Battlefield music has played a vital role in military history for as long as there has been both music and war. A vital morale boost for the troops, a signal to get things moving, or just a little diversion from the horrors of war, we owe much success to the immense power of music.
During WWII, the troops desperately needed this power.
With the timely popularity of piano music, major piano manufacturer Steinway & Sons was put to the test.
Due to the rationing of metals and other raw materials during WWII, Steinway & Sons had to get creative to stay in business. Since pianos require hundreds of pounds of raw metal materials, Steinway briefly stopped making pianos and became a temporary coffin manufacturer.
Mercifully, the US military reached out and granted a contract to create custom instruments to provide musical hope to the troops.
These pianos, called Victory Verticals, were less than 40" tall, 40" wide, weighed only 455 pounds, and were "tropicalized" to resist bugs and high humidity no matter where they travelled. Delicate components were completely omitted: they had no front legs and ivory was replaced with celluloid. Most importantly, the number of metal components was cut by 90%, using only 33lbs of metal. The copper windings on the bass strings was even replaced with iron to conserve resources.
Victory Verticals were painted drab olive green, gray, or blue. The blue and gray ones were sent to the Navy and some were even built into submarines. Those pianos were assembled during the construction of the sub and were permanent installations. Steinway made around 5,000 of these pianos, over half of which saw battle. The rest were sent to essential organizations like houses of worship and educational institutions.
The specialty uprights were packed tightly in crates and air dropped from B-17 bombers. Each piano was packed with tuning and repair tools, an instructional manual, and a packet of sheet music. The music was primarily patriotic or religious in nature, but Steinway remembered to include a few boogie-woogie numbers just to keep things light.
Victory Verticals did their jobs, but because of materials rationing and the ultra-compact design, they sounded nothing like the full-bodied concert grand we associate with modern Steinways.
GI Steinways were played in the hospitals to soothe patients and performed at concerts and singalongs, but many troops played the piano just to lighten the mood.
One soldier wrote in 1943, "Two nights past we received welcome entertainment when a jeep pulling a small wagon came to camp. The wagon contained a light system and a Steinway pianna. Mom, you would laugh if you were to have seen it, because the Steinway is not at all like Uncle Jake’s. It is smaller and painted olive green, just like the jeep. We all got a kick out of it and sure had fun after meals when we gathered around the pianna to sing... I slept smiling and even today am humming a few of the songs we sang."