Saturday, December 6, 2014

At Dawn, They Didn’t Sleep

Members of the Arizona dance band pause at Bloch Arena, Pearl Harbor, during the Battle of Music semifinal held November 22, 1941.  From the left, they are Musician 2nd Class Curtis Haas, Musician 2nd Class Gerald Cox, Musician 2nd Class Ernest Whitson Jr., Musician 2nd Class Frank Floege, Musician 2nd Class Clyde Williams, Musician 2nd Class Bernard Hughes, Musician 2nd Class Alexander Nadel, Musician 2nd Class Charles White, Musician 2nd Class Robert Shaw, Musician 2nd Class Harry Chermucha, Musician 2nd Class William Moorhouse, Musician 2nd Class Emmett Lynch, Musician 2nd Class Wayne Bandy, Musician 2nd Class Jack Scruggs, Musician 2nd Class James Sanderson, and Musician 1st Class Frederick Kinney. (Official US Navy Photo by Tai Sing Loo)
It had been a long, exhausting, but ultimately successful Saturday night for the band members of USS Arizona (BB-39).  Although denied the top spot during a naval band competition ashore at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, they were still authorized by the ship’s captain to sleep in late the following morning. 

It was a sleep that they would never awaken from, the morning of December 7, 1941.  

This story has been told in one form or another for decades.  One version has them winning the competition that evening, with the trophy from that long-ago event residing today at the US Navy School of Music at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  The trouble begins when one looks for the trophy there.  It is not.  The difficulties continue when searching for evidence of the story’s veracity in primary sources, eyewitness accounts or oral histories.  As with many apocryphal stories related to epochal events in our nation’s past, hard evidence remains elusive.   

Despite this lack of contemporaneous evidence, the story has persisted in secondary sources, popping up in dozens of books and television news accounts about the attack.  It even became part of the official narrative given to visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial, where it caught the attention of Molly Kent, a self-described “legal secretary, artist, author, and homemaker for her husband and their 3 children,” who also happened to be the sister of one of the band members, Musician 2nd Class Clyde Williams.  

“We all looked at each other, because we knew better,” said Kent, 92, from her home in Kansas City.  Her family had seen the original Navy press release quoted by the Associated Press on April 1, 1942, which said, “On Dec. 7 they went to their battle stations, one of the most hazardous on the ship—down below passing ammunition to the guns above.” 

Forty years later, watching the story with her mother, the entire tenor, not to mention facts, of the story had changed. 

And she didn’t like it.  

“I couldn’t stand to have the boys remembered that way,” said Kent.  “If it was true, fine.  I wish that they would have been asleep and farther from their battle station. Then maybe they would have had a chance to survive.” 

She had pondered writing a book about her brother for years.  The experience that day in 1982 crystalized her aspiration not just to tell the band’s story, but to straighten out the distortions she felt were becoming rampant. 

“I wanted to be correct,” Kent said, “even if the truth was not necessarily what I thought.”   

Despite having no background in historical research or journalism, Kent had something in her possession journalists and historians did not: A large collection of official correspondence and private letters her mother had collected over the years since Clyde Williams’ death.  Thanks to the families of other family members, she spent years expanding the trove beyond just those of her brother to everyone in the band.  Along the way she conducted dozens of interviews and making connections, gaining allies in veterans organizations and the Navy musician community.  

They helped her ultimately retrace the band’s steps, from their hometown lives, to auditions at the US Navy School of Music when it was still located at the Washington Navy Yard, five-weeks of basic training at the Norfolk Training Station, back to the School of Music in 1940 and formation from January through May 1941, then their assignment as an ensemble band to USS Arizona, where they arrived on June 17.  

Personal correspondence from the men showed that they, like most of the enlisted crew, were required to sleep in hammocks, which they were only allowed to use from after the evening prayer at 7 pm until 5:30 am.  Tables stowed in the overhead during that time would be brought down to use during the day.  Because December 7 fell on a Sunday, reveille was called at 6 am.  The Japanese planes began the attack by targeting aircraft parked at Wheeler and Hickam fields at 7:55 am, followed by the first radio messages to all US forces in the area that an attack was in progress and that this was not a drill.  Smoke from the attack on the airfield on nearby Ford Island could also be seen from Arizona’s quarterdeck, from where any all hands messages would be passed over the battleship’s announcing system.  First, a fire and rescue call was sounded, followed immediately afterward by Arizona’s air raid alarm as other ships on Battleship Row began taking bomb hits from high-flying bombers and low flying Japanese aircraft began strafing Arizona’s decks.  The shore patrol and other details mustered near the quarterdeck to assume their watches, as well as off-duty personnel waiting to go on liberty, scattered as word was then passed for all hands to get below the armored deck. 

At approximately 7:56, the first 1,763-pound armor-piercing bomb hit Arizona about 70 feet directly aft of the quarterdeck on the starboard side after a glancing blow against the number four turret, setting the captain’s pantry afire and filling the captains and admiral’s spaces with smoke on the second deck directly below.  Had Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh been asleep at the time, perhaps he would have been killed, but he was not there.  If Van Valkenburgh had granted permission for the musicians to sleep past reveille, they would have been safe in their hammocks in the main enlisted berthing amidships, over 200 feet away.  

Under the schedule maintained that morning, the band would have in fact been fairly close to that first explosion.  They would have gathered at the quarterdeck at 7:45 am in preparation for the colors ceremony to be held on the fantail precisely at 8, and according to multiple eyewitness accounts they were assembled on the fantail when the attack began.  Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Tom White, an Arizona survivor, reported in his after action statement that he returned to the ship during the attack using one of USS Nevada’s motor whaleboats and raised the flag.  This seems to suggest that the flag had been attached to the staff at the stern and that the ceremony had begun, but it had not been completed.

Although general quarters was not called until just before 8 am, apparently delayed by that first bomb strike and momentary chaos that followed, eyewitness testimony collected in the weeks and months after the attack make it clear that the crew did not stand around or cower until being told what to do, much less sleep.  Along with other members of the crew who were caught on the main deck, the band dropped what they were doing and rushed to their battle stations at the moment they realized they were under attack.  Musicians aboard other vessels on Battleship Row preparing for colors also reported hurriedly stowing their instruments anywhere they could as they ran, or even throwing them overboard, as they made their way to their general quarters stations.  For the Arizona musicians, their destination would have been the ammunition hoists on the third deck, just aft of the number two turret.   

 A couple of minutes after the first hit, another bomb did strike farther forward on the port side, but it was on the boat deck three decks above the main berthing, over a smaller enlisted berthing area and one of the battleship’s 5-inch guns. 

Yet another armor-piercing bomb hit just off the starboard side of the number two turret at approximately 8:10, touching off the explosion of the forward magazines.  Most of the force was channeled fore and aft by the thick armor belt and plating on the upper deck, pancaking transverse bulkheads foreword and aft of the magazines, killing nearly 1,000 men in an instant, and causing the forward two turrets and forward upper deck to collapse into the void left by the detonation.  By the time that occurred, even taking opening and closing watertight hatches into consideration, the Navy musicians could have reached their battle stations two decks down and under the forward end of their berthing area, where they would have been when the magazines exploded.  

“To a man,” according to the Navy press release, “the Arizona’s band was killed when the battleship’s magazine exploded.”   But even the original press release was not entirely accurate, however, for three of the band members’s bodies were found in the water after the attack.  It is entirely possible that as they were making their way from the fantail to their battle stations up forward, the first bomb struck and the force of the explosion knocked their bodies overboard.  

The destruction was so complete that morning, however, that verifying this narrative beyond a shadow of a doubt is impossible.  Even today, secondary sources, not to mention eyewitness accounts recorded only days after the attack, disagree on the specific details, such as the times bombs struck or when announcements were made.  This provides fertile ground for false stories to germinate.  

As for the naval battle of the bands, formally known as The Battle of Music, 1941, the second semifinal round of the competition did take place on December 6, but Arizona’s band did not compete that evening.  It had won the first round on September 13 against three other bands, but they came in second behind the Marine Barracks Band during the first semifinal round on November 22.  The final round, scheduled for December 20, never took place.

Lastly, the grand prize trophy was ultimately awarded posthumously to the Arizona band after the final round was cancelled.  It is now at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, inscribed with the names of the winning band members:    

Frederick William Kenney
Wayne Lynn Bandy
Oran Merrill Brabbzson
Ralph Warren Burdette
Harry Gregory Chernucha
Gerald Clinton Cox
Frank Norman Floege
Curtis Junior Haas
Bernard Thomas Hughes
Wendell Ray Hurley
Emmett Isaac Lynch
William Moore McCary
William Starks Moorhouse
Alexander Joseph Nadel
Neal Johnson Radford
James Harvey Sanderson
Jack Leo Scruggs
Robert Kar Shaw
Charles William White
Ernest Hubert Whitson, Jr.
Clyde Richard Williams

Special thanks to Molly Kent, author of USS Arizona’s Last Band: The History of US Navy Band Number 22 (Kansas City: Silent Spring Publishing, 1996), Librarian Russ Girsberger of the Naval School of Music, and Volunteer Coordinator Tom Dandes of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

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