William Harten, Jr. US Navy Cornetist
The story of a musician and December 7, 1941
William Harten, Jr. was a WWII veteran who served in the U.S. Navy prior to WWII, trained at the Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C. from 1940-1941 and then served as a musician during the war. Both Bill and his cornet became survivors of the attack at Pearl Harbor and of their ship, the USS West Virginia. This special horn has appeared with Bill in TV and news interviews over the years, always leaving a lasting impression of the effects of war on individuals, lifestyle, country, and traditions. Those listening may have not always remembered the words he spoke, but few ever forgot the impact his “Veteran Horn” left on their hearts and in their minds.
Bill was born in Pocatello, Idaho on March 15, 1921. His brother, Kenneth Harten, first introduced him to the trumpet as a young boy. Bill earned his cornet in high school in the middle of the Great Depression to enable him to support himself and contribute to his mother’s care. He played in the symphonic, concert band and pep band in High School and was the Pep Band leader during those years 1937-1940. His horn was part of his education about life and the pursuit of happiness and independence, while bringing joy to others through its golden tones that he played so well. It gave him a positive sense of who he was. While at Pocatello High School Bill assembled some top-notch high school musicians who became known as the “Swing Kings.” They played for dances and other school and civic events, the musicians being also in the school band, orchestra, and symphony. Bill played his cornet, helped find and arrange music (since it was rather scarce), and was also the main singer.
He graduated from Pocatello High School in 1940 and joined the US Navy and was assigned to the Navy School of Music in Washington DC. During Bill’s time at the Navy School of Music he played this horn for numerous military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, and also for the inauguration of President Roosevelt in Jan. 1941, marching and playing his cornet in the inaugural parade as well as the inaugural ball, and at other official Presidential events like the annual White House’s Correspondents’ Dinner.
Upon graduation from the Navy School of Music in late spring of 1941, as a Musician Second Class, he was assigned to the USS Arizona stationed at Pearl Harbor. Shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor he was requested for reassignment aboard the USS West Virginia and was serving aboard as the Assistant Bandmaster and Communications Specialist when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
The cornet went with him when he was initially assigned to the US Naval Band aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor in Oct. 1941. He cared for it like for a family member, cleaning and securing it each night in his footlocker in their rehearsal and living quarters aboard the USS West Virginia. Just a couple of weeks later he was transferred to fill the need for a first cornetist on the USS West Virginia, a simple reassignment that would save Bill’s life.
On Saturday Dec 6, the evening before the attack, Bill and the band of the USS West Virginia attended a “Battle of the Bands” featuring the bands of the USS Argonne, USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee, and the band from the Submarine Base, filling in for the USS Detroit band. This was a semi final contest that featured many fleet bands. The members of the USS Arizona, USS Pennsylvania and the USS West Virginia bands attended this battle but did not play, despite popular legend.
He and his horn were aboard Dec. 7, 1941 when nine torpedoes hit and sunk the USS West Virginia. He barely escaped and swam through burning oil to Ford Island, saving a drowning sailor along the way. His fellow musicians and classmates aboard the USS Arizona, assigned to duty handling the 70mm munitions, were killed at the initial bombing of that great battleship. Bill’s Navy School of Music graduation log book has most of the signatures of these young Navy musicians, looking forward, with Bill, to their musical service in the Navy. It is eerie to know that their lives would soon be cut short in one fell swoop.
Three days later Bill asked a Navy diver to look for his cornet while doing a damage assessment for the ship. The horn was located in Bill’s storage locker, brought up, and given to him. Only the horn’s German silver body remained intact, the rest having melted away by the intensity of the fire. The pure German silver stem and bell were charred and blackened, the upper stem having curled in a half circle from the heat. The solder had melted in the heat causing the brass mouthpiece, valves and fittings to fall off. In Bill’s words, “Sixty years later, I treasure this battle-scarred relic of history, another survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and an evidence of miracles in my life. I have it always in view, mounted in a clear case, to remind me that the Lord was with me that day.”
He used his own military pay to purchase another suitable cornet as quickly as was possible so he could regroup with his band and make the music he loved to bring joy to those who were suffering all around him. Three years and many music assignments and travels would pass before he received an unexpected check reimbursing him the $350.00 for the loss of his precious instrument.
Their bandmaster had been hospitalized with injuries from the attack. As assistant bandmaster, Bill worked to locate and reorganize band available members, rehearsing them and new replacements so the U.S. Naval Band could perform as soon as possible to improve morale on base and as fleet activities resumed at Pearl Harbor.
As Musician First Class, Bill served almost four years at Pearl Harbor, never receiving leave to return home during those years (because his musical services were considered vital) with the US Navy Band there and as Assistant Band Master. He played before honored U.S. leaders and guests at various historic events at Pearl, and with celebrities and their bands and traveling to do USO shows in the Pacific, and as soloist and band director on the Navy’s regular radio show which was broadcast to troops across the Pacific.
Had Bill’s “veteran cornet” been fit for duty after Pearl Harbor was attacked, it would have seen service with him again in 1945 in Washington, D.C. in April where he played his replacement horn for:
• F. D. Roosevelt’s funeral,
• President Truman’s inauguration,
• Celebration of Victory in Europe both in New York
• several months of service in 1945 at Arlington National Cemetery where he played countless renditions of “Taps,”
• teaching, training, and refreshing other Naval musicians at the Navy School of Music.
For the next 55 years of his civilian life in Idaho he played “Taps” at countless civic events, often in duet with his brother, or other veterans. He performed this beloved service at countless funerals for our veterans until his retirement at the age of eighty.
Bill was first and foremost a musician, a fantastic trumpet player, known throughout the inter-mountain area for his quality music and entertainment, and also wonderful singing. More importantly he was greatly appreciated for his sixty years of service to countless families as they laid a beloved family veteran to rest, and for using his unusual “Veteran Horn” to teach younger generations over the years the lessons and tragedies of war and enduring to serve. Bill passed away June 30, 2004.
You can read more about William Harten, Jr. and his musical career by clicking on following links:
Special thanks to the family of William Harten especially his daughter,
Valerie Harten Briggs, for providing information and photos
Copyright © 2011 Valerie Harten Briggs. All rights reserved.
Used by permission.