The Singing Sentinels at the height of their fame in 1946. Left to right: Herman Klick, Chuck Faris, Del Von Zeuthen and Ken Rogers. Photo courtesy of Portland Police Historical Society.
Henry Kaiser was no stranger to the Pacific Northwest when he arrived in Portland in 1941 to begin building ships for the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine. He had previously managed the construction of the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams, which provided the electricity for rapid industrial expansion throughout the region. By spring 1942 Kaiser had three shipyards in operation in the Portland area: one at Ryan Point in Vancouver, WA; one at Swan Island; and, one at St. Johns.
War fear gripped the city after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In February, 1942 Portland’s Japanese residents were rounded up and interned in a makeshift shelter on Swan Island, where they stayed for several months before being relocated, mostly to the Minidoka, ID camp. Kaiser instituted heightened security in an effort to prevent sabotage and by the end of the war the company employed more than 2,000 security guards. At first the guards were unofficially part of the Portland Police Bureau and Kaiser-made Portland Police badges remained a part of their uniform after they were incorporated into the U.S. Coast Guard in December 1942. The fear wasn’t completely unwarranted given the submarine attack at Fort Stevens on June 21, 1942 and the air attack on the Siskiyou National Forest near Brookings on May 5, 1945 in which two Japanese pilots used incendiary bombs in an attempt to create a massive forest fire.
War provided opportunities that were welcome after the hard years of the Depression, not just for work, but sometimes to take advantage of talent. In the locker room of the Oregon Shipbuilding Company near St. Johns, four young security guards found an opportunity to take advantage of their talent for singing. The four men were Del Von Zuethen, Chuck Faris, John “Ken” Rogers and Mel Gordon. Over the years Del Von Zeuthen told Oregonian reporters Lawrence Barber, John Guernsey and others about how the quartet came together. Von Zeuthen, who would become a pioneer in the field of broadcasting music in industrial settings, liked to sing baritone. He and Ken Rogers, who Von Zeuthen called “as good a bass as ever was” and a couple of other guys “who would rather sing than do anything else;” liked to harmonize as they showered and changed out of their uniforms.
Morale was a high priority. Early in 1942 President Roosevelt himself had endorsed entertainment programs such as radio’s Fibber McGee and Molly as vital to the war effort. The most modern thinking on industrial practice also endorsed the use of music in the workplace to improve productivity. Rodger Smith, Kaiser’s chief of security at St. Johns, wanted to have a quartet of security guards to provide entertainment at ship launchings and other events and he soon approached the four men who had become popular in the shower room.
The boys who would rather sing than anything clown around with Red Skelton in 1944. Photo from, Oregonian Historical Archive Multnomah County Library.
Chuck Faris and Ken Rogers were so excited by the chance to sing professionally that they wrote a song together, “Down the Ways” that would be used for the launching of every liberty ship in the Portland area starting in April, 1942. In nearly a thousand performances the song would become a sentimental hit and a strong reminder of the war for many Portlanders. The men sang a cappella in a Barbershop Quartet style and soon they had a repertoire of more than 200 songs, including their most popular number “Cool Water.”
Del Von Zeuthen, rumored to have been a pilot with Claire Chennault’s air force in China, was soon appointed program director for all of Kaiser’s shipbuilding operations in Portland and Faris became the manager of the singing group. Mel Gordon, who would go on to have a long political career in both Multnomah and Clark counties after the war, shipped out with the Merchant Marine in 1943 and was replaced by the talented young tenor soloist from the First Congregational Church, Herman Klick. Klick worked in the plant, but soon put on the uniform and badge of a Singing Sentinel.
Before Gordon left the group the quartet had become very popular. They appeared on the Treasury Star Playhouse on radio in 1943 and recorded their first album for the U.S. Treasury Department. On September 23, 1942 President Roosevelt heard them sing when he visited the Kaiser plant in Vancouver for the launching of a Liberty ship that was built in a record ten days. In July, 1943 at Mel Gordon’s last ship launching before shipping out his wife was chosen to sponsor the U.S.S. William Hume, Kaiser’s 225th Liberty ship, by breaking a bottle of Champaign across its bow.
Herman Klick was a talented singer and the group’s popularity increased. The Singing Sentinels performed with radio stars such as Red Skelton and once Chuck Faris impersonated Jack Benny in a performance for Benny’s wife Mary Livingston. The end of the war wasn’t the end of their career. In September, 1946 the quartet cut an album of American Ballads and then moved to Michigan, where Kaiser had converted the immense Willow Run plant to automobile production. The Singing Sentinels, sometimes known as The Singing Ambassadors, continued to tour the country in a specially designed automobile to promote Kaiser-Fraser dealerships well into the 1950s.
Ken Rogers died in 1969 but the three surviving Sentinels celebrated a tuneful reunion in Laurelhurst Park in 1981. Left to right: Del Von Zeuthen, Chuck Faris and Herman Klick. Photo from, Oregonian Historical Archive Multnomah County Library.