Parachuting pianos – the Steinway Victory Vertical

War is not only about the men on the battlefield, it also has a profound effect on people at home. It is always important to use resources wisely, so during the Second World War civilian populations were not able to have many of the luxuries they were used to. In America the government restricted the use of iron, copper, and brass, which meant that a number of companies had to change their focus. Steinway & Sons, for example, were no longer allowed to build pianos; instead they produced coffins, as well as parts for troop transport gliders. The situation only changed when Steinway was given permission to make specially designed pianos for the troops.

A demonstration by the Special Service Unit in Fort Meade, Maryland, in 1943. Courtesy of the Steinway & Sons Collection, La Guardia and Wagner Archives, LaGCC, CUNY

Towards the end of 1941 the War Production Board asked Steinway & Sons to make heavy-duty pianos for the military. Theodore Steinway, the company president, knew that music had the potential to boost troop morale and was happy to oblige, particularly as he had four sons serving in the military. The new pianos needed to be rugged and durable enough to stand up to conditions in the field, and to be safely dropped by parachute in a crate from a B-17. They also needed to be able to survive in a variety of different environments, from deserts to jungles, and everything in between.

The first prototype instruments were ready in June 1942. As the use of materials was restricted the ‘Victory Verticals’, as the pianos were called, were built without the legs found on most upright pianos; the manufacturers used water-resistant glue and anti-insect treatments on the wood; the keys were covered with celluloid instead of ivory; the base strings used iron instead of copper binding. By clever design the instruments used only one tenth of the metal used in a conventional piano. Weighing 455 pounds, and with four handles included in the design, the Victory Vertical could be carried by four men. Each piano came with its own set of tuning tools, spare parts, instructions, and a variety of sheet music from light classics and hymns to sing-along tunes and boogi-woogie. The pianos were painted in a variety of colours – olive green, blue, and grey.

A Victory Vertical ready to parachute into a war zone.

About 2,500 of these pianos were sent to every theatre of war, including Europe, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. They were incredibly popular with everyone, from a special service unit in Alaska to a dance band in the Philippines; and famous performers such as Yehudi Menuhin and Bob Hope (who took part in tours to entertain the troops) loved them. Another 2,500 of these pianos were produced for approved essential users such as religious organisations, schools and hotels.

It is hard to quantify how important music was for troops stationed so far from home. In May 1943, Private Kranes wrote to his mother from North Africa… “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 [sic]. 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.” Private Kranes was killed by tank fire one week later.

The Victory Verticals continued to be used by the US military after the end of the Second World War, including in the mess of the nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Thomas A. Edison!; this piano was in use until the submarine was decommissioned in 1983. However, not all of the pianos survived the post-war years so well. Three Victory Verticals were still in use in the Philippines in 1950 and were describes as being constantly out of tune, waterlogged, with sticky keys (and quite a few missing!), squeaky pedals, and looking very much the worse for wear.

Yet those pianos had served their purpose. For men far from home in stressful situations and often in fear for their lives the Victory Verticals and the music they provided lifted the spirits and bolstered camaraderie. For men who were perhaps away from home for the first time in their lives, Steinway brought a little slice of home to them.

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