In my novella, Deadly Liberty, one of eight stories in the anthology Pearl Harbor & More, the main protagonist, Connie “Coco” Collins, is a Navy nurse returning to the hospital ship, USS Solace, and is an eye-witness to the beginning of the war. As her liberty launch (a small boat) passes the USS ARIZONA she wonders if the ship’s band won the play off in the battle of the bands, because she hears them tuning up. In my initial research there were conflicting stories stating the band won the play off and others stated they weren’t even scheduled to play that day. So today on December 7th, I wanted to feature the Arizona’s bandsmen in this memorial post and add one more voice to setting the record straight.
Not a single bandsmen survived the Pearl Harbor attack. And yet, history shrouded them in mystery.
The Battle of the Music 1941 or The “Battle of the Bands” as most called it was a popular event for Navy servicemen. This competition began on September 13, 1941 as an elimination tournament held every two weeks. It featured Navy ensemble bands from ships home ported in Pearl Harbor and those attached to shore installations in Hawaii. Four bands were to compete in each round of the tournament with one winner per round selected to perform in the final competition on December 20th. Each band performed a swing number, a ballad, and a specialty tune. Last, they played a fast number for the jitterbug contest. Many people enjoyed attending the musical playoffs including corpsman Lee Huntley featured in Deadly Liberty. As I did research, I kept seeing conflicting stories–such as, after the attack the band that won the competition, handed over the trophy to Arizona out of respect.
Here’s the true story according to Molly Kent, sister of bandsman Clyde Williams. 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. Therefore, they weren’t eligible to compete in the trophy round.
Pennsylvania’s band won the semi-final on Dec. 6th. Some Arizona bandsmen did attend as fans but they didn’t play. The final round to name the 1941 winner of the contest, scheduled for December 20, “never took place.” In respect, the grand prize trophy was ultimately awarded posthumously to the Arizona band. It is now at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, inscribed with the names of the band members.
End of story right? Nope. More murky history surrounding how they died.
First, it’s a well-know fact that Arizona’s band was on the fantail tuning up for the music after hoisting of the colors. Arizona was a primary target and known throughout the Fleet as the Up and At’Em ship. She got pounded.
The bandsmen’s families were given this as the Navy’s official press release quoted by the Associated Press on April 1, 1942: “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. To a man, the Arizona’s band was killed when the battleship’s magazine exploded.”
Forty years later, Molly Kent, a sister of bandsman Clyde Williams, found out this was the official narrative given to visitors at the Arizona’s memorial: 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.
Which version was true?
Did they die fighting? Or were they sleeping? Mrs. Kent wanted the truth, no matter which version turned out to be true. Here’s a short synopsis of Mrs. Kent’s research findings that is well worth the read. Here’s the link to her book titled USS Arizona’s LAST BAND.
While 3 of the bandsmen were found dead in the water, they died to a man manning their battle stations.
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