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Major Alexander P. Cronkhite killed during training exercise at Camp Lewis

Scandal and intrigue 99 years ago

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On Oct. 25, 1918, Maj. Alexander P. Cronkhite (1895-1918) is shot and killed during a training exercise at Fort Lewis. An Army Board of Inquiry rules the death accidental, finding that Cronkhite shot himself while firing at a target. His father, Maj. Gen. Adelbert Cronkhite, does not accept this result and challenges the Army's conclusion, believing that his son could not have shot himself. The case will gain national prominence and lead to three civilian investigations. Two soldiers with Maj. Cronkhite at the time of his death eventually will be charged with murder. Finally, six years after the shooting, both men will be acquitted in a Tacoma federal trial. But this court outcome does not end the mystery, and researchers will continue to write about the incident and debate what really happened. A concrete obelisk on a Joint Base Lewis-McChord training area remembers Maj. Cronkhite.

Monument to a Mystery

The Cronkhite monument, located on a JBLM training area, recalls the greatest mystery in the 90-year-plus base history.  The concrete obelisk has a small bronze plaque stating that "Major A.P. Cronkhite, C.E. (Corps of Engineers) Died - October 25, 1918." The monument marks the spot that Maj. Cronkhite fell from a gunshot wound.

Placed here by the 213th Engineers, the simple monument does not suggest the long and complex history concerning the major. There would be an Army Board of Inquiry and three civil investigations over a six-year period to determine whether the major accidentally shot himself or was murdered. The investigations would include the participation of the President of the United States, the U.S. Attorney General, Pierce County, Washington, and the Federal Court, Tacoma.  Six years after the event, a sensational federal trial in Tacoma would end the legal case.  However, the case has since received further national and local interest.  

Routine Training for Combat

The 213th Engineer Regiment arrived at Camp Lewis Oct. 1, 1918, to train and prepare for combat duty in France. The recently formed regiment had to learn engineering tasks and combat skills. They practiced river crossings, constructed pontoon bridges, built fortifications, and became weapons proficient. Maj. Alexander P. Cronhkite was assigned to lead a battalion and serve as the regimental training officer. The highly respected Maj. Cronkhite had arrived Oct. 9.  The only son of Maj. Gen. Adelbert Cronkhite (1861-1937) had graduated West Point in 1915.  He was a brilliant student, graduating seventh in his class (Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley were 61st and 44th, respectively, in this class described as the one that stars fell on, so many became generals). Upon graduation, Cronkhite became an instructor, training engineer units preparing for war.  In recognition of his exceptional training skills, he advanced rapidly up the ladder from lieutenant to major in just three years.

On Oct. 14, Maj. Cronkhite came down with influenza and reported to the Camp Lewis hospital. On Oct. 21, the hospital released him to his quarters for further rest and recuperation. During his illness, the 213th continued its intensive training. Capt. Robert Rosenbluth (1887-1975) assumed some of the training responsibilities. On Oct. 25, Rosenbluth led the regiment in a field tactics exercise.  This exercise involved 200 engineers hiking to an advanced guard position about four miles south of the regimental headquarters (today Lewis Main base). This combat-readiness exercise had this force moving overland to a forward position to prepare defenses for a main force to follow.  

Shooting and the Shooting

The regimental advanced force stopped for lunch at an abandoned farm and orchard. Maj. Cronkhite decided that morning to join the exercise. He left his quarters at 7:50 a.m., 45 minutes later than the regiment and joined them at the farm. At noon, while the 200 troops relaxed in the orchard, about 50 yards away, Maj. Cronkhite decided to do some shooting. He was an excellent marksman and proud of his quick draw. The major could draw, cock and shoot in one motion. Accompanied by Capt. Robert Rosenbluth and his orderly, Sgt. Bugler Roland Pothier (b. 1895),  the major would demonstrate his shooting ability.

However, Maj. Cronkhite was violating a strict Army regulation that prohibited target practice outside an official range. Also, having ammunition off-range violated regulations. Maj. Cronkhite, still weak, fired several shots and turned to comment on his shooting excellence. One shot rang out and he fell, saying that he had been shot. He died about two minutes later.

Ruled an Accident

Capt. Ernest A. Sommer (1879-1936), a highly respected Portland, Oregon, doctor stationed at the camp, performed an autopsy and described the wound as entering three inches from the right nipple and exiting his left side at the waist line. A Camp Lewis Board of Inquiry studied the autopsy.  This military board declared it an accidental death, believing that a weakened Maj. Cronkhite lost his grasp on the handle of his Army pistol when it kicked and inadvertently turned it upon himself.

Camp Lewis had an impressive funeral with a ceremony in the chapel. This was followed by a procession lead by Col. R.S. Thomas, 213th Engineer commander, a band, and a caisson carrying the casket. Behind the caisson was Maj. Cronkhite's horse with boots across the saddle and reversed to show last ride. His body was shipped to West Point for burial.      

Ruling Challenged

Maj. Cronkhite's mother and father rejected the finding that their son had shot himself. His father, Maj. Gen. Cronkhite, remained on duty in France while Mrs. Cronkhite pursued answers to her son's death. She came from a family with a long military tradition as had the general.  Mrs. Cronkhite could not believe that her son could accidentally shoot himself. Once Maj. Gen. Cronkhite returned from France where he commanded the 80th Division, he committed himself to proving that his son had not died an accidental death.

The general had his son exhumed. A medical examiner investigated the body and determined that the wound was not self-inflicted. The investigator asserted that the right-handed Cronkhite could not have shot himself in the right chest. Additionally, the general hired private detectives who interviewed soldiers who had been at the scene. With the evidence collected, Maj. Gen. Cronkhite appealed to President Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) and Secretary of War John W. Weeks (1860-1926) to investigate his son's death. He pressured the War Department and Army for a new investigation and hearing.

Suspicions and Interrogations

The United States Justice Department launched an investigation. Based upon the findings of special agents, Roland Pothier was arrested March 19, 1921. During long interrogations, Pothier provided five different accounts. He confessed that he was cleaning his weapon and accidentally shot the major - involuntary manslaughter. In a later confession, he implicated Capt. Rosenbluth, saying that the captain had ordered him to kill Maj. Cronkhite. The alleged motive was that Rosenbluth feared that Maj. Cronkhite was investigating him for demotion because of poor performance. Capt. Rosenbluth was arrested March 23. He protested his innocence, saying that Maj. Cronkhite had accidentally shot himself, the finding of the 1918 Army Board of Inquiry.  

On April 28, 1921, Maj. Gen. Cronkhite, commanding the Army Third Corps in Baltimore, Maryland, received orders to assume command of the Panama Canal Zone. He requested and received a departure postponement. He stepped down from the Third Corps command, so that he was without formal duties. This left him free to follow the U.S. Attorney General proceedings. He actively pressured the Attorney General and the Army to go to trial. The potential suspects were Pothier and Rosenbluth, the only two who had been with Maj. Cronkhite at the time of the shooting.      

During the investigations, Pothier was held in custody. Capt. Rosenbluth had been released on bail. U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty (1860-1941) personally investigated the shooting of Maj. Cronkhite, reviewing all the evidence. During June, U.S. Attorney W. C. Herron called Rosenbluth in for questioning. However, the Attorney General made an important finding that the event took place on land that was not yet government property. Pierce County had donated the land, but the deed had not gone to the government. On July 16, 1921, the U.S. Attorney General dropped all federal charges against Pothier and Rosenbluth.  The evidence and interview records were turned over to the Pierce County Prosecutor James W. Selden (d. 1948).

Prosecutor Selden remarked that the papers he had seen did not convince him that Rosenbluth and Pothier should be tried on charges of killing Maj. Cronkhite.  However, he said he would study all the evidence sent to him by the federal government. Having reviewed the evidence, Prosecutor Selden, Dec. 21, 1921, said there was not a case.     

Federal Grand Jury and Tacoma Trial        

By the fall of 1922, four years had passed since Maj. Cronkhite's death and it remained an unsolved mystery. On Sept. 16, 1922, a federal grand jury in the Washington District issued a list of people to be called to testify. It included 30 veterans and six physicians. Thomas P. Revelle (1868-1941), the U.S. District Attorney, hoped to reach a final and conclusive answer.  Robert Rosenbluth wished it would end the cloud of suspicion.   

On Sept. 23, 1922, the grand jury heard testimony from Maj. Lee O. Wright (1888-1925), U.S. Army Ordnance Department, a leading small arms expert.  Small arms experts would be critical in determining whether Maj. Cronkhite could have shot himself. The grand jury at the end of the month visited the site, a farm clearing in the Camp Lewis training area. It had changed some since 1918, as the four farm buildings had burned down. On Sept. 30, Maj. Gen.Adelbert Cronkhite appeared before the grand jury. He reiterated his belief that his son could not have shot himself and that he had been murdered. The deceased's father also visited the site and said his son had not died at the monument location. However, he did not indicate where he had died or how that would have any bearing on the case.      

In September 1922, veterans of the 213th Engineer Regiment erected a small monument at the shooting site. This monument survives today and continues to honor Maj. Cronkhite.

On Oct. 13, 1922, the federal grand jury in Tacoma indicted Robert Rosenbluth and Roland Pothier on murder charges. Capt. Rosenbluth was arrested in New York Oct. 17. He posted bail. Pothier, then a railroad brakeman, was arrested in Providence, Rhode Island. Maj. Gen. Cronkhite had increased his criticism of the Army, charging cover-up and failure to properly investigate the event. On April 9, 1923, the Secretary of War reprimanded the general for his public charges.    

Decisions and Delays

There were trial delays during 1923 the government considered the issue of jurisdiction. The question of land transfer from the county to the federal government remained sticky. Finally, the resolution of this issue was left to the assigned court. Next, the federal authorities in Tacoma separated the trials of Pothier and Rosenbluth.

Pothier went to trial Sept. 30, 1924. Judge Edward E. Cushman (1865-1944) directed the jury that they would only consider the murder charge. Too much time had elapsed to consider manslaughter charges. During the trial, the prosecutor called a small arms expert who testified that Maj. Cronkhite could not have shot himself. There was also an effort to discredit Rosenbluth and support the theory that he ordered Pothier to shoot the major.  The most dramatic and turning point in the court occurred when Capt. Eugene M. Caffey (1895-1961), who served with Cronkhite at Camp Lewis, was asked if he could have shot himself. Answering in the affirmative, he was handed a pistol and he stepped down from the witness stand. Capt. Caffey then easily demonstrated how Cronkhite shot himself. This demonstration became the trial turning point. The jury acquitted Pothier on the first ballot and the court then acquitted Rosenbluth.      

An American Dreyfus

Americans in 1918 considered Henry Ford (1863-1947) among the greatest men of history. The industrial giant was considered a potential presidential candidate. However, he had a dark side and that was his hatred of Jewish people. Ford blamed Jews for societal problems. He believed they had killed President Lincoln, and controlled the banks to steal from hard-working people. Soon after the Cronkhite shooting, Ford purchased the Dearborn Independent paper. This paper became his vehicle to inform readers as to the "Jewish threat," as Ford saw it. Starting in December 1922, the newspaper identified Rosenbluth as part of a Jewish conspiracy. The paper rallied against Capt. Rosenbluth, who they described as a "German Jew Spy" and also a Bolshevik agent. The paper never explained how the murder of Cronkhite would advance any spying effort or any socialist agenda. Some other newspapers across the nation repeated the anti-semitic attacks.   

These newspaper attacks encouraged a number of prominent people to Rosenbluth's defense. They put up his bail money. His fellow Yale Forestry School alumni supported him, Rosenbluth being a 1907 graduate of the program. Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), head of the American Relief Administration, provided a character reference. Rosenbluth had served in the relief program in Russia following his discharge from the Army in 1919.    

The Mystery Lingers

Maj. Gen. Cronkhite was forced to retire early in 1923. This followed his reprimand from the Secretary of War. His charges against the Army had become troubling. Among those most annoyed included the Army's Chief of Staff, General of the Armies John J. Pershing (1860-1948). He had also irritated the Justice Department with serious charges that they had not pursued the case. Maj. Gen. Cronkhite (retired) died in June 1937. The next year, Dec. 17, 1938, a San Francisco coastal defense post was named in his honor. This fort survives as a National Park Service historic area within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.   

Robert Rosenbluth left the Army in 1919 and served in overseas relief work. Although he had graduated in forestry, an earlier experience directed him to social welfare. He had done volunteer work in a New York prison teaching inmates wood carving. This experience convinced him that social work would be his career. Roland Pothier returned to Providence, Rhode Island, and worked as a laborer.

Captain Eugene M. Caffey, who had a major role in the acquittal of Pothier and Rosenbluth, remained in the Army. He was admitted to the Virginia Bar in September 1932 and received a law degree from the University of Virginia in June 1933. He entered the Army Judge Advocate General Corps. Prior to World War II, he returned to the U.S. Army Engineer Corps, and saw combat in North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy, where he received the Distinguished Service Cross for valor. Following the war, he served as the Army's top legal officer, the Judge Advocate General.  Maj. Gen. Caffey retired in 1956 and passed away on Memorial Day 1961.

With renewed interest in the case in 1970, news anchor Walter Cronkite (1916-2009) was asked about his relationship to the Cronkhites and replied that he was a distant cousin of Adelbert Cronkhite. Law schools for many years studied the case, but mainly on land issues, the situation that the federal government occupied the land but did not have a deed.

Soldiers training around the monument often ask who Maj. Cronkhite was. Maj. Cronkhite's grave is in the West Point cemetery among many great soldiers. The JBLM monument also serves to honor him.

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