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 Band on the Pier

11 October 2014

The custom of having a band play to welcome a ship on its return to port is a fine naval tradition. But these musicians must have been a thrilling surprise to the young college men on deck, all Army ROTC students of the University of Maryland, who had just completed their first sea voyage. I know this detail because standing center left with his back to the camera is my father, Russell Brubaker. It was the summer of 1949 and he was 20 years old.

My father was about to start his junior year in the university's Reserve Officers Training Corps program. That summer he went to an ROTC training camp at Ft. Monmouth, NJ where he also found part-time work in the signal corps photography lab to help pay for his college expenses. This explains how he came to have this official 8" x 10" photo. The camp activities for the men included two field trips, first to Bermuda and later to Havana, Cuba. The cruise to Bermuda was aboard a U.S. Army Transport ship, the FS-122, which departed from Annapolis, MD but never actually got there, as half way into the Atlantic a bad storm forced them to turn around and return to a port in Hampton Roads, VA. The photo catches the moment of their arrival at the docks of the Ft. Eustis army base on the James River.

The ship was not part of the navy fleet but instead was operated by the army as a Freight and Supply vessel for transporting troops, equipment, and supplies. The FS-122 was one of many army cargo ships that played an important logistic role in World War 2 on both the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns. After the war many of these ships were moved into coast guard and navy service, but in 1949 though the operating crew were likely to be coast guardsmen they were still under army command. The fate of FS-122 is unknown but a website on US Coast Guard history provided an image of the FS-177 which probably resembles the ship my father was on that summer as it shared the same ship class design. 

U.S.A.T. ship FS-177
Source: United States Coast Guard

My father did not mention how long they were at sea. Since Bermuda is about 800 miles (1300 km) southeast from the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, I would guess they were aboard for at least 3 days which in rough weather it must have seemed twice as long for a Maryland country boy who had never been on a boat of any kind. When the small ship tied up to the wharf, the sound of a military band must have sharpened their sense of relief on getting ashore again.
There is a detail that makes this family photograph more interesting to me for its music history. The band playing on the pier is definitely a US Army band, but it is not one usually seen in photographs from this era. All the musicians are African-American as this is a band from one of the negro army battalions. Racial segregation was once an institutional part of the military just as it was in the rest of American society in the last century. In both WW1 and WW2 black servicemen were restricted to segregated units used mainly for support work, and many served in the US Army Transportation Corps. Though President Truman officially ended segregation in the armed forces by signing Executive Order 998 on July 26, 1948, the implementation struggled against fierce opposition. A year later Truman's Secretary of the Army, Gen. Kenneth Claiborne Royall, still refused to desegregate the army and was compelled to resign. 

I've been unable to make an exact identification of this army band, but I believe it could have been attached to the 62nd Transportation Truck Battalion, a negro unit which was reactivated in 1947 from the former 120th Quartermaster Battalion and was stationed in Ft. Eustis managing heavy trucks from 1947 to 1950.  Since Virginia was a state in America's segregated South, there are few public records of a negro battalion band and they may have rarely played off the base for civilian audiences. What I can be sure of is that they made a big impression on one young man.

The University of Maryland's ROTC program trained officers for the army's air, infantry, signal, and transportation corps. Though my father initially chose the signal corps, in January 1951 after completing all his courses, he received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the transportation corps detailed to the infantry. 1951 would turn out to be a busy year as in August he married my mom and by the end of the year he was on board another ship, this time crossing the Pacific to join the war in Korea.    

A few years later my father saw this pier again when the army posted him to Ft. Eustis and he would return twice more during nearly 25 years of service at 15 different stations. Somehow that summer field trip of 1949 left him with a taste for saltwater, and after his retirement our family chose a home on the water in Virginia Beach, VA. The inland bays around the Chesapeake inspired my dad's enthusiasm for boating and shortly after leaving the army he became a volunteer in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, exchanging a uniform of army khaki for one in coast guard blue. Over nearly as many years as his army career, my dad was an instructor for the USCG Aux and taught countless people how to tie a proper knot; navigate a small boat on a dark night; and hoist the correct sail in a storm. On weekends he would take his own boat out to stand watch and help the Coast Guard monitor the thousands of boaters and fishermen on the popular waters of Virginia Beach. When motors failed or sails got fouled, my dad and his fellow Auxiliarists were there to assist. 

2nd Lt. Russell E. Brubaker

Two weeks ago on Friday morning September 26th my father died unexpectedly
but quietly at his home. He was 85. Somehow fortune sent me there for a visit that week and
allowed me to be with him and my mother. 

Earlier this year when I found this photo in the family file box my dad was able to explain some of the context then. Setting aside the band on the pier, I thought it made a great photograph because of how it set up my father's future career. I know that this small adventure captured his imagination and persuaded him that the army life was for him, changing his focus from radio engineering to the logistic side of military organization. It would lead to many more adventures in Korea, France, Germany, and Vietnam. Later after retirement he continued to enjoy the excitement of travel, though without the hazard pay, visiting exotic places like Russia, Egypt, and even England a few times.  

And certainly this short experience on the water had a profound effect on our family life too. We once lived three years in Kansas and I don't ever remember a discussion about retiring to Topeka. Even the band music had a consequence, as the first live music I can recall hearing was of an army band, and though I may have taken up a civilian line in music, whenever I hear (or play) Sousa's El Capitan march my feet start to tap just as my dad's must have on that day on the James River.

This past week while helping my mom put his affairs in order, we discovered notebooks that my dad had used over the past several years to write down events from his life. Scattered around the pages are various memories and stories like a long list of every home he lived in (42) including descriptions and hand-drawn maps of the house layouts. A chronology of his military career with the units and his rank. Several pages devoted to a detailed list of every car he owned, along with the approximate mileage. Even a list of the members of his 1940 high school baseball team. Tucked into one notebook were two loose papers entitled "Why I Chose An Army Career" which gave me the extra details to his photo. I know my Sepia Saturday readers will recognize what a priceless treasure this is.

Photographs are about light and time. We see a moment and wonder what it all means. A beam of light refracts through the prism of a camera and creates an image of history spread out in a broad band of color. In this photo of my dad, I know what happens next. It's a long and rich story that will take some time to tell. I will miss him more than I can say, but I haven't lost his voice.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more traveler's tales.


Jofeath said...

A lovely tribute to your Dad, and how wonderful that he has left behind so much detailed information about his life journey. I'm very sorry for your loss.

Wendy said...

Long about the 7th paragraph, I began to sense where this post was going. And I was right. I am sorry for your loss, but I am glad for the good example you father was.

Postcardy said...

Sorry to hear about your father. He really had an interesting life. I never could persuade my father to write down any of his memories, even though I bought him a book with headings and sections made especially for that purpose.

21 Wits said...

I wish my father had shared more too. I tried with all my relations, but I think they have this, I'll never die attitude and they think they have forever to share. A most lovely post.

La Nightingail said...

What a beautiful tribute to your father, & how fortunate you & your mother are to have so much of his life written down. My father told many funny stories about when he was growing up, but never wrote them down which is a bit odd since he longed to be a writer. So I have tried to remember as much as I can of his stories & written them down in his stead. As for fortune seeing you visit the family at just the right time - I have no idea how that happens, but I know it does! So glad for you, you were able to be there - for both you & your mom, as well.

Susanna Rosalie said...

Dear Mike,
you have my sympathy.

I think you did the right thing to do this post and also to include the portrait-photo in which your father shows such a great smile!

Best wishes and take good care.
Susanna Rosalie

Monarch and Mom said...

Uncle Russell's stories and his sharing of old photographs was always a highlight of my visits, from childhood until my own children were coming up. He shaped and formed my life in more ways than anyone could ever know and I feel his loss profoundly. I used to draw floor plans growing up, just for fun, and I remember him talking to me at dinner one night at the old house, encouraging me to become an architect - knowing now that he drew those house plans makes me smile. Thank you for sharing these photos and this story with the world so everyone else can see into him just a tiny bit.

Bob Scotney said...

A moving tribute to your father and a wonderful true story of what inspired a man. I can see your fathers notebooks will give rise to future sepia post.
My condolences to both your mother and yourself.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

You've written so movingly about your father. This is such a fine tribute. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Little Nell said...

What a wonderful and moving tribute to your Dad. You have my heartfelt sympathy; I still miss mine after nearly two years.

Alex Daw said...

Oh Mike - what can I say? I always leave reading your posts til last because they are always so meaty and I need time to digest them. How can I be chuckling at your father recording all the cars he ever had and their mileage while crying at the same time for your loss? Life is a funny old journey. You meet some amazing folk along the way. I feel very fortunate to have heard about your father and his journey. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings at this time.


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