This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The USS Florida and USS Arkansas Navy Bands

11 November 2011

Today, 11 November, 2011 is Veterans Day, once known as Armistice Day in commemoration of the end of the Great War of 1914-18.  So it seems appropriate to honor veterans with a couple of vintage photo postcards of military musicians. This photo of a U.S. Navy band from the battleship USS Florida (BB-30) dates from the relatively peaceful period between WWI and WWII. Standing in front of one of the great 12-inch guns, the 16 bandsmen, to judge by the bright white uniforms, are in very warm sunshine.

The card was sent to Miss Mary Kobinsky of Middletown, Conn. in March, 1921 with a note that would still be current for a sailor today.

Dear Mary
Droping you a few lines to let you know that I am well and happy, hoping you're the same. I was thinking of droping you a letter sometime ago, but it's so hot down here in Guantanabo (sic) Bay that a feller looses all his Ambition, will get leave soon. Chas.
P.S. Remember me to all.

But what makes this band photo a unique historical image is the complexion of the navy bandsman standing on the left holding a clarinet. Despite some efforts to end discrimination and improve civil rights, America remained a very segregated society after the First World War, and the Navy during this period had very few black servicemen. This came from a policy of exclusion of black personnel based on a reasoning that segregation on board a ship was impractical. According to one history of the Integration of the Armed Forces, by 1940 the Navy had only 4,007 black personnel, or  2.3 percent of its nearly 170,000-man total, and almost all were employed as stewards. So it is exceptional to see this dark skinned clarinetist as a member of the band.

The USS Florida was one of two 21,825-ton battleships commissioned before WWI in 1911. She served mostly in the western Atlantic and Caribbean, but was decommissioned and scrapped at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1931. The sender of this postcard, postmarked 1913, remarks on the compliment of 200 sailors aboard her.

The first postcard came with a companion card showing another navy band, this time from the battleship USS Arkansas (BB-33). This larger band of 22 bandsmen, who seem to be out in bright sunlight again, has three men of color in the center: one clarinet, one euphonium, and one whose instrument is hidden. It is very difficult to judge ethnicity in sepia photographs, and it's possible that some of the bandsmen are of Asian origin, perhaps of Filipino heritage. But the euphonium player looks distinctly dark and of very African descent. Again this is a very unusual mixture for a navy band of this period.

In 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 integrating the military, though the end of discrimination and segregation of all units throughout the US Armed Forces still took many more years. Of course today's navy bands do not discriminate on race or for that matter, on gender either. For a photo of a black bandsman from before WWI look at my post on US Navy bandsmen 1914.

The USS Arkansas was a 26,000 ton Wyoming class battleship and like the Florida was commisioned before WWI in 1912. She was part of the Atlantic fleet and after the war was a training ship for navy midshipmen.  After being refitted she saw service in WWII, participating in the Normandy invasion and later after joining the Pacific fleet,  helping in the assaults on Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. This postcard is from the 1920's era.

The second band card was postmarked February 1922 and addressed to Mr. Edward Svihovec of Deep River, Conn. The message is short like a cell phone text message.

Dear Folks,
Few lines to let let you know that I've read your letter and to cut this story short will say good night and write later. 
Your son, Chas
Just a bit longer than the emails I get from my own son.

The handwriting of the name - Svihovec - created a real puzzle, as the letters did not immediately make sense. But eventually I found the service record for Charles F. Svihovec (1903-1976) who served in the Navy from 1921 to 1925. Charles was the second son of Edward Svihovec who immigrated from Bohemia with his family in 1911. Charles returned to Connecticut after his tour and married not Mary but Helen, making a career in the State Highway Department.

I have no way to determine if Charles was a musician in these bands, as his service record did not include his rating. The cards may have been just souvenir cards available through the ship's post office. But in the 1920 census for Deep River, CN,  Charles is living with his parents and two siblings. His father Edward Svihovec's occupation was listed as polisher, Piano Factory, and Charles and his older brother Edward also worked for the Piano Factory. 

This was likely the Pratt-Read Player Action Co. which had a factory making piano keyboard actions and player pianos in Deep River. The adjacent town of Ivoryton, Conn. also had a long industrial history making combs, buttons, toothpicks, billiard balls, and other items out of ivory, including piano keyboards. Here is the Wikepedia image showing the Ivoryton keyboard factory.

My guess is that in 1911, any Bohemian immigrant with machine skills would likely have had musical skills too. And if Edward played a brass instrument in the factory band, certainly his son, Charles would learn a musical instrument too. And what 18 year old wouldn't pass up an opportunity to see the world and play music on the deck of two battleships. If only he had thought to make an X over his sailor cap in the photos.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday 
which is a weekly meme which encourages bloggers to publish and share old images and photographs. This weekend it is celebrates its 100th post anniversary. 


Kristin said...

Interesting. My uncle Louis, who was a doctor, tried to enlist in the navy before or during WW2 and was rejected because they didn't take black doctors in the navy. I did have a great uncle who passed and served in the navy pre-WW1. But they though he was white.

Postcardy said...

Interesting photos an speculations.

Little Nell said...

Well that’s interesting about skin colour, but it would be nice, though naive, to think that music, which has the power to draw together those of all denominations, creeds and colour, had managed to help override prejudices of the Navy Board. Let’s hope it succeeded on board ship though!

tony said...

It was a perverted logic indeed that, because of segregation law at home, segregation at war was needed!
The quality of these photos is like crystal.

mary said...

Chas must have been a musician to send cards that show the ship's bands.
These pictures remind me of a question I often have: why are navy uniforms white? Can they actually keep the machinery of the ship operating and stay clean enough to wear whites?

Christine H. said...

I think you're probably right that at least some of these men were Filipino. I love to imagine what it would be like to work in a player piano factory. I'm sure it wasn't as glamorous or as interesting as the picture my imagination paints though.

barbara and nancy said...

That's very interesting about the navy band including one lone black musician. But when I looked closely at the photo the poor guy seems to be standing apart from the others, not exactly what I would call inclusion.
Very interesting post.
Nancy javier

Bob Scotney said...

It was interesting to see the old ships as well as the bands. I wonder how high the percentage of black sailors is today.

Alan Burnett said...

A perfect example of how a special interest can be used as a light to illuminate almost any subject. But your posts always are. Once again, thanks for helping to make Sepia Saturday as fascinating as it is.

Anonymous said...

Great photos and I laughed at Chas's message to his Folks. I guess their letter needed a longer response than he had time for! Jo

H said...

What a lot of detailed research you must have done to make this post so informative and interesting. A fascinating read. Thankyou!

Howard said...

Fascinating. Interesting that the postcard messages were so brief, people left their real feelings for their letters which were private. You must have quite a collection of band postcards Mike.

Nancy said...

You did a lot of research for this post, not only about the ships but also about the sailors who wrote the postcards and about racial background in the navy. Very interesting post. Thank you.

barbara and nancy said...

Very, very interesting. Was that Guatanamo (Guantanabo) Bay he was talking about?
You're right, things don't change much but luckily, I'm sure the make-up of the bands has changed considerably.

Brett Payne said...

Another intriguing pair of postcard photos. As you no doubt did, I tried to match some of the faces between the two, without any tangible success, but I feel sure that some of the band members are common to both. Did you identify the ship in the background of the second photo?

Liz Stratton said...

I hadn't really thought about ship musicians before. It makes perfect sense. I imagine they did much to make the long hours at sea as fun for the sailors as your post was to me. Thanks for another entertaining post.


Once more, you found a great musical connection pertaining to the SS theme, and its a great post for Remembrance Day.
Hats off to you!!


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