Tickling the ivories all the way to victory

Published on Tuesday, 19 December 2023 07:45

By Ed Stozek
For the Herald

The thought of moving a heavy object conjures up images of the time when my friend Gerald helped move an upright Kawai piano.

If we had the right equipment it would have been a much easier task, nevertheless, “us two former farm boys” managed to move the piano to its new location.

During WWII pianos destined for American troops serving overseas were moved to new locations in a much different manner.

Steinway and Sons produced specially-built pianos for the American troops. Called the Victory Vertical or G.I. Steinways, pianos were crated and airdropped by parachute onto battlefields to provide musical relief and relaxation for the soldiers.

At this time all kinds of production involving metals such as iron, copper and brass that was non-essential to the war effort was prohibited by the American government because these metals were essential to manufacture guns, tanks and artillery. The instrument maker companies were affected by the new regulations. They had to alter their merchandise to comply with the new regulations and manufacture a product that the military could use or face bankruptcy while waiting for the war to end.

One of the “Big Four” piano makers, Steinway and Sons, had manufactured pianos for over 90 years. Instead of shutting down their factory, the company fabricated coffins and parts for troop transport gliders.

The Baldwin Piano Company constructed wooden airplane wings and the Gibson Guitar Company assembled wooden toys.

Although these ventures weren’t profitable, the projects enabled the companies to keep their operations running.

Steinway was rewarded when the US military granted a contract to make heavy duty military pianos for commissioned officers. By June 1942, the company workers also had designed a small upright piano, “no more than forty inches high and weighing 455 pounds, it was light enough to be carried by four soldiers. The pianos did not have legs like the usual upright models as they would not have withstood an airdrop. 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 from tropical climate conditions and soft iron was used instead of copper for windings on the bass strings. To comply with the government restrictions only 33 pounds, roughly one tenth of metal was used compared to a typical grand piano.

Along with tuning equipment and instructions, the finished products, identified by their military colours of olive, blue and gray, were packed into durable shipping crates and then dropped by parachute from a B-17 bomber.

Approximately 2,500 Victory Vertical pianos were dropped to American soldiers fighting the war in Asia, Africa and Europe.

For example, Victory Verticals were played by a dance band in the Philippines, a special service unit in Alaska and by accompanied performers from Bob Hope to violinist Isaac Stern as they toured on behalf of the United Service Organizations.

For the American troops, music gave peace of mind from the horrors of war and helped to alleviate them from being homesick. The pianos played a vital role in providing soldiers with countless hours of diversion, education, worship, enrichment and outreach.

One soldier wrote home to his family, “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 piano. We all got a kick out of it and sure had fun after meals when we gathered around the piano to sing. I kept smiling and even today am humming a few of the songs we sang.” (Steinway.com)

Much like the Victory Vertical or G.I. Steinway, the piano that Gerald helped me move also became an important fixture in our new house. My children spent countless hours practising their scales and test pieces for their music lessons from Mrs. Scinocca and Mrs. Borgfjord.

This past summer my friend Frank came from Edmonton for a visit. It was like old times from our university days. We congregated around the piano. I strummed my acoustic guitar and Frank “ickled the ivories.”

Like the soldiers during WWII we really enjoyed making music.

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