Lieutenant Charles Benter
Since the earliest days of the 20th century, Navy music has played a vital role in our nation’s capital. We can trace the existence of bands on the Washington Navy Yard back to the early 1900’s. The true foundation of our organization began in 1916, when the battleship USS Kansas(BB21) wasdecommissioned and her ship’s band was directed to the Washington Navy Yard. These musicians, in addition to those transferred from the Presidential Yacht USS Mayflower (PY-1),formed the nucleus of what would become the United States Navy Band. Navy Bandmaster E. Totino was called upon to lead this new official Navy Yard Band.
The Navy Yard Band numbered some 34 men and would increase to over 80 during WWI. Large military bands proved vital to stirring national patriotism, especially during the war. The Commandant of the Navy Yard at the time, Captain Arthur Willard, recognized this importance and took a great liking to Totino and his Navy Yard Band.
As demands on the band’s schedule increased in 1918, Willard moved the band’s rehearsal space from the Navy Receiving Station at Anacostia to the Sail Loft on the Washington Navy Yard. To this day, the Sail Loft serves as the band’s official home. Unfortunately, Totino gets little credit for his accomplishments with the Navy Yard Band, partly because his tenure was cut short. In 1919, Willard reported for sea duty, and called on his favorite Navy musician to accompany him. Totino accepted the offer and the door was open for our next leader, Lieutenant Charles Benter.
A career Navy musician, Benter was just 14 years old when he enlisted into the Navy as an “apprentice boy” in 1905. By his 19th birthday, he was one of the youngest to be promoted to Bandmaster, the highest rank attainable for a musician at the time. He then went on to direct bands on several ships, including the gunboat Paducah, the USS Rhode Island (BB17), the USS Henderson (AP-1), and the flagship USS Connecticut (BB18).
In May of 1919, Benter departed the Connecticut and arrived for duty as leader of the Washington Navy Yard Band. As a result of the military drawdown after WWI, his Navy Yard Band totaled 18 members. Benter immediately devised a plan to attract and enlist the best musicians he could find, by allowing his musicians to wear civilian clothes during off-duty hours; offering higher pay; granting permission to live off base; and by securing extra allowances in pay. These improvements resulted in the Navy Yard Band becoming one of the nation’s leading military musical organizations. In 1925, in recognition of the band’s achievements, President Calvin Coolidge signed an executive order officially establishing it as the United States Navy Band. As noted in the Boston Post on March 13, 1929, “…some folks have an idea perhaps that Navy music is made up of a few chantey choruses, a jig, and “The Star Spangled Banner.” To the average American Citizen the performance last night must have been a truly startling eye-opener. They performed like a company of first-rank virtuosi..."
By the time of his departure in 1942, the Navy Band had grown to well over 70 highly skilled musicians. During his tenure with the Navy Band, Benter and his musicians logged many accomplishments and performed a large variety of high profile ceremonial and concert engagements. They were the pride of the Navy and we remember their commitment to our country and the Navy. Benter in many ways was the “Father of the Navy Band.” To read more about him, check out the history section of our website.