During World War II, Steinways were delivered to every theater of war.
By Brian Wise
“This Steinway rode in a flying fortress!” states an advertisement for a 1943 Steinway & Sons upright, an image of the piano strategically placed beneath an illustration of a B-17 bomber. During World War II, the famed aircraft’s usual payload was several thousand pounds of bombs. But under special circumstances the B-17 doubled as a cargo plane for “G.I. pianos.” Also known as “Victory Verticals,” the instruments were parachuted to awaiting troops in what the advertisement terms “far places of the world — England, Australia, New Guinea, and elsewhere.”
Intended to lift troop morale, the 40-inch-tall Victory Verticals were identified by their military colors (olive drab, blue and gray), absence of front legs (deemed too delicate for the battlefield), and durable shipping crates. About 2,500 of the verticals were transported to every theater of war, including Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and the South Pacific. They were played by a dance band in the Philippines, a special service unit in Alaska, and by performers from Bob Hope to violinist Isaac Stern as they toured on behalf of the United Service Organizations (USO).
Like nearly every other domestic instrument-maker, during World War II Steinway was prohibited from building instruments due to government restrictions on iron, copper, brass, and other raw materials. Steinway’s New York factory stayed open with a slim crew constructing tails, wings, and other parts for troop transport gliders. As the war continued, Steinway & Sons was also contracted to make coffins for the National Casket Company, a venture that was both morbid and unprofitable.
Late in 1941, Theodore E. Steinway, the company’s fourth president, received a request from the U.S. government’s War Production Board for heavy-duty military pianos. Theodore had four sons serving in the military along with several of their cousins, and he recognized music’s potential for boosting troop morale. By June 1942, the first prototypes were prepared for government inspection.
By the time the war ended, Steinway had shipped some 5,000 pianos.
Photographs provide some of the clearest (if sometimes idealized) evidence of the G.I. Steinways’ application. One image shows the Orchestra of Fleet Hospital 108 in Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, assisted by a vertical as it gives one of its twice-weekly concerts for patients. (One of the officers ran a repair shop on the island where the instruments were tuned and maintained.)
Another photo captures 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. His particular instrument, number W-672, traveled 25,000 miles from Fort Riley, Kansas, to Port Moresby, Papa New Guinea, ending up eleven miles from enemy lines. In the process, DeLoache said later, it “served soldiers, Red Cross workers, hospital patients, Australian shows, and innumerable USO camp shows and concerts.”
Design of the Victory Verticals was spearheaded by Paul H. Bilhuber, a Steinway factory manager who was promoted to vice president in 1941. The instruments were thoroughly “tropicalized” — treated with special anti-termite and -insect solution and sealed with water-resistant glue to withstand dampness. With handles under the keybed and in the back, the 455-pound pianos could be carried by four soldiers. Inside each transporting crate was a set of tuning tools, instructions, spare parts, and sheet music consisting of light classics, Protestant hymns, sing-along tunes, and boogie-woogie numbers.
Planning documents show the extent to which Steinway officials had to make due with nontraditional materials. Keys were made with coverings of white celluloid (ivory would have peeled off in tropical climates), and soft iron was used instead of copper for windings on the bass strings (copper being restricted). While each Army piano was painted with “three coats of olive drab lacquer, slightly dulled,” other colors were used for the Navy, Marines, Army Air Corps, and Coast Guard. (There was also discussion of a custom folding chair, though it’s unclear if it was ever produced.)
Some of the G.I. pianos were, in fact, Steinway’s preexisting Regency uprights, retrofitted for military use. New production picked up, however: The War Production Board requested 405 Victory Verticals in 1943, followed eight months later by another order of 800 instruments. In 1944, the U.S. Armed Forces bought 589 pianos (for $486 each) so that each unit would have four of its own. The New York factory crew was stretched thin. “This delivery schedule may appear slim to you,” cautioned a company memo to the U.S. War Department, “but we must call your attention to the fact that our upright piano department was composed mostly of young men, many of whom are now in the service.”
By the time the war ended, Steinway had shipped some 5,000 instruments, but not all went to the military, writes Richard K. Lieberman in Steinway and Sons, a history of the company: “Roughly half were sold to the United States armed forces, and the balance were bought by approved essential users: ‘religious organizations, educational institutions, hotels and other places of public gatherings.’”
The instruments were not without detractors. One general reportedly asked, “Why are we buying Steinways for our fellows when we don’t purchase Rolls-Royces to ride around the fields?” A Steinway salesman retorted, “Don’t we buy them the best wool socks?”
‘Mom, you would laugh if you were to have seen it, because the Steinway is not at all like Uncle Jake’s.’
The instruments also provided peace of mind to soldiers. When Private Kenneth Kranes wrote to his mother back in New York, he rhapsodized about a Steinway’s arrival. His letter reads:
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.
The letter was dated May 6, 1943. Kranes was killed the following week by German tank fire.
Production of the G.I. pianos continued through 1946, followed by a postwar production cycle from 1948 to 1953. For all of their famed sturdiness, some of the Verticals did not outlast trying conditions on the front. A 1950 article in Etude magazine described the fate of three G.I. pianos during monsoon season in the Philippines.
“Although 88 noises, not all traditional ones, could be elicited from these pianos,” wrote Elizabeth Randall, “what universally characterized them were their sledgehammer touch, waterlogged tone, stuck keys, missing ivories, squeaky pedals and their scarred, chipped, olive drab exteriors. No offense to the inherent good breeding of these instruments. They had been subject to a few years of tropics and war command treatment.”
Randall adds that with turnover in personnel at Philippines Command, maintenance faltered: “When the depot considered them too far gone to repair, they were salvaged for parts. This practice was without any sense of the value of the workmanship and quality of these instruments.”
But for every tragic postwar tale, there are examples of prominent entertainers and musicians who undoubtedly benefitted from the little G.I. pianos while on USO tours, including Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, and Lily Pons. And Steinway’s instruments continued to serve in other military settings. 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. The restored upright today lives in the Navy Historical Center in Washington, D.C.
Special thanks to the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College, Queens, New York, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum Library & Archives.
See more images from the San Diego Air & Space Museum’s Steinway & Sons photo collection: