A day of honor at Fort Ward

Radio school graduate and Pearl Harborsurvivor Henry Long and wife Beverly enjoy the dedication of the Parade Grounds Park at Fort Ward Saturday. - RYAN SCHIERLING photo
Radio school graduate and Pearl Harborsurvivor Henry Long and wife Beverly enjoy the dedication of the Parade Grounds Park at Fort Ward Saturday.
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING photo

The eyesight might be dimming, and the steps may have lost a little of their spring.

But when the World War II veterans saluted the flag at the Fort Ward Parade Grounds Saturday, they stood as tall as when they defended the nation’s freedom 60 years ago.

“It seems odd to think of myself as being a piece of history,” said Art Rolfe of Bellevue, a graduate of the first class at the Fort Ward radio school.

Rolfe and 10 other veterans of either the radio school or Fort Ward’s top-secret “Magic” project – the interception of wartime Japanese radio traffic – were the guests of honor at the dedication of the Parade Grounds as a three-acre park and memorial to those who served.

The afternoon-long event drew several hundred neighbors and other islanders for historical displays and activities and a hamburger barbecue.

“This celebration and ceremony means a great deal to us,” said Richard Katzenberger of Camano Island, who served a spell as chief radioman at the station.

“On behalf of my shipmates who are present and all those who served here, we thank you for this memorial.”

Built at the turn of the century to guard the water entrances to the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, the fort languished after World War I, and was used during the Depression as a “fresh-air” camp for inner city youth.

With international tensions mounting, the fort was taken out of mothballs, and made the site of a radio school, training Navy men to send and receive Morse code.

“It looked like a military installation then, with a number of old gun emplacements,” said Don Carlson of Fort Myers, Fla.

The first class graduated in the spring of 1941, and the men were sent to their stations.

For three of them, that station was Pearl Harbor. Two who survived the attack were present Saturday – Rolfe, who was on the California, and Henry Long of Olympia, who was on the Oklahoma.

The third, Albert Grey of Anacortes, was on the Arizona, and was killed in the Japanese raid.

Training wasn’t Fort Ward’s only function. The other activity, dubbed “Magic,” was intercepting Japanese messages sent in code – a code that American cryptographers had broken before the war.

“When I was sent here in 1943, I wasn’t even supposed to know what was happening,” said Bill Miller of Seattle.

“We went into a classroom and sat in front of what looked like ordinary typewriters. We were told to remove the covers at the same time, and we saw many more keys than letters in the alphabet.”

The typewriters, Miller said, were used to transcribe coded messages.

“They used many more combinations of dots and dashes than we used,” he said. “So you would hear a combination, and hit a key that might have two English letters.”

While many of the messages were in code, Miller said a surprising number were not, so anyone who knew Japanese could follow along.

“It was fascinating to see the story unfolding right in front of the operator,” he said.

The station was “one of the fantastic hubs of radio communication in the world,” Miller said, and was important as a training post as well as a listening post. Personnel trained there were stationed around the Pacific – Miller was part of a group that went to China.

“Training was the biggest item of importance here,” he said.

The attending veterans all received certificates of appreciation from U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, (D-Bainbridge Island). Inslee presented the group with a flag that had been flown over the United States Capitol, and the flag was raised over the Parade Grounds.

A Navy color guard and band were brought in for the occasion, the band playing period standards including “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”

Also, the U.S. Post Office offered a one-time-only, commemorative postmark honoring the dedication event.

The ceremonies Saturday not only honored the veterans, but celebrated the preservation of the Parade Grounds, which was once slated for extensive development.

Instead, the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority bought the land.

While the agency will build some 20 homes around the perimeter, the first of which was open on Saturday, the plan will preserve a large portion of the area as a community park.

Much of the credit for that preservation was given to Fort Ward resident Sarah Lee, who lives in the house that was used as the Magic listening station.

She was one of the neighbors who donated land adjacent to the Parade Grounds for a small city park.

“This started when Sarah simply cold-called the housing authority,” said Julie Graves of KCCHA. “Before long, everybody started getting involved. I’m so pleased that Sarah’s dream finally came true.”

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