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 of the USS North Dakota

06 August 2022


What did you do in the war, Daddy?
Well, mostly the navy just kept me in the same place,
though they were always changing where that place was.



Was it very scary, Daddy?

For me and my shipmates not too much.
We mainly just played and had fun,
if you can believe it,
and let other fellows
take care of the fearsome parts.


Did ever have to shoot someone, Daddy? 

Nope, the navy gave me a less lethal weapon, an alto sax.
But it was always loaded and ready for action.
I even won a medal for marksmanship
though I never hurt anyone with it.   Much.
Besides, the other boys had longer guns
to fire off the really big bangs.


I've always liked photos marked with Xs and arrows. They add that personal touch that says, "Here I am. Did'ja recognize me?" It's like a puzzle that gives away a good first clue. Now all you have to do is search the other photos to find your guy. 
This sailor's postcard photo is no different than thousands of other wartime snapshots of groups of servicemen hanging around some unknown military post, or in this case on the deck of a U.S. Navy ship. These 15 sailors are really not the most distinctive feature of this small, grainy photo. It's the giant gun barrels behind them that draws our attention. Clearly the vessel they're onboard is not a small destroyer but some great battleship.
This was one image in a lot of seven postcards that I acquired a few years ago which I might have skipped except that I spotted the arrow whispering "Here I am." In this case the sailor's mark was particularly useful as he and his fellow shipmates weren't holding their instruments then. Fortunately in the next photo we find them in the ship's band arranged in a more formal pose. And again there is another helpful arrow and a bonus duplicate card as well.

The sailor's check mark was nice, but even better was his caption written onto the duplicate photo.

U. S. S. No. Dakota Band — Feb 9 — 1918

USS North Dakota, circa 1912

The USS North Dakota was the second of two Delaware-class battleships, the first American dreadnoughts built using the revolutionary design elements of the British Royal Navy's HMS Dreadnought. Beginning in 1906, ships of this type were armed with a very large number of heavy-calibre guns, shielded by thick armor plate, and propelled with steam turbines which gave them an unprecedented level of firepower, protection, and speed

When the USS North Dakota was launched in November 1908 by the Fore River Shipyard in Massachusetts, it was promoted as the biggest and best battleship ever built. The folks in North Dakota considered this a pretty big deal, even though few of them had ever seen an ocean, much less a battleship.

{click any image for a larger view}

Fargo ND Forum & Daily Republican
10 November 1918

Delaware-class battleship
USS North Dakota (BB-29)
Source: Wikipedia
The USS North Dakota had a total length of 518 ft 9 in (158 m); a beam of 85 ft 3 in (26 m); and a draft of 27 ft 3 in (8 m). The hull construction used 11 inch armor plate; the deck was 2 inches thick; and the gun turrets were protected by 12 inch thick steel. The battleship was armed with a main battery of ten 12-inch Mark 5 guns in five twin turrets; a secondary battery of twenty-one 5-inch Mark 6 guns mounted in casemates along the side of the hull; and a pair of 21-inch torpedo tubes submerged in the hull. The ship's engines were powered by fourteen coal-fired boilers that could generate a top speed of 21 knots and give her a cruising range of 6,500 nautical miles.
Somewhere between the coal, munitions, supplies, and other equipment the shipbuilders found enough room on the North Dakota to stow a crew of 933 officers and men. And of that number, between 17 and 24 sailors were members of the ship's band.

In this next photo, a smaller group of 17 musicians in the North Dakota's band stand outside on a tilted deck dressed in dark fatigue uniforms with black stocking caps. Standing on the right with his alto saxophone is my guy, marked with another arrow. Their cold weather gear was also worn by the band in my story, The Lucky Band on the USS Minnesota. It's also important to note that the euphonium player in the back row, left, has the complexion of a Filipino, an interesting colonial heritage that occurred during this era of racial segregation which I have explored in several stories like The Navy Band of the USS Minneapolis, and A Filipino Navy Band.
Evidently in this next photo the weather turned a bit sharper for the North Dakota while cruising the Chesapeake, because the bandsmen have turned up the collars of their pea coats. It's a larger group with 27 bandsmen and the chief musician standing center in a flat non-commissioned officer's hat. For a challenge my guy didn't bother to mark his place, so readers will have to hunt for him. Hint: Look for an alto sax.

When the United States joined the Great War in April 1917, the USS North Dakota was stationed in the York River operating primarily in the Chesapeake Bay training gunners and engine room personnel. By this time, only seven years since she was fully commissioned in April 1910, the North Dakota was no longer a top-of-the-line battleship and its Delaware-class design had been superseded by eight more dreadnought classes, each one an improvement on the previous class ships. During its first years of service, problems and deficiencies like cracks in the armor plate, or unreliable engines were exposed in the North Dakota which required major repairs. So the navy department deemed the USS North Dakota too much of a risk to deploy to Europe and she was kept for training and escort duty along the Atlantic coast.

In late January 1918, just a week before the second photo of the band was taken, three sailors from the North Dakota were lost overboard during a storm. The location was not identified and their bodies were not recovered. In February two other sailors from the battleship were arrested and charged with murder of a civilian while on leave in Ohio. In July another sailor on the ship died of diphtheria, a dreaded scourge that threatened many ships. Ominously, in October 1918 a newspaper in Kansas reported that a local boy wrote home with the news that though he was in fine health there were a few cases of the "Flu" on his ship, the North Dakota, but "none of the boys have died."  Even though the North Dakota was confined to duty close to its home shores, there were still many hazards to worry a mother.


If you've followed his marks you should have no trouble recognizing this portrait of my mystery alto saxophonist. He stands next to the ship's rail with the rippling waves of either the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean in the background. With a receding hairline he appears closer to age 30 than 20. He wears the same dark fatigue duty uniform with stocking cap as seen in the previous band photos. Unfortunately, probably because he knew the recipient of this photo would recognize him, he didn't bother to identify himself on this picture. But by chance there is one additional item of ephemera that was generously included in the lot of seven photos. It's a navy pass granting a brief shore leave.


Name    C. Griffith    Date    June 28th 
Rate    1st Mus    Division    R 
Requests    Wish to go ashore 
    at 1:00 P.M. to expire 
    8am    6/29/20 
Reason    To buy Band Music 
Is recommended    JRB    Division Officer 
Approved    MCM    Commander
It's just a common example of ordinary navy life, but its provenance strongly connects it to this lot of postcards from the USS North Dakota and my dutiful alto saxophonist. Could 1st Musician C. Griffith be my guy? I wish I could say for sure, but the archives of the U.S. Navy don't reveal anyone with a similar name. The initial C could be anything, so Charles Griffith might be the most probable, yet Carl or Clifford are just as likely. Since I think he looks like a Charlie, I'll call him that.

The pass doesn't have any location but the date 6/29/20 implies that Charlie survived the war and reenlisted in the navy. The service records of the USS North Dakota are a bit scanty and without the ship's logbooks I can't be certain where this pass was issued. 
Grand Island NE Independent
17 March 1919

During the first winter of peacetime, the North Dakota finally made a trip to Europe when it was assigned to take the body of the Italian Ambassador to the United States, Vincenzo Macchi di Cellere, who had died 20 October 1918 in Washington, D.C., back to Italy. This tour of the Mediterranean took in Malta, Athens, and Constantinople before returning. I don't know the full dates of the tour, but it's easy to imagine Charlie going ashore in Naples in search of new Italian band music. The following year found the USS North Dakota in Central America where it became the first dreadnought class battleship to transit the Panama Canal. Was Charlie along for that tour?

The last photo in this collection is a small snapshot from midship on the deck of sailors doing sailor stuff. The camera angle gives a good view of the battleship's twin funnels and two radio/conning towers. These are actually a carryover feature from the old days of sail when lookouts were stationed atop the highest mast to get a better view beyond the horizon than what was visible from the ship's deck. These crows nests must have been uncomfortable, not to mention dirty, for any sailor assigned to keep a watch for submarines while enveloped in ugly smoke from the funnels. 
Here is a colorized postcard of the USS North Dakota which I recently acquired. It shows the battleship shortly after it was commissioned in 1910 with billowing dark smog rising through the towers.

This postcard is unrelated to the photos or to Charlie, but I bought it partly for the unusual message on the back which I feel is so intriguing that it deserves a part in his story.  It was addressed to Mrs. F. E. Dyer, 3680 Georgia St. San Diego, California. The postmark is from Boston dated 25 September 1911.  


Sept 25. 6.  from No 50.
MDDM. Mid dazzling lightning
and thunderous din.  That's just
what it is, as I begin.   It comes to
relieve us from a sultry day.   No
more on this subject do I wish
to say.   Yours of the 18th received
this morn.   It made me feel thankful
I had been born.   I mean born to
this new poetic life.   It cheers one so
in there (sic) daily strife.   You don't want
to criticize yesterday's fish.   It was the last one on the dish.  Now remember
that's my earnest desire.   To yours truly Florence Dyer.  After forcing  
     {goes to top of card}
you to take a rest.   You renew the fun with vigor and zest.
But wait 'till I pull down my vest.  I'll
try to surpass even my BEST.
That will do for me
your truly.   S.  W.  D.

The Great War of 1914-18 was not just battles over the trenches of France. It was a global war unlike any conflict the world had ever suffered. Gigantic battleships like the USS North Dakota, the dreadnoughts, were supposed to be a strategic naval force that preserved peace by using the intimidating firepower of so-called "gunboat diplomacy". Yet it was the international arms race to build more and bigger battleships that increased the bellicose tension between nations which ultimately led to each side believing its armed forces would prevail whenever a war started. Tragically these giant battleships turned out to be very vulnerable to submarine attack, and proved useless in changing the outcome of land warfare. For most of the war, Germany's battleship fleet stayed in port and let its U-Boats do all the dirty work. 
After the war in February 1922, the five major allied powers signed the Washington Naval Treaty, limiting military armaments and reducing naval construction. One result was the decommissioning of several categories of warships, including the USS North Dakota which was removed from the active list in November 1923. Ironically the ship's structure was retained for use as target practice until finally sold for scrap in March 1931.

What interests me is that every battleship, whether British, German or American, had a ship's band like the North Dakota. It was partly because old naval traditions demanded it, but most admirals also knew that a good band enhanced the crew's morale, calming fears and encouraging patriotism. In this last age before radio and recorded music, a live concert of music inspired a sailor's faith and cured the ultimate bane of any navy ship—boredom. Charlie's alto saxophone likely serenaded many a gunner to sleep and enlivened the toil of loading coal with upbeat marches. That seems like a wartime service anyone would be proud to tell their children. 


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where bell bottoms are all the rage now.


Barbara R. said...

What an enjoyable read this morning...of mythical sax player Charlie, and the very real and terrible USS North Dakota! Before radar...yes that crows nest would have been necessary. I wonder how many submarines could have been seen from it though. I loved seeing the pass to go ashore and buy music! Good for Charlie!

Monica T. said...

Impressed with your research as always!

Kathy said...

A great story of Charlie the alto sax player. I'm always fascinated by the postcards you find and the stories they tell - uncovered by your great research.


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