Harry Chernucha, Mepham's First War Hero
while a member of the crew of the USS Arizona.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
On December 7, 2011
|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!