When word reached Fort Worden and the town that Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii had been attacked by Japan and that a state of war existed, it was a much different reaction than when the country went to war a short twenty-four years earlier. The surprise attack in the Pacific put this world war much closer to home than the previous one. In 1917, when the U.S. went to war in Europe, the fort and community felt time and distance were on their side. In 1941, there was a strong sense the enemy was already inside the nation’s defensive perimeter.
“There is a good chance Bremerton will be attacked tonight,” declared Brigadier General James H. Cunningham, harbor defenses commander. He was speaking the night after the Pearl Harbor bombing to civil defense volunteers at the fire hall (now the Jefferson County Art & History Museum).
The grim message from the Fort’s commanding officer galvanized the town to action. A community wide blackout was immediately put into place and rigidly enforced. All military personnel were confined to the post, Fort Worden pulled back from the community and went on high alert closing public access and restricting all outbound communications. This included the fort’s weekly publication, the “Salvo,” issuing its last edition on December 19, 1941.
Interestingly, the hard separation between the fort and town came just as the community was preparing to dedicate the new USO Building at the corner of Water and Monroe streets (now the American Legion, Marvin Shields Memorial Post 26). Later in the war, the USO Hall would be a popular dance hangout for troops and townies. In the meantime, the fort expanded its on-site recreational services. Interviewed in 2004, Russell C. Weber of Sequim, a Fort Worden WWII veteran, reminisced, “When we first moved here, we were in pyramid tents at the south end of the parade ground right next to the bowling alley. We had a good time listening to the pins crash while we were trying to sleep.”
Just up from the bowling alley was the newly constructed PX (Post Exchange). Half the 100 foot by 40 foot building housed the PX, restaurant, and soda fountain, and the other half served as the general store. The soda fountain boasted of an eighty foot long “L” shaped counter that could seat 38 patrons. A hobby shop and library were also added and staffed to provide the increasing number of new arrivals with off duty activities available within the confines of the fort.
It would be six months before the initiative in the Pacific would shift from Japan to the U.S., reducing the fear of attack and allowing a relaxation of restrictions between the fort and the town. Today, Fort Worden is again a vital and accessible part of the Port Townsend and Jefferson County communities. Through the mission of the Public Development Authority (PDA), the fort continues to expand its welcome to nonprofit organizations, arts programs, campers, and visitors from around the country and the world. As a concrete and symbolic gesture of its welcoming and expansive nature, Fort Worden remains the only Washington State Park offering vehicle access to parking on the Fort’s campus without a Discover Pass, compliments of the PDA.