'Was it murder?' Eagle scout pursues Washington state mystery

OlympianJune 11, 2012 

Mysterious deaths and Eagle Scout service projects rarely intersect. But that’s exactly what happened when Joshua Woodson achieved scouting’s highest rank last spring.

Woodson, 15 and a freshman at Olympia High School, took it upon himself to restore a monument erected at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 1922 to honor Maj. Alexander P. Cronkite, who was shot and killed during a training exercise Oct. 25, 1918, on land about to be deeded to what was then Camp Lewis.

To this day, it is not clear if Cronkite died of a self-inflicted gunshot or at the hands of a fellow solider. The concrete monument and bronze plaque erected in his honor are silent on the question.

Woodson learned of the monument, which sits near where Cronkite was shot in a remote area of the sprawling military base, from a family friend who works at JBLM. Told it was in disrepair, he began investigating the history of the man, the monument and what it would take to restore it.

Woodson threw himself into the project, raising some $1,200 to cover the restoration costs. He spent more than 75 hours on the Eagle Scout service project, capped off by a work party that included a dozen fellow scouts. They laid a new ground cloth and fresh gravel beneath the monument, cleaned and whitewashed the monument, polished the plaque and repaired the fence. All the work was done in accordance with the Secretary of Interior’s standards for historic restoration.

I met this poised and articulate teen at the annual greater Olympia Boy Scouts of America fundraiser breakfast Thursday at the Red Lion Inn. He’s a member of the Capital Area District’s Troop 2 and participated in the opening and closing flag ceremonies at what is one of the largest community fundraisers for Boy Scout activities in the Olympia area.

Last year, about 7,700 scouts participated in scouting programs in the Pacific Harbors Council, which stretches from King County to Grays Harbor County. Some 272 of these scouts attained the rank of Eagle Scout. Along the way, scouts contributed some 70,000 hours of community service valued at more than $500,000.

Woodson was among four scouts called to the podium by former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, who presided over the morning event bedecked in his Boy Scout gear.

“In my future, I want to stay in scouting,” Woodson told Munro. “I want to go to West Point and someday work for the FBI.”

Don’t bet against this young teen, who is mature beyond his years.

Alexander Cronkite, a distant relative of legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite, graduated from West Point in 1915 and quickly ascended to the rank of major. His father was Maj. Gen. Adelbert Cronkite, who had a distinguished career in the Army, but was forced to retire in 1923 after receiving a reprimand from the Secretary of Army for questioning how the Army and federal Justice Department handled the case of his son’s death.

Here’s a short summary of the mysterious death, drawn from an account posted online at historylink.org, the online encyclopedia of state history:

Shortly before his death, Cronkite had been assigned to the 213th Engineer Regiment to lead a battalion and serve as the regimental training officer in preparation for World War I combat duty in France.

On the day of his death, the regiment was training some four miles from Camp Lewis headquarters on land not yet deeded to the camp by Pierce County. Cronkite, still recovering from the flu, had joined the regiment when it stopped near an abandoned farm house around noon.

Known as an expert marksman, Cronkite pulled out his Army pistol and fired off several rounds, despite a regulation that prohibited the discharge of firearms outside an official range. Suddenly, a single shot rang out and Cronkite crumpled to the ground and died within minutes.

The Camp Lewis Board of Inquiry ruled it an accidental death, suggesting the major was in a weakened physical state, lost the grip on his pistol and inadvertently turned the weapon on himself.

Cronkite’s family, led by his father, rejected the finding. The general pushed to have his son’s body exhumed, and a medical examiner determined the wound was not self-inflicted.

A federal Justice Department probe followed and two fellow soldiers were arrested. But since the incident occurred off the military base, the case was turned over to the Pierce County prosecutor’s office, which reviewed the case and declined to bring charges against the two men.

In 1922, four years after Cronkite’s death, a federal grand jury in Tacoma took up the case. Eventually they indicted the two soldiers, one a captain who supposedly ordered the shooting and the other the alleged shooter. In 1924, the case went to trial. The shooter was acquitted and the court dropped charges against the captain.

Soldiers training around the monument often ask who Maj. Cronkite was. If they asked Josh Woodson, he would tell them the major was the victim of a mysterious murder.

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