Harry Chernucha, Mepham's First War Hero

Harry Gregory Chernucha, born September 25, 1922, died at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941
while a member of the crew of the USS Arizona.

Yearbook Picture Harry was a graduate of Wellington C. Mepham High School, the class of 1940. His yearbook picture bore the description, "Hilarious, Athletic, Verbose,"
He was a member of the Senior Band for four years, and played saxophone with the Mepham dance band, the Jolly Rogers. At times he conducted the band. In the Band
In Little Miss Fortune He played the part of Bill Cooper in Little Miss Fortune and wrote a gossip column for the Mepham H.S. underground newspaper Trade Secrets.
Harry was on the cross-country track team and was a varsity wrestler for two years, Wrestler

The Mepham 1942 yearbook, Treasure Chest, had a page dedicated to "Mepham's Sons... Uncle Sam's Servants", and it listed Harry Chernucha "Killed in Action" December 7, 1941.

Harry Chernucha '40 The 1945 Treasure Chest had his picture and this dedication:

Wishing to present the life story of Harry Chernucha as simply as possible, we have done so by describing two landmarks in his brief, but glorious career:

First-the class will of 1940 stated that Harry Chernucha "leaves his intense patriotism to all those who are too passive in their appreciation of America."

And, secondly-a small picture of a young man in the uniform of the United States Navy, carrying the caption, "Lost in Action."

We feel that the life and death of Harry Chernucha exemplify the spirit of young American manhood, and, therefore, out of respect to the forces of freedom of which he was a part, we of the class of 1945 dedicate this, the 1945 Treasure Chest to Harry Chernucha, and to all those alumni of Wellington C. Mepham High School who have either given their lives in service of their country, or who stand ever ready to make the supreme sacrifice.

In December 1991 the Sarasota Herald Tribune did a special feature on Pearl Harbor... 50 years. There was a picture of John Weisberg, a Pearl Harbor survivor living in the area. The Mepham Alumni Association 1939 Class Representative, Fran Kotlarz Walton contacted him and was told the story of his friendship with Harry Chernucha and the events of that fateful morning.

Navy Badge John Weisberg and Harry Chernucha, both classmates in Mepham '41, were close friends as "kids." They spent many days, months, and years together playing baseball, football, music, etc. Their music was a close link that they shared, not only in school, but also playing night dance jobs for spending money at firehalls, McCluskey's, Campbells, etc. Harry, who also played clarinet and saxophone with the Mepham dance band Jolly Rogers, was a very talented musician. He was not very anxious about going into the Navy, but signed up for six years primarily to get into more music. The U.S. Navy assigned both of them to Hawaii, John arriving first, assigned to the USS Argonne. When Harry, Musician Second Class with the US Navy Band 22 on the USS Arizona, got there they were reunited with much time spent talking about "old times."

A clear and complete description of Harry's life, from the time that he enlisted in the Navy in January, 1941, until that fateful day in Pearl Harbor is told in a book by Molly Kent, USS ARIZONA'S Last Band: The History of U.S. Navy Band No. 22.. We are indebted to her and the families of the band members for the story of the last eleven months of his life.

Many boys who dreamed of being professional musicians learned of the The United States Navy School of Music, but admission entailed meeting rigorous entrance requirements and tests as well as a six-year enlistment; the usual enlistment was four years. Harry Chernucha was accepted at the music school, and after a short boot camp, attended the school in Washington, DC. Harry, who had won the New York State wrestling title in 1940 was welcomed by the other band students at the school since there was intense competition at the Navy Yard and the School of Music was often tops in wrestling. The other band students nicknamed him "Cherry" and "The Mad Russian." He then spent four months at band training in Washington until he sailed to Long Beach, California to join the USS Arizona, a World War I battleship. In June 1941 they sailed to Hawaii.

USS Arizona
Hawaii was not a pleasant place for sailors. There were no available girls, and entertainment was too expensive for sailors living on $21 a month. Their life centered around their duties on board the ship: preparation for war, duty in the first aid station at sea, loading ammunition in battle drills, and rehearsing or performing (many hours each day.) They were on duty seven days a week, playing for the raising of the colors at eight o'clock every morning and playing music on board or on the military stations ashore.

In October the Secretary of War said that he believed a collision between Japan and the United States was inevitable. In November Naval personnel and their families were ordered to return to the US from Guam. Tensions were building among the boys stationed in Hawaii, and they were writing to their families that they would not be home on leave for Christmas.

As the USS Arizona's band was becoming known it was gradually accliamed to be the best band in the Pacific fleet. The boys in the band were excited in September 1941 that there was to be a Battle of Music with the eighteen Navy and Marine bands in Hawaii. At each contest four bands were pitted against each other and as the contest moved forward the US Navy Band Number 22, of the USS Arizona, progressed to the finals which were scheduled for December 22nd.

USS Arizona Dance Band, Bloch Arena
Battle of Music 1941, Semifinal contest
November 22, 1941
Chernucha is in front row, third from left

The last of the semi-finals of the Battle of Music 1941 was held on December 6th, between the bands of the Pennsylvania, the Tennessee, the Submarine Base and the Argonne (John Weisberg's ship.) The Arizona band and the Tennessee band had been in the school at the same time so the Arizona band boys were eager to see their friends again.

The sailors had to be back on their ships by 1:00 a.m. but Harry Chernucha and Gerald Wentworth of the USS Tennessee remained on the dock chatting about politics and war until they left on the last launches to their ships.

At six o'clock on December 7, 1941 the members of the band would have been awakened, rolled up their hammocks, had breakfast, and at 7:45 the band went to the quarterdeck, and then to the tail of the Arizona in preparation for raising of the flag. USS Arizona burning after the explosion Sailors on other ships saw the Arizona band preparing for colors. At 7:56 Japanese planes began attacking the battleships, general quarters was sounded and the band dashed down to their assigned places loading powder for the guns above. The Nevada band had started playing the National Anthem ahead of time, and finished playing while they were being strafed with machine gun fire. At 8:10 on that Sunday morning a 1756 pound Japanese armor-piercing bomb penetrated the decks of the Arizona before exploding, causing her six main ammunition storage magazines to explode. That day the Arizona lost 1,177 of her men, including Harry Chernucha.

The contest trophy in the "Battle of Music" was awarded posthumously to members of the USS Arizona band by vote of all competing orchestras.

From The Buccaneer, the newspaper of W.C. Mepham High School, February 6, 1942

Mass Honors Chernucha, Victim at Pearl Harbor

Five hundred of Mepham students attended the mass held at Cure of Ars Church at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, January 27, for Harry Chernucha. Members of the senior band, the wrestling team, and the board of education, as well as former classmates and friends, were included in the throng of over 500 persons at the services for the popular victim of the Pearl Harbor disaster.

On August 28, 1951 Bayview Avenue in Merrick, NY was renamed Chernucha Avenue. It is located off Merrick Road, just East of Meadowbrook Parkway.

In the entry foyer of Mepham High School is a display with a flag that had been flown over the USS Arizona Memorial in 1991, a certificate of its authenticity, and a statement by John Weisberg.

On December 7, 2011
The 70th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor Attack
Mepham Students Honored Harry Chernucha

Chernucha Wall
Photo by Clare Worthing               Click for larger image


Mepham.Org Webmaster wrote to several of the Mepham High School alumni who knew Harry Chernucha and received these responses:

May 5, 2004 Fred Langdon wrote:

Glen Miller autograph Thanks for sending me your informative article on Harry. My contact with him was minimal. In 1939 he was the lead sax in the Jolly Rogers, I was playing third trumpet and a freshman to boot. He had graduated by the time I was lead horn in the senior band and the Jolly Rogers.

We made a couple trips to see and hear Glenn Miller at the Glen Island Casino. I've still got a Glen Miller autograph on a Glen Island Menu.

Harry was a good musician, close to George Pritchard [the music teacher] and very self confident in his abilities. It's too bad he was on the wrong ship at the wrong time.

Webmaster wrote to Virginia Heald Jackstadt:
What triggered off writing to you was the "Little Miss Fortune" picture in the yearbook, where you are standing next to Harry, with a big grin, perhaps because you were putting something over on the photographer by holding hands with Harry. I guess it ties in with the yearbook description of you as "impulsive."

May 17, 2004 Virginia Heald Jackstadt wrote: Yes, we held hands and nudged each other at band practice. He was so exuberant and fast; half the time I had a hard time understanding what he was saying. I still have a hard time even thinking he's not rustling around with us. That's because he still is, and I can see him right now, and his eyes are shining with the pure joy of life.

In a June 1, 2004 letter and June 5, 2004 telephone call Jack Nuding made these comments:

Some years ago I was at the USS Arizona Memorial, in Pearl Harbor and took this photo of his name on the memorial wall.

Chernucha's parents were White Russians who escaped from the Russian Revolution and were proud to be Americans. After the war started in Europe they said to Harry: "You know how much this country has done for us, now you go down and sign up." He then applied for the Navy Band to continue with his music.

When Harry made his first appearance on the stage [at Mepham] he yelled, "To the Czar!" Miss Barry [the drama teacher] "had kittens."

We had a combo made of band members from The Jolly Rogers which would play for dances in the area. We were playing a gig in the North Merrick firehouse when this mousy little guy came up and asked if we belonged to Petrillo's [musicians] union and we said, "No." He threatened to break our instruments so Harry grabbed him first and I helped. Then a couple of firemen came over and threw him out!