Bus program recalls World War II buildup in Bremerton

The initiative “is more than just a convenience,” mayor Greg Wheeler said.

Bremerton’s mayor and local officials celebrated the anniversary of a transportation initiative that harkens back to the World War II era on Thursday, Sept. 13.

The city celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Worker/Driver program, which began in the thick of the second world war as a way to ration fuel and tires, and bring thousands of workers to the area’s Naval shipyard each day.

Bremerton was a center for naval shipbuilding and repair during the Pacific war effort – in 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the Puget Sound Navy Yard and delivered a radio address.

He described the “splendid progress” in “turning out ships and planes and munitions of almost every other kind” in Bremerton, and in the “training of men and women for all of the armed forces.”

As new recruits flooded the area, the Worker/Driver busing program started as an efficient and cost-effective way to haul soldiers, builders and other personnel to base. Each month the program carried approximately 600,000 passengers, according to Kitsap Transit, on approximately 90 buses driven by Navy workers.

In 1984 the local public transit authority took over the program, continuing the work of bringing service members and shipyard employees from all corners of Kitsap County to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and SubBase Bangor.

Ken Ames, a 63-year-old Navy veteran of Vietnam, drove a Worker/Driver bus for 15 years before retiring recently.

“It was like a family,” he said. “You pick up the same people every day.”

The challenge, he said, were the hours. He’d wake up each morning before 5 a.m.

“It didn’t matter if you were dead tired, you still had to get that bus,” he said.

Hans Gehlhaar worked for the Navy for 36 years, 20 years in active duty. He’s been driving a Worker/Driver bus for about 13 years. He said he also works long days.

“I leave at 4:45, and get home around 6.”

Worker/Drivers get two paychecks, one for their shipyard duties, and one for their driving duties, Ames said.

The city of Bremerton has supported the Worker/Driver program for a number of reasons, including because it reduces vehicle congestion downtown.

“This is more than just a convenience relationship,” said mayor Greg Wheeler, a former Navy professional himself. “We don’t have the capacity for 3,000 personal occupancy vehicles in our city.”

Today, the Worker/Driver program operates 35 routes; two to SubBase Bangor and 33 to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, the largest shipyard on the West Coast. The program averages 1,393 passengers per day, according to Cyndi Griffey, a program supervisor.