When one thinks of World War II veteran memorials, they usually think of parks or town squares with lawns, flowers and marble monuments. But that’s not always the case.
There’s one in the corner of Francis Israel Cafeteria at the Walker Campus of Bevill State College in Jasper, Ala. It has no plaques, or spotlights highlighting it prominently, but it’s an important piece of our history.
At first glance, it looks as if the old instrument survived one too many fraternity parties, but a closer look reveals that this piano is a treasure that’s been hiding in plain view for almost 70 years.
Carved into every surface of the antique instrument are the names of soldiers who served in World War II. What makes this memorial different is that the soldiers themselves placed the names there as they passed through Jasper during the war.
Many of the names are of local boys barely old enough to shave, but some are soldiers from across the country who found their way to the Jasper United Service Organization (USO) to rest, have a cup of coffee and listen to a little music - anything to take their minds off the war raging half a world away.
Dr. David Rowland, former Walker College president, gave details of how the college came into possession of such an artifact, but few details about the soldiers or how the names came to be inscribed on it.
The piano was in an old property managed by the local American Legion, and when the building fell into disuse in the late 1960s, Rowland, who himself is a veteran, worked out a deal with the Legion to buy the property for future expansion.
“The piano wasn’t part of the deed,” according to Jack Mott, who attended the final meeting to sign the papers, but the Legion representatives fully supported the college and thought letting them take possession of the piano was a good way to preserve the piece of history.
This explained how the piano wound up in the cafeteria, but how the names of so many World War II soldiers were scrawled on it was still a mystery.
A search of newspaper archives from The Daily Mountain Eagle during the war years provided several clues.
It seems that in the early 1940s the piano was in Lynn’s Pool Room, which was above Crawford Hardware in downtown Jasper.
“Everybody was so patriotic during those years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” remembers Charlie Watts of Jasper, who was 11 when the war broke out.
The Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, and B&PW Club joined forces with The American Legion in Jasper to open the USO facility on Third Avenue, which was near the Frisco and L&N rail lines that ran nearby. The Jasper USO was a refuge that came to be known as “A Home Away From Home” for servicemen.
When the USO opened for business on March 19, 1943, poolroom owner Earl Lynn gave the piano to Ben Meadows, who was a well-respected local businessman. Meadows’ wife was involved in forming the USO, so she donated it to the facility.
Watts remembers going into the USO as a kid and listening to the soldiers tell stories as they enjoyed a relaxing few hours with the USO hostesses.
Billy Baird, a retired pharmacist from Huntsville, Ala., spent time in the USO too. His folks owned Bill & Bob’s, which was a BBQ restaurant a few doors down from the USO.
Most of the troop trains didn't stop, but rocked slowly through the community carrying tanks, cannons and Pullman cars full of troops who would hang out the windows as they rolled through.
“My sister Dorothy Nell Baird used to run down to the track to wave at the soldiers as they passed,” said Baird. They would often throw their mailing addresses to her so she could write to them overseas. Dorothy Nell and several other young girls exchanged letters with some of those troops.
Not long after the USO opened, one of the on-duty hostesses noticed the names of a few soldiers carved into the surface of the piano. When Mr. and Mrs. Meadows were notified, they weren't upset at all. In fact, they embraced the idea of having all visiting soldiers sign the piano. They purchased a wood-carving pencil to make the job simpler and the names more readable.
Even today, most of the names are readable. The names are carved into every surface including the ebony and bone-colored keys.
Hansel Hudson of Jasper was drafted into the Army a few days after graduating from high school. The war was over then, but the Army needed troops to backfill those coming home from war.
While home on furlough in October 1945, he went into the USO building and added his name on the piano.
Hudson choked up and his eyes got misty as he talked about friends and family who served overseas.
“I know many of the names on this old piano,” he said.
Hansel’s cousin Truman remembers the piano too. He signed it after he was drafted in 1943. His oldest brother David was drafted early in 1942 and his brother Craig a short time later.
Truman sat at the bench a long time looking at the names. Both his brothers died in the war. David drowned in New Guinea, and Craig, who was an aerial gunner and a radio operator, died when his plane went down in France, killing everyone onboard.
David’s name is carved into the front-left side of the piano.
The piano took on a life of its own when Look magazine published a picture of Corp. Oliver Waldrop of Oakman, Ala., signing the piano in the April 1945 issue. Waldrop had lost his left hand at Auzio Beach in Italy.
Waldrop’s niece, Peg Robarchek, who now lives in North Carolina, said that her Uncle Junior was a teacher before going off to war. He was forever changed by the war. He never taught school again. He struggled with alcoholism and died homeless on the streets in Tennessee in the 1960s.
“Each World War II veteran’s name inscribed on the piano, is a permanent reminder of their heroism and sacrifice in fighting to preserve our freedom,” said Penne Mott, dean of the Walker Campus of Bevill State College.