“We welcome the Payson Longhorn Marching Band, led by Daria Mason from Payson, Arizona!” boomed the announcer standing in the warm sunlight sparkling off the waters of Pearl Harbor as he ushered 650 musicians onto the dock in front of the battleship Missouri.
This introduction to the 70th Anniversary Mass Band ceremony climaxed a year of effort for the Payson band.
They had come to the attention of Entertainment Marketing International (EMI), the organization that orchestrated the 70th Anniversary ceremony, by winning their first “superior” award in competition at the Agua Fria invitational in 2010.
EMI had launched its effort to bring bands to Hawaii because of Al Bodenlos, a Pearl Harbor veteran and survivor. Bodenlos lives in San Diego, but spends his own money to come to Hawaii twice a year to volunteer at the USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center.
At the 68th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor two years ago, Bodenlos had a conversation with David Atkins, president of EMI, in which he wistfully commented that it was a shame the celebration didn’t have a band, especially since survivors of the attack continue to disappear.
Inspired by the idea, Atkins spent the next two years combing the nation to find the 12 bands that performed on Dec. 7 at the 70th Anniversary.
Mason heard about the competition when EMI approached her.
“I thought maybe seven kids would want to go,” said Mason. Instead, 45 band members and eight adults — along with snare drums, sousaphones, saxophones, trumpets, cymbals, clarinets and flutes trundled onto the plane.
The band arrived on Dec. 5 and spent 3.5 hours practicing on Tuesday with 650 musicians from across the country.
“It was a little more difficult because not all the bands were marching bands,” said senior trumpet player Tim Wallace.
To help the students understand the history of that terrible attack, Bondenlos told the band members the story of what happened to him during that “day of infamy.”
“He kept 650 kids captivated for an hour,” said Mason.
“Al was cool, especially his attitude towards life,” said Wallace.
Through pictures and storytelling, Bondenlos personalized the attack, which came early on a Sunday morning. That morning, he and his mates were returning on a bus from a night in town putting on a big band swing concert. Suddenly, they heard an announcement that all troops had to report to their battle stations. Bondenlos and his fellow Navy buddies thought it was a drill.
Then the explosions started.
As Bodenlos wondered at the authenticity of the exercise, the bus driver ordered all hands to abandon the vehicle because bombs started falling close by. The reason: the Japanese aimed at all moving targets. Bondenlos jumped into a foxhole to save himself.
The bus was hit, but still managed to limp back to base. When the men arrived, the devastation stunned them. Bondenlos began rescuing injured sailors and then spent weeks cleaning up. His life changed forever after that day.
“Al personalized stories of life in the service. He was 18 when he signed up, the same age as many of the kids,” said Dawn Potter, the mother of senior trumpet player Jimmy Brown. She and Mason appreciated how Bondenlos brought home to the kids the sacrifice the servicemen made.
For four years, Potter and her husband have traveled with the band as official band parents. They even pulled their trailer stuffed with band instruments to competitions before the band started renting a U-Haul.
For Potter and her family, this trip represented the ultimate gift for all their dedication.
“This trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.
The day of the ceremony started early.
“We had breakfast at 6:30 and were on the bus by 7:15,” said Mason.
The band had another 2.5-hour practice off the dock, then without any noise practiced marching on and off the dock while a silent prayer vigil went on at the same time.
“The hardest part was keeping our instruments quiet,” said Wallace.
Both Mason and Wallace went into “performance mode” while the 45-minute ceremony proceeded. Only after they had a chance to see the video, did they grasp the extent of the whole event.
Wallace had no idea the 30 to 40 trumpet players from the 12 bands could make so much noise. Usually the Payson band has fewer than 10 players.
Mason focused on photos of the ceremony and making sure the students directing didn’t miss a beat. Only after everything was done did she appreciate how wonderful it turned out.
Potter saw the show from the deck of the Missouri along with the other parents who had traveled to Hawaii to watch their family members play. She and her husband looked down on the celebration with a unique perspective.
“We got there early and just kept our spots. We had a view from the front row,” said Potter.
Potter said besides participating in the ceremony, the trip offered an amazing educational experience.
“They learned so much about Pearl Harbor and the state,” she said.
To understand more about Pearl Harbor, Mason arranged for the band members to have a tour of the Missouri and Arizona battleship memorials.
Almost half of the 2,300 Americans who died that day were aboard the giant battleship the Arizona when a bomb reached its magazine and set off a titanic explosion. Built in 1916, the 600-foot-long, 4,000-ton “super-dreadnought” sank within minutes, despite its 14-inch thick armor plating on its most vulnerable parts and its three-inch-thick deck plating. Some 1,177 of the 1,400 crewmen perished in the attack. The explosion was so shattering, that it actually snuffed out fires burning in a repair ship moored alongside.
“As they approached the Arizona memorial, they were going on like high school kids do ‘blah-blah-blah,’ except when they got into the memorial. Then there was complete silence. It gave us goosebumps,” said Potter.
Mason said watching the ship blow up and sink so quickly stunned everyone. “We watched a movie that showed the forward magazine explosion which caused the ship to sink quickly,” she said.
She found it hard to believe more than 1,000 men died on that one ship.
“When we watched the video of the Arizona explosion, it was amazing how quickly it sunk,” said Wallace.
Besides the sobering history of Pearl Harbor, Mason put the band on tour buses to see Honolulu and the Island. She even arranged for a luau with dancing to offer the students a cultural experience.
“At the luau, they served different food such as poi and kelp. They cooked the chicken, beef and pork according to each culture’s tradition,” said Potter.
To complete the Hawaii experience, Mason and her husband Mike Buskirk invited the Payson band students to end their day at the beach with the couple.
“It was my way to let those kids who had more energy get out and bleed it off,” said Mason. It gave the landlocked students an opportunity to experience the beach. Some nights they walked, some nights they swam in a lagoon created by a seawall.
Over all, Mason, Potter and Wallace agreed the trip was well worth the year-long effort to raise the funds to attend.
The band members returned early Saturday morning from their warm island getaway to snow still on the ground in Payson.