That Time When America Air-Dropped Pianos For Troops in Battlefields

Jul 2, 2019 0 comments

You thought pianos dropping from the sky is a gag for cartoons? Then hear this story out.

During World War Two, all kinds of production involving metals, such as iron, copper, and brass, that was non-essential to the war effort were halted by the American government, because these metals were needed to make guns, tanks, and artillery. Many musical instrument makers were affected by the new regulations, which meant that either they had to manufacture something else the military could use, or wait for the war to end, which was as good as going out of business.

Steinway Victory Vertical

Soldiers gather around a field piano for a little close harmony at a demonstration at Fort Meade, Maryland, the US.

Steinway & Sons, one of the “Big Four” piano makers whose legacy went back a solid ninety years (at the time war broke out over Europe), was also affected by the restrictions. Instead of shutting down their factory, Steinway decided to bid their time manufacturing coffins and parts for troop transport gliders. Likewise, the Baldwin Piano Company made wooden airplane wings and the Gibson Guitar Company made wooden toys. These ventures were hardly profitable, but at least it provided the company some semblance of a running operation.

Steinway’s patience was rewarded when the US Military granted them a contract to make heavy-duty military pianos for commissioned officers. By June 1942, Steinway’s workers had designed a small upright piano, no more than forty inches wide and weighing 455 pounds—light enough to be carried by four soldiers. Each piano was treated with special anti-termite and anti-insect solution and sealed with water-resistant glue to withstand dampness. Ivory keys were coated with white celluloid to protect them tropical climates, and soft iron was used instead of copper for windings on the bass strings. The best part was— the piano used only 33 pounds of metal, about a tenth as much as a typical grand piano.

Known as “Victory Verticals”, these pianos could be packed into crates and conveniently dropped by parachutes along with tuning equipment and instructions. An estimated 2,5000 pianos were dropped to American soldiers fighting the war in three continents.

Steinway Victory Vertical

Music was an excellent way to keep the men from going insane from the horrors of war and from homesickness, and these pianos played an important role in this front providing soldiers with countless hours of diversion, education, entertainment, worship, enrichment, and outreach. One private wrote to his mother:

Two nights past we received welcome entertainment when a jeep pulling a small wagon came to camp. The wagon contained a light system and a Steinway pianna [sic]. Mom, you would laugh if you were to have seen it, because the Steinway is not at all like Uncle Jake’s. It is smaller and painted olive green, just like the jeep. We all got a kick out of it and sure had fun after meals when we gathered around the pianna to sing.

By the time the war ended, Steinway had shipped some 5,000 instruments, but not all went to the military. Roughly half were sold to the United States armed forces, and the rest were bought by religious organizations, educational institutions, hotels and other places of public gatherings.

Steinway’s pianos continued to serve the military well after the war was over. When the nuclear-powered submarine USS Thomas A. Edison was built in 1961, a Steinway upright was installed in the crew’s mess area at the request of its captain. The instrument remained on board until the sub was decommissioned in 1983. It now lives in the Navy Historical Center in Washington, D.C.

Steinway Victory Vertical

Upright pianos at a warehouse of Steinway & Sons.

Steinway Victory Vertical

Benjamin DeLoache, a baritone who appeared in the U.S. premiere of Berg’s Wozzeck, singing for soldiers on the battlefront with a vertical at hand.

Steinway Victory Vertical

Dance band performing in Philippines.

Steinway Victory Vertical

Music Self entertainment 19th Special Field Unit playing a program on the field. Company of bivouac at Fort Huachuca, AR. June 10th 1943

Steinway Victory Vertical

Joseph Hoffman Plays and W R Steinway, Theo Steinway stand.

Steinway Victory Vertical

Guadalcanal. T/4 William Kuehl of the 10th Special Service Co. Tuning one of the GI pianos in the music repair shop on Guadalcanal.

Steinway Victory Vertical

A Victory Vertical packed in a crate and ready to transport.


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