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How do you get a piano onto the battlefront? Push it out of an airplane.

Nov 10, 2017

What is the best way to keep a soldier’s morale up? This was a serious question for government officials during World War II.

America’s soldiers were experiencing the most traumatic events of their lives, away from their families and surrounded by the horrors of war.

Officials concluded that perhaps the best way to keep soldiers happy was the power of music.

So, the United States dropped Steinway pianos into war zones. Literally.

And just how does an upright piano fare when it’s parachuted out of a plane?

“I’m sure that they were very well-packed, and I know that they were also fit with some tuning tools and some repair tools.”

Garik Pedersen has unearthed the history of these airdropped Steinways, which he calls the Victory Vertical Project.

Garik Pedersen plays some wartime tunes on his Steinway piano - a shiny ebony grand that is a far cry from the drab, light pianos used by WWII soldiers.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Pedersen is a concert pianist and a professor at Eastern Michigan University in the School of Music and Dance.

He says the Steinway staff had a lot to do with the formation of the program.

“I know that the War Production Board was ordering all sorts of morale-boosting musical supplies, and [Steinway] said, ‘We could make pianos that we could send over to boost morale.’”

They weren't sending in the massive grand pianos that Steinway is often known for. Instead, raw material rationing meant they had to make the instruments with as little metal as possible.

Pedersen explains, “A typical upright piano has up to about 300 pounds of metal in it, and these pianos had to be made with about 33 pounds of metal.”

Luckily, Steinway knew a little something about making unique pianos. They had been building the instruments since before pianos had metal frames, the first of which was patented in 1825.

Pianos on the battlefront

Once the pianos were built, they had to get to the different fronts across the world. Pedersen says many of them were simply trucked to the various USO center, where they were used for sing-a-longs and other performances.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Other pianos had more unique journeys, such as the blue or gray uprights that went on submarines.

“The idea was, ‘We can’t put men under the ocean for that long and not give them something to do, or they will go stir-crazy. So we’re going to install a piano in the submarine,’” says Pedersen.

“And it actually was put in before the submarine was completed, so when it came time to decommission the submarine, it was impossible to remove the piano without taking the whole boat apart.”

It’s important to remember that the WWII army was a draft army, meaning musicians and piano players were often troop members.

Pedersen says they didn’t have to rely on memory once the pianos arrived, however.

“The pianos included sheet music. And the sheet music included light classics, it included Protestant hymnals, it included sing-along patriotic songs, and it included popular songs.”

Most of the music was fairly easy, and the most complicated tunes were the “boogie-woogies” that we now remember as a signature style of the 1940s.

Pedersen says, “There was always someone that could sit down and work out those boogie-woogies, and the soldiers seemed to love that.”

Remembering the uplifting power of music

“I think this is a story that needs to be told, and I think it needs to be told now. I think it matters in our time, both because of the idea of the value of music ... but also because a war is a war of ideas and values. It’s not just a war of military might.”

Pedersen plans to tell the story of the Vertical Victory Project for the next two years, including a number of performances to celebrate the wartime music, in order to teach others about this largely forgotten piece of history.

A war is a war of ideas and values. It's not just a war of military might. - Garik Pedersen

For his part, Pedersen says he hadn’t heard the story until 2010, when he got to sit down with Henry Steinway, the last member of the famous family that had been involved in the company.

“I sat down and I just asked him a ton of questions, and one of them was ‘tell me something you’re really proud of.’ And he started telling me this story,” says Pedersen.

“And I was amazed, but I thought I was probably the last person to hear about it. And I came home, and I started talking to my colleagues and friends … and nobody knew that this had happened!”

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.