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
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The March of the Sailfish

03 July 2015

One fish.

Two fish ?

Three fish !!!

The caption on this postcard reads:

The Famous 33rd Infantry Band
after playing the Sail Fish number
Panama Canal Zone

I believe this is the only photo of a military band posing with fish. Three very big fish. Arranged to match the three shiny sousaphones of the band of the 33rd Infantry Regiment of the Unites States Army which served in the Panama Canal Zone from 1916 to 1956. This regiment's mission was to protect the vital canal  that links the Pacific and Atlantic across the Isthmus of Panama. These 29 bandsmen were stationed at Ft. Clayton which is on the Pacific side of the canal. It's interesting that unlike the other military bands in my collection, many of these musicians are of a middling age which suggests they pursued a longer career in the military than most bandsmen. Army life on a tropical station must have been nice if you could avoid the mosquitoes.

Apparently the fishing was pretty good.

UPDATE: For the Pescetarians, I include a picture and description. These are sailfish, a type of billfish found worldwide, though these are likely the Pacific variety. They are some of the fastest fish in the ocean, capable of speeds reaching 68 mph. A mature sailfish may be 200 lbs and over 10 ft in length. They are a very pretty blue. 

The postcard was sent on Sept. 14, 1937 to Mr. & Mrs. Wm. Patten of 25-21 31st Ave., Astoria, L. I. (Long Island, NY) U.S.A. by Pvt. Frank Rovensky who wrote this message:

Felling Feeling fine. These are
The fish I wrote you
about. 9 ft. long. 100 lbs.
each. The mascot is in
the Picture too. The leader
has his head between the fish
Latter. (?)

We didn't eat them

The mascot was not a fish but a small fox terrier type dog held on the right behind the trumpets. It is interesting (for brass musicians) to note that above him are three horn players, two with piston valve horns. One of them has a dark complexion that suggests he is either a Filipino or more likely a Panamanian musician.

The older musician seated on the right has a cornet in contrast to his colleagues who have trumpets. His right hand appears to be pulling a string. I think the string is tied to the camera shutter and that he is the photographer.

Unfortunately we can only guess which musician is Pvt. Frank Rovensky, as he didn't indicate where he is in the photo.  

Around the same time, the band posed without instruments and fish for a photo with their musical comrades of her majesty's Royal Navy. The photographer caught a hearty group of Brits and Yanks enjoying a cool beer beneath tropical palms. The postcard caption reads:  

HMS Leander and members 33rd Infantry Band
at Ft. Clayton, C. Z.

As this postcard was sent inside a letter there is no postmark or addressee, but Pvt. Rovensky wrote a message on the back to explain the occasion.

The fat man in the first row with the
white pants and grey coat is the band
leader from Corozal. The man next to
him with the red ribbon accrose his chest
is the Band leader from the Brtsish British
ship. This picture was taken at by the Post
gym. The little dog in the middle is the
33rd Band Mascot.

The fat man with his splendid Panama hat was from Corozal, an Army Engineer Post near the railway yards and locks of the Panama Canal. The British band leader next to him is likely a member of the Royal Marines which typically provided the band musicians who served on board ships of the British Royal Navy. The Band Mascot looks like a dog who easily made many new friends that day.

The HMS Leander was a light cruiser launched from the Plymouth dockyards in 1931. After serving in the home fleet of the North Atlantic, it was reassigned in 1937 to the New Zealand division. This of course required a crossing through the Panama Canal. The year on the back of the postcard is in error and was likely added by someone other than Pvt. Rovensky.    

HMNZS LEANDER  - Leander-class Light Cruiser

Ruston LA Leader
April 04, 1930

I found a notice in a Louisiana newspaper from 1930 that announced vacancies for bandsman in the 33rd Infantry Band stationed in the Canal Zone. 1930 was the start of the Great Depression and also the advent of the "talkies" cinema. Both put a lot of musicians out of work.

The decades of American occupation of the Panama Canal are now past history. Understandably the military veterans who served there take a great deal of pride in this outpost of America.

* * *

The University of Florida and the Panama Canal Museum maintain an online archive of this history, and they have a wonderful "yard long" panorama photograph of the 33rd Infantry Regiment on the parade grounds of Ft. Clayton. The caption date is May 5, 1939.  In the center is the commandant, Colonel J. S. Sullivan with the 33rd Infantry Band just behind. Looking closely we can spot a few musicians who also posed with the sailfish. However as there are two bass drums and over 58 bandsmen, I think two army field bands are combined for this review.

The dog is not in the photo.

Detail of 33rd U.S. Infantry Regiment
Ft. Clayton, Panama Canal Zone   05-05-1939
Source: Panama Canal Museum

The men in these photos of course don't see that their future will soon become embroiled in the great global conflict of World War Two. No doubt that provided a lot of stories, good and bad. But for these bandsmen it would be hard to top the tale of the sailfish.  

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everything smells a bit fishy this weekend.


La Nightingail said...

You never disappoint and why should I be surprised! Great post - a full military band with not one, not two, but three fish! Well done!!! :)

Postcardy said...

Great post. I wonder whether the bandsmen had time to go fishing.

Alex Daw said...

Such interesting photos. Well done you for spotting the man with the string. I would never have seen that.

Brett Payne said...

One fish, two fish ... where are red fish and blue fish?

The malarial swamps of Panama were no place for an enjoyable time at one time, but I'm sure by the time the 33rd Infantry arrived, there were plenty of recreational activities to occupy one.

Anne Young said...

Fascinating photos and a great story

Wendy said...

Brett and I are on the same wavelength today. Do you think maybe "Latter" is "Luther"?

Deb Gould said...

I, too, am looking for the red fish/blue fish! But what a fun post this is, Mike -- those odd fish (what ARE they, anyway?) with a dog and a fat man and sousaphones -- sounds like a riddle of some kind, doesn't it?

Kristin said...

Looking at the man you identified as either Filipino or Panamanian, made me think of the two of my grandchildren who have a great grandmother on their father's side who was of Filipino/Chinese heritage and born in Panama.

Barbara Rogers said...

They didn't eat the fish? Goodness, I hope someone did. That's a lot of fish, out of 300 pounds, there must have been several hundred edible. But maybe without refrigeration it couldn't keep. But the age-old way to keep fish was to salt it. Oh well, I go off on tangents, don't I? Loved meeting the mascot dog too!

Jo Featherston said...

I hope no one caught those sailfish just for the photograph. Game fish are apparently not very good eating, as they're too tough. Surprised you haven't yet managed to track down Private Rovensky, using your amazing powers of research!

Francis Griffin said...

I agree with Wendy, I think the card is signed "Luther"


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