On February 25, 1960, a Navy transport plane carrying 19 members of the band collided with a Brazilian commercial airliner over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, resulting in the loss of all the musicians on board. That event 50 years ago this February marks the largest tragedy in the band’s 84 year history, and is vividly remembered by the families of the deceased, as well as by the surviving bandsmen who mourn the loss of their shipmates.
In the early ‘60s, the United States was firmly entrenched in fighting the Cold War, and one of the fronts in this struggle was South America. Acting on the belief that the Soviet Union was attempting to expand its influence in the western hemisphere, President Eisenhower traveled to South America on a goodwill mission dubbed “Operation Amigo.” In support of that mission, 93 members of the Navy Band departed on February 6, 1960 for a 30 day tour, to perform at various functions for the president and other dignitaries. The first leg of the journey was a flight from Andrews Air Force base to Trinidad, and from there the band was billeted on the USS Macon (CA 132), a Navy cruiser. According to CDR (ret.) Allen Beck (then a musician 2nd class, who later served as the seventh leader of the Navy Band, from 1984 to 1989), “Over 90 musicians on a cruiser like that was, I think, a shock to a lot of the Sailors who were on that ship. They weren’t used to having musicians on board.”
|Memorial stained glass window located in Christ Church of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil|
|Dedicated on September 24, 1961, this window was made possible through the generosity of church members and friends desiring to perpetuate the memory of the Navy personnel who perished tragically in the crash. At a memorial service in Christ Church, Rear Admiral H.P. Weatherwax (Chief, U.S. Naval Mission - Brazil) unveiled the window "...to the glory of God, and in memory of the men of the U.S. Navy who lost their lives in an air disaster in Rio de Janeiro in the year 1960."|
While the band and the president were visiting Buenos Aires, Argentina, Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek invited Eisenhower to an unscheduled reception at the U.S. embassy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on the evening of February 25th. The Navy Band was asked to provide “semi-classical” music for the reception. Early on the morning of the 25th, a small chamber orchestra of 18 enlisted men and one officer boarded a Navy R6D transport plane for the short trip to Rio de Janeiro, wearing their dress khaki uniforms. On approach to the airport in heavy fog, the Navy plane collided with a Brazilian commercial airliner over Guanabara bay, and fell in pieces to the water, with the loss of all on board except three: Lieutenant Junior Grade George P. Fitzgibbons, Sonarman 2nd Class F.E. Wilson, and Aviation Ordinanceman 1st Class H.R. Halenza, who miraculously survived in the tail section, which was severed from the rest of the plane. These three Sailors were not attached to the band; they were accompanying it to Rio as part of an anti-submarine crew. Twelve of their crewmates also perished in the accident. Including the Brazilian airliner, approximately 80 lives were lost that morning.
Memorial services were held on the Maconto honor the lives and service of their shipmates. An excerpt from a special memorial section of the Macon’s cruise book reads: “They were ambassadors in the highest and best sense speaking a universal language to the hearts of men without regard of border, breed or birth. What seemed to be a voyage which would be remembered as “The President’s Cruise” will always be recorded in our hearts as “The Cruise of the United States Navy Band.”
Understandably, the grief felt by the rest of the band when they heard the news of the crash was profound. Like today, the band then was a permanent duty station, to which personnel were assigned for their entire Naval careers, and the band members reacted to the loss of their shipmates very much as if they were family. Adding to already trying circumstances were security measures related to the president’s trip, which made it difficult to immediately inform families in the U.S. about the accident and release an official list of the deceased. A meeting was held with the enlisted bandsmen and officers, at which they were informed that the rest of the tour would continue as scheduled. This controversial decision was difficult for the band, but the trip continued for several more days before the return flight to Andrews Air Force base.
At a funeral service on March 8th at Arlington National Cemetery, 14 band members were buried with military honors. (Private family ceremonies were held for the other five men.) A 42-piece joint services special funeral band comprised of musicians from the Marine, Army and Air Force bands and selected musicians from the Navy School of Music honored their fallen comrades by providing music for the ceremony. Vice President Richard M. Nixon attended, along with Secretary of the Navy William B. Frank and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke.
Below is a list of the bandsmen who perished that day. They will forever live in our hearts and minds.
(Navy Band Public Affairs sincerely thanks MUC Michael Bayes, Navy Band archivist, and the archives team for their research and assistance).
Navy Bandsmen who perished in the plane crash
Listing of names following the images left to right
LT Johann Harold Fultz
MUC Walter M. Penland
MU2 Milton G. Bergey
MUC Raymond H. Micallef
MU1 Gerald R. Meier
MUC Jerome Rosenthal
MU1 Vincent P. Tramontana
MU2 William F. Albrecht
MU1 Anthony M. D’Amico
MUC Henry Bein
MU1 Richard D. Harl
MU1 Robert L. Clark
MUC Earl W. Richey
MUC Elmer L. Armiger
MUC James A. Mohs
MU1 Roger B. Wilklow
MUC Jefferson B. Young
MU1 Reyes S. Gaglio, Jr.
MUSA Albert J. Desiderio