Seattle cemetery honors forgotten hero 66 years later

Mar 24, 2016, 4:10 PM | Updated: Mar 25, 2016, 8:32 am
Emil Fredreksen, who served on the gunship USS Bennington, received the Medal of Honor back in 1906...
Emil Fredreksen, who served on the gunship USS Bennington, received the Medal of Honor back in 1906. (San Diego Historical Society via Evergreen-Washelli)
(San Diego Historical Society via Evergreen-Washelli)

Today is National Medal of Honor day and in Seattle, a hero who was buried and forgotten in a Seattle cemetery for more than six decades will finally be honored.

Evergreen Washelli Cemetery in north Seattle is the final resting place for many veterans – all of them heroes. It’s been a source of pride to cemetery staff that among those buried are six who received the country’s highest decoration for valor: The Medal of Honor.

Related: Mysteries of Seattle’s old ‘Doughboy’ statue remain decades later

Men like these are recognized and thanked, if alive, by the President of the United States. If they gave the last full measure of devotion, the medal is awarded posthumously in a solemn ceremony. Either way, President Bush called it “the greatest privilege of the office to recognize these heroes for “valor beyond anything duty could require … or a superior command.”

During one award ceremony, President Obama said of medal recipients, “we are free because of them. May God continue to bless the United States with heroes like these.”

Heroes like William Horton who built barricades to protect his soldiers under withering rifle fire while stationed in China in 1900. Like Orville Bloch who took out five machine gun nests during World War II. Like Lewis Albanese who after killing six snipers in the jungles of Vietnam, ran out of ammo, but still managed to killed two more soldiers in hand-to-hand combat.

And at Evergreen Washelli, cemetery manager Brenda Spicer says they are remembered with honor.

“They have a marker that goes the whole span of the grave from head to foot. It has an image of what they looked like with a flag flying behind it and their story is written out so passersby can read it and know what they did.”

Fresh flags are placed each Memorial and Veterans’ Day and special tours are arranged to remember these heroes.

But that hasn’t been the case for a man named Emil Fredreksen. Since 1950, he’s been in a grave without even the simplest of headstones. There are no flowers, no notes, no flags. Forgotten.

But Emil Fredreksen received the Medal of Honor back in 1906. The year before, he was a sailor aboard the gunship USS Bennington. Just after 10:30 a.m. on July 21 faulty pressure valves caused one of the Bennington’s boilers to explode. Bodies were thrown “100 feet in the air.” Thirty-nine of the crew were killed instantly. The decks were filled with debris, super-heated air, smoke, and ash. Dozens of sailors were horribly burned and unable to escape the scalding atmosphere.

When an officer called for rescue volunteers, there were only 12 men aboard who were able-bodied enough to rally. Time after time they crept into the hell below decks with wet rags over their mouths as they searched for and dragged the wounded to safety.

Emil Fredreksen was among those rescuers who risked their lives to save their shipmates and was also among the 11 USS Bennington sailors to be given the medal for their actions that day.

After that Emil went to serve 33 years in the Navy and the Naval Reserve. In 1925, he moved to Keyport, Washington. At age 75 he was still working full time for a Bremerton construction company. Near the end of his life, he moved to Seattle. At the time of his death, he had no family, and so he was interred without a special ceremony. His grave and his story were unmarked until four weeks ago.

“I got a call from a volunteer with the Medal of Honor society,” Spicer said. “He told me ‘You have a Medal of Honor in your care.’ I told him I had six and he told me, ‘well, it looks like you have another one.”

Spicer was shocked and immediately began working with the volunteer and cemetery staff to investigate.

“We went out to the plot and dug down about six inches and found the concrete temporary marker used just before the time of burial that just has a name and dates of birth and death.

“Once they confirmed this was the correct Emil Fredreksen we got to work immediately,” Spicer said.

In just one short month the staff worked with the Navy and the Medal of Honor Society to organize a ceremony for Fredreksen. Spicer says “the Navy was very happy to hear about this.” Emil will receive full military honors. And, “the official military marker will be installed and we will display a mock-up of the final gravestone … personalized just like the other medal recipients’ graves. ”

Spicer says everyone involved in this project has been intensely affected.

“It’s very emotional for me,” Spicer said. “To know his story and the wonderful things he’s done and to know that he’s going to be honored and his memory cared for forever, it’s definitely emotional.”

There will be a public ceremony at Evergreen Washelli at 2 p.m. on Friday. A reception will follow. Spicer says since this story has come out there have been “hundreds of calls offering help.” She expects she will feel a powerful sense of satisfaction after the ceremony because making right a 66-year-old wrong is a matter of honor.

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Seattle cemetery honors forgotten hero 66 years later