Coast Guard Celebrates Historic Piano

It’s no secret the remote but vibrant Aleutian city of Unalaska is home to many treasures of Coast Guard lore, yet one of the most prominent would seem unlikely: A piano.   This piano is so important the crew from Coast Guard Cutter Munro gathered in their service dress blues at the house of City Councilwomen Zoya Johnson just to see it. Johnson generously opened her home so guests could gather around the piano keys and give a showing of the Coast Guard’s hymn, “Semper Paratus.”   The musical selection was not only fitting for the company; it was on Johnson’s piano, in the Summer of 1926, that “Semper Paratus” was first composed!   Groundwork for the event began in January, when Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher King was studying for his advancement exams. He was deep in the history and traditions study guide when he “noticed a simple line saying ‘Semper Paratus’ was written on Unalaska.” The island’s name stood out, of course. He’d visited it many times. In fact, Dutch Harbor has been central to Coast Guard Bering Sea patrols since 1885.

“Capt. Cawthorn always liked to talk to us [the crew] about history, so I mentioned the piano to him,” said King. On this tip, Capt. Mark A. Cawthorn researched the find and made an announcement to his crew later that week: “Word has it they’ve got the piano Semper Paratus was written on, right here in Dutch. So, when you’re in town, ask around. Who knows…maybe we can find it.”  

That’s all it took. The search lasted less than a day.   Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Martin, then-president of Munro’s morale committee and a volunteer for a community service event at the Unalaska City School District, took his captain’s advice over lunch with Superintendant John Conwell. Conwell didn’t know whether the piano was on-island anymore, but he referred the crew to his friend and neighbor, Zoya Johnson, the director of the Museum of the Aleutians.   She seemed likely to be the resident expert. But when Conwell contacted Johnson, he got a surprise. Not only did she know exactly where the piano was, it turned out that she had come to be its private owner. The story of how the “Semper Paratus” piano came to prominence and how it came to be with Johnson is equally noteworthy.   Eighty-six years earlier, America’s oldest continuous seagoing service had no marching song, but it could not have had a more qualified composer than Capt. Francis Van Boskerck. Commissioned in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service in 1891, his generation was witness to the heroic feats of the Bear throughout Alaska, of the Hudson in the Spanish-American War and even the official birth of the modern Coast Guard in 1915 when the Revenue Cutter Service merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service.   Soon, Van Boskerck became commanding officer of Bear and it was in 1922, while stationed aboard cutter Yamacraw at Savanna, Ga., that Van Boskerck wrote down the lyrics to “Semper Paratus.” But five years after penciling his ballad about the service he loved, he had still not come up with a melody. When comfortably cloistered on the Island of Unalaska in 1927 as a Bering Sea patrol commander, “Captain Van” finally found the time and the inspiration to finish his work. He had befriended Clara Goss, whose family owned the Unalaska Company. Goss’ family then happened to own the only piano in the Aleutians; a 1913 Bush & Lane built in Chicago, which the family had shipped to their private home in town.

According to local tradition, when Goss learned about Van Boskerck’s lyrics, she insisted he put them to music and made her piano available for the task. Thus Van Boskerck with two accomplices from the Public Health Service, Alfred E. Nannestad and Joseph O. Fournier, produced the enduring but simple compliment to his lyrics.   Sometime after Van Boskerck left Unalaska, the Goss house burned in an accidental fire and the piano was salvaged and brought to the original Jesse Lee Home for Orphans, also in town. No record was maintained of the piano’s historical importance and, after decades of good use, it fell into disrepair. In the 1980s, the home discarded the piano to a town burn-pile. Johnson’s husband, Robert, found the piano, rescued it from the refuse, patched it up and brought it to the family home where it resides today. As fate would have it, this historic instrument had arrived in the household of a historian and museum curator.   “It wasn’t until years later when we did a Coast Guard history day that we began to make the connection,” Johnson explained to those gathered at her home. “There was only one other piano on the island that might have been old enough and it belonged to my neighbor.” But on investigation, Johnson learned her neighbor’s piano arrived on island almost a decade too late to have been the Van Boskerck instrument. The identity of her piano was settled, and the care for its legacy was assured.   “It’s amazing,” Johnson commented to the crew, gathered in her living room around the old upright, “We have always been so close to the Coast Guard here. So much that you are members of this community. To find a connection like this is remarkable.” Mayor Shirley Marquardt, who was also present, heartily agreed. As it happens, her father Capt. Robert C. Towell was a Coast Guard aviator whose career spanned 30 years.   Prior to the gathering around the piano, Munro hosted Johnson and Marquardt aboard the ship and shared their deep appreciation for the hospitality of their generous hosts in Dutch Harbor and for their stewardship of a proudly shared heritage.   “In a 27-year career, I had never been to the Pacific or to the Bering Sea before reporting to Munro,” Cawthorn said at they gathered on the ship’s flight deck. “And, in all that time, I have never felt so close to our history as I have right here.”

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