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Fun While It Lasted


As World War I spread through Europe, the famous Australian-born pianist and composer Percy Grainger described himself variously as a conscientious objector or a coward. He had arrived in New York from London as the United States was entering the war. He bought a saxophone. Because of what friends considered his unpatriotic attitude, he couldn’t go back to England. So he took a perfectly logical next step.

On June 9, 1917, he walked to Fort Totten and enlisted as a bandsman in the U.S. Army. He was fitted for a uniform, his billowy hair was cut to military specifications, and the following day he was transferred to Fort Hamilton, South Brooklyn, where he became a member of the 15th Band of the Coast Artillery Corps.

The only catch: The virtuoso pianist couldn’t play the saxophone. And, as it was, the band already had plenty of saxophonists, so he was given an oboe, and got by well enough to be promoted to Bandsman 2nd Class.

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The brilliant but eccentric Grainger would later describe the first few weeks in the army as the happiest time of his life. He was paid $36 a month to study all kinds of brass and reed instruments and even got to conduct the band a few times. He was most pleased with the anonymity the army gave him and the freedom from the pressure of playing professional concerts.

The idyll was not to last though. Before long a reporter caught sight of him performing in one of the band concerts, and soon the New York papers revealed that one of the world’s great pianists was masquerading as a humble bandsman.

He was reassigned to be a star pianist for Red Cross benefit concerts and Liberty Loan and War Bond drives. But at least his army experience helped him to make up his mind about one issue. Within three weeks of joining the band, Percy Grainger applied to become a U.S. citizen.