exactly grow up in the city, its administrators graciously adopted me.

After posting a photo of the star, the response was incredible — nearly 150 comments and it hasn’t been up a day yet. Already, people who’ve lived there, and even a woman who says here grandfather built the home in the 1920s, have contributed (thank you Kelly Storm!).

But we’ve not yet solved the mystery of the red star.

Here’s the going theories at this point:

“The Red Star gained its name and reputation from sailors visiting Fell’s Point. They docked, lonely and water-logged, hoping to find some of the comforts of home. The sailors knew Fell’s Point was a good place to find a warm meal and a cold ale, along with more “intimate” necessities. The blue laws of the time prohibited the customary red lights in the district… so resourceful women painted nautical red stars on the sidewalks leading the sailors to their doors. To the lonely men’s delight, The Red Star was born.”

  • The U.S. Militaria Forum says red stars represent “missing or captured” soldiers.
  • Some kind of tradition by the builders of the home?
  • A safety measure for children, that signified a safe house for them to go?
  •  Perhaps something to do with the Red Star of David?
  • And I would be remiss to not mention the red star’s connection to communism.

My inclination thus far is that it’s indeed something to do with missing or captured soldiers. But I want to verify that and ultimately find out how it got there and, if that’s true, who it’s for.

I turn to you, further, dear readers, to help us unravel this mystery.