This article was prepared with the help of THOMAS EDISON crew members who searched their memories to give specificity to this amazing story. Appreciation is extended to the USSVJ office which provided SRC with the names of many EDISON crew members. Assisting in the preparation of the article were crew members Rick Boorman and Terry Pendergast.
This article is copyrighted © by Edward Monroe Jones. Reproduction in whole or part is prohibited without the express prior written permission of the author.
The EDISON was an Ethan Allen (SSBN-608) class fleet ballistic missile submarine built at Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. She was commissioned on March 10, 1962 with Captain Charles M. Young commanding the Blue crew and Commander Walter Dedrick commanding the Gold crew. Cracking the bottle at the launching on June 15, 1961 was Mrs. John Eyre Sloane, daughter of the famous inventor after whom the boat was named.
All of this sounds like that of any other nuclear powered boat launching and commissioning, but EDISON carried in her crew’s mess an upright Steinway piano. While other boats, such as the NATHANIEL GREEN carried more portable, electronic organs, EDISON is the only American submarine to have ever housed a real piano over the life of the submarine. Its story is singular and interesting.
EDISON initially operated in the Atlantic and after a successful shakedown cruise made 17 deterrent patrols out of Holy Loch, Scotland. She then went into overhaul in Charleston, South Carolina from October of 1966 to May of 1968. Ported in Rota, Spain EDISON made another 19 patrols. Transferred to Submarines Pacific, she arrived in San Diego in July of 1973 to join Submarine Group 5. From there she went north to Mare Island and her second overhaul, beginning in August of 1973. After her second overhaul, she operated out of Guam until October of 1980, at which time she was redesignated an SSN in compliance with the SALT 1 treaty and accordingly was modified at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. When EDISON was converted, the piano was moved from crew’s mess to the missile control center which was being turned into the crew’s lounge with television and library. According to crew member Scott Parr, the piano was partially disassembled and crew members carried the pieces down and aft to the newly created space where it was re-assembled. The boat was decommissioned in November of 1983 at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. During all of the deterrent patrols, the Steinway piano sat in the crew’s mess. Its story runs parallel to that of the EDISON and adds a rich texture of life aboard a submarine during the cold war.
It is reported that the idea for a piano in a submarine came originally from Mrs. Sloane. EDISON veteran crew member, James LeVangie reports that the piano may have been donated by Mrs. Sloane, but other documentation supports its purchase by Captain Young and his crew for $1,500 as was reported by John Fletcher, officer on board EDISON at its commissioning. Of course, it was to be housed in the crew’s mess, but its exact location was left undefined until the boat was completed. Steinway and Sons agreed to construct a Spinet style piano and consulted with Electric Boat on its construction. The piano is defined as serial number 370862, Model 100, in ebonized satin lacquer.
The piano was delivered to the shipyard as EDISON was nearing completion. The boat was in the water, but still had its access patch over control open. The piano was lowered by crane through the soft patch, through radio in control, which had to be partially disassembled, and onto the mid-level deck of crew’s mess. It competed for deck space with mess and serving tables as well as a slot machine which was later installed in Holy Loch. It was eventually located on the forward bulkhead, to the left of centerline on the port side. Unfortunately, its positioning presented a slight problem to ship’s cooks, because two supply lockers could not be opened without moving the piano. The cooks solved this problem by devoting the lockers to seldom-used supplies. Besides, they found that the piano’s sound board made a good place to store napkins. The piano was bolted to the deck using only its two legs as bolt-down points. The bulkhead provided ample for-and-aft stability.
The crew’s mess on EDISON was aft of the operations/torpedo room and forward of officer berthing. The commanding officer’s and executive officer’s staterooms were immediately aft of the crew’s mess. Crew’s berthing was on the lower level beneath the piano. Several constraints arose that limited piano playing by crew members. These were voiced by officers aft of the piano and enlisted men below it, who needed sleep between standing watches. Nevertheless, veterans of the EDISON reported that the piano got plenty of use by anyone who thought of himself as a second George Gershwin. EN1 Malcolm Snellgrove, MMC Gordon Wetzel, PN1 Larry Krieger and COB Joe Nichols played the piano as time and conditions allowed. Captain Dedrick of Gold Crew was also an accomplished pianist. Later, in the 1980s, it was played by MM1 Mark Johnson. There was plenty of plunking and key pounding by the less talented, but during Sunday services the piano served a real function as instrument for hymns. The most popular hymns played and sung were Amazing Grace and Rock of Ages.
Crew members put on Over the Hump or Mid Patrol Frolics to celebrate the approximate mid-point of a deterrent patrol. Naturally, the piano played a central role, since nearly all the crew’s mess performances featured so-called musicals. One such performing group called themselves, The Velvet Sweat Pig Tabernacle Choir.
Of course, the piano’s use was dependent on the makeup of the crew. As crew members were transferred on and off the boat, the number of those who had musical talent varied. The piano’s heaviest use was during the boat’s initial years. But even in the late 1970s, the Gold Crew’s executive officer, LCDR Fred Gower, played it frequently and expertly. Additionally, its use depended greatly on the captain’s inclination toward music, so it was logical that some EDISON veterans remembered its extensive use while others couldn’t remember it ever being played. Several crew members remembered sing-a-longs with traditional favorites such as Down in the Valley, My Old Kentucky Home and Home on the Range being played when conditions allowed the piano’s unrestricted use. Those in adjoining compartments could sometimes hear the raucous strains of, The Man On the Flying Trapeze. One rock and roll pianist, Richard Schmidt, gave a remarkable imitation of Jerry Lewis hammering out, Great Balls of Fire
The concept of a submarine piano is contradictory to a basic submarine axiom: remain undetected by being quiet. Patrol operations meant a good deal of stealth and during these times the piano’s keyboard cover was locked shut. Naturally, there were exceptions. On one patrol a tenacious Soviet boat stuck close to the boat’s tail and all of EDISON’s cunning couldn’t shake it. After weaving and dodging, the captain (who remains anonymous) decided to serenade his Soviet companion. An extended microphone cable to the UQC was run into crew’s mess. After several American patriotic songs were played, the performance ended with a blast of the klaxon. It was viewed by the defiant Americans with good natured humor, but the Soviet submarine refused any recognition. Still, men in crew’s mess swapped good verbal images of Soviet sonarmen bewildered by their crazy American adversaries.
Because the piano took a beating from so many self-professed musicians, it was necessary to have it tuned during each overhaul. Once into the submarine, the piano remained in the crew’s mess during EDISON’s subsequent two overhauls. The yard metal shop fabricated a sheet metal cover to protect its ebony finish from the heavy-handed yard workers. The piano shield was removed long enough for it to be tuned during each overhaul by a professional piano tuner. Crew members tell of a wide-eyed little Scotsman who stumbled through hatches and tripped over cables and air hoses as he made his way down into the boat’s bowels to do his specialized work. Once at sea, however, the piano went out of tune. It was found that a 13/14 torpedo wrench fit the string pegs and the sonar techs provided a frequency generator for the proper tone. It was the torpedomen who did the tuning at sea and many plunks were required on each string to get it right. This drove the eating crew members crazy, but piano tuning became as important as missile monitoring.
The Salt conversion required the removal of missiles with some of EDISON’s silos weighted with ballast cans. It was only a few years thereafter that the boat was decommissioned. The piano’s fate was nearly tragic. Damaged on removal from EDISON, it was transported to a Naval Museum warehouse where it reportedly became the home of rats and other creatures. Humid storage damaged the veneer finish and warped keys. In 1992 a few EDISON veterans including James LeVangie undertook to have the piano restored and placed in an appropriate museum, but their efforts to locate the piano had many dead-ends. Only two weeks before the Naval Museum was to destroy the piano, it was discovered. When the EDISON crew members approached Steinway and Sons about the fate of the piano the company was receptive to the concept of restoring it to the condition it was in when placed aboard Edison. At the eleventh hour, the piano was rushed to New York where Steinway and Sons went to work to prepare it as a one-of-a-kind show-piece for its 150th anniversary. The piano now resides in the Steinway Museum in New York. At some point in the future it is destined to be moved to the Naval Museum. It remains as the only piano to be an integral piece of equipment in an American submarine.