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Monument marks JBLM mystery death nearly 100 years later

Northwest Guardian

Published: 12:11PM July 25th, 2013

In a remote section of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Training Area 4 stands a reminder of the installation’s greatest unsolved mystery.

A small bronze plaque attached to a stone obelisk reveals part of the story ­­­­— “Maj. A.P. Cronkhite, C.E. Died, October 25, 1918.”

The rest of the tale isn’t so easily told. What led to Cronkhite’s death would become a national story fueled by three investigations, two fellow Soldiers charged with murder and a federal trial that presented more questions than answers.

“This was the most widely covered event in the history of Fort Lewis,” said JBLM Architectural Historian Duane Denfeld, who has written extensively about the Cronkhite case.

In 1918, then-Camp Lewis was just 1 year old. A newly formed unit, the 213th Engineer Regiment, arrived Oct. 1 to learn engineering and combat skills.

The regimental training officer, Cronkhite, was an esteemed graduate of the 1915 class of the U.S. Military Academy, who was promoted from lieutenant to major in just three years. Soon after his arrival at Camp Lewis Oct. 9, he contracted influenza and spent a week in the Army hospital.

He was released to his quarters Oct. 21, under doctors’ orders to rest.

During this time, Capt. Robert Rosenbluth took over the training responsibilities for the 213th Engineers. On Oct. 25, Rosenbluth marched 200 Soldiers four miles south of the regimental headquarters to a training exercise. They paused for lunch at an abandoned farm, where they were surprised to see Cronkhite join the group around noon.

While the Soldiers were relaxing, Cronkhite reportedly decided to practice his shooting. He moved about 50 yards from the Soldiers with Rosenbluth and his orderly, Sgt. Bugler Roland Pothier, in tow.

What happened next is still a matter of heated debate.

The account accepted by a 1918 Army board of inquiry is that Cronkhite fired several shots and then turned to Rosenbluth and Pothier to comment on his excellent marksmanship.

Cronkhite’s gun went off, accidentally shooting himself in the chest. He died minutes later.

But Cronkhite’s father, a major general in the Army, refused to accept the account that ended in his son’s accidental death. The major’s body was exhumed and a medical examiner determined that the right-handed Cronkhite could not have shot himself under his right arm.

The U.S. Justice Department launched a second investigation under pressure from Cronkhite’s father to reopen the case.

Both Pothier and Rosenbluth were questioned again, and arrested days apart after providing several scenarios about how Cronkhite died.

But it was soon discovered the land where the shooting occurred was not government property. Even though the land had been donated to Camp Lewis by Pierce County, the government did not yet hold the deed. The case had to be turned over to the Pierce County prosecutor, who determined there was not enough evidence to charge Pothier or Rosenbluth.

In September 1922, a federal grand jury began to hear testimony that would hopefully bring a resolution to the case.

A month later, federal murder charges were once again brought against Rosenbluth and Pothier. Both men were arrested and brought to Tacoma to participate in separate trials. During Pothier’s trial, a dramatic demonstration in the courtroom by Capt. Eugene Caffey, who served with Cronkhite, proved that the major could have shot himself.

Caffey stepped down from the witness stand with pistol in hand to easily show how the shooting could have occurred. Because of this evidence, both Pothier and Rosenbluth were acquitted. Although still unsolved, the case was over.

Denfeld said Soldiers training near the plain stone marker often ask who Cronkhite was.

The Cronkhite monument, while not well-known and often overlooked as significant to JBLM, marks a sensational incident in the installation’s history, Denfeld believes.