Earlier versions of this story, including in the print edition of Friday's Washington Post, misspelled the last name of the Micallef family. The spelling has been corrected.
Friends, musicians honor victims of 1960 Navy Band crash
Friday, February 26, 2010; 7:08 AM
The Micallef children, all grown now, were there to place roses at the tombstone of their father, a violin player. Pat Harl and Arlene Richey came to see the grave sites of their husbands, who played horns. And Harold Wendt, the old trumpet player, was there in his wheelchair to salute his dead band mates.
It was blustery and cold in Section 48 of Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday afternoon, and the wind shook the branches of the giant tree that now shelters the graves of 14 lost musicians of the U.S. Navy Band.
But 50 years to the day after they, along with five fellow musicians, perished in a plane crash, their widows, children and comrades gathered with members of the current Navy Band to pay tribute at the spot where most of them rest: two lines of headstones, violins and clarinets, French horns and trumpets, as if still in formation.
It was the first such tribute in the half-century since the crash, which is now largely forgotten, although it devastated the families and altered the band forever.
There were a few tears Thursday and recollections of bad times as the latest generation of band members stood at attention in gold-buttoned dark overcoats and the band's ceremonial unit played "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," the Navy hymn. Family and friends walked up a slate path and stood in silence as a ribboned wreath of lilies and mums was placed by the graves and a bugler played taps.
Afterward, people marveled at how big the gnarled old tree had grown in 50 years.
The Feb. 25, 1960, disaster came at the height of the Cold War, and the members of the Washington-based band were front-line cultural warriors.
The band was visiting South America at the same time as President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the "Operation Amigo" goodwill tour, aimed at countering Soviet influence in the region, according to Navy Band archivists.
About 90 members of the band made the journey, flying to Trinidad on Feb. 6 and boarding a cruiser, the USS Macon, for the voyage to South America, according to Don Stratton, 77, a retired band trombonist. He was on the trip and almost took the doomed Feb. 25 flight.
Many of the musicians had graduated from elite music schools and played with symphony orchestras. Many had young families.
Violinist Raymond H. Micallef, 37, had a wife, three children and brand new Cape Cod in Maryland with practically no furniture. Trumpeter Richard D. Harl, 33, of Southwest Washington, was married and the father of a 4-year-old girl. French horn player Earl W. Richey had a wife and three young children in Landover.
The Macon was docked at Buenos Aires when a summons came on Feb. 22. Musicians were needed in Rio de Janeiro to play at a U.S. Embassy reception where Eisenhower would host Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek.