Monday, October 3, 2011

The Story of Bandmaster Jose Contreras

The Navy joins the nation in observing Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. The Navy Band will be presenting a special Hispanic Heritage Concert at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 5 at 12 p.m.

Although discrimination in the U.S. Navy against Hispanics is not well-documented, it is known that many Hispanic Sailors were given menial labor jobs and were sometimes harassed by crew members. One young man who was drawn to the Navy, and persevered in spite of this harassment, was Bandmaster Jose Contreras.

As a young boy in Valparaiso, Chile, Contreras experienced first-hand the power and allure of the Navy’s Great White Fleet. It was in the harbor of Valparaiso in 1909 that this fleet “paraded in review,” and “performed maneuvers for the entertainment of the crowds onshore” and the president of Chile. One Sailor described the impact of these maneuvers in Valparaiso as follows: “The sixteen battleships roared out a salvo such as no one in Chile had ever heard before. The effect of the thunder was electric.” Witnessing these Navy ships steaming in and out of port and hearing the salvo of the canons had a tremendous and dramatic impact on Contreras. Within a year, he enlisted as a Navy musician aboard USS Maryland (ACR 8) and left his home country of Chile forever.

Ten years later, in 1919, Contreras was assigned to the new official band of the Navy, known as the “World’s Finest,” located in Washington, D.C. This was a high honor for any musician. Shortly after this assignment, Contreras was promoted to the rank of bandmaster, the highest rank attainable by a musician at that time.

President Calvin Coolidge officially recognized the United States Navy Band by signing Public Law 661 in 1925. During the 1920s, The Navy Band gained national recognition and became a presidential favorite. As an original member of this elite ensemble, Contreras performed on many high-profile ceremonies. One such ceremony found Contreras beside President Coolidge as our nation welcomed home Charles Lindbergh from his historic flight across the Atlantic in 1927. In 1929, Contreras was on hand as the nation welcomed home Adm. Richard Byrd from his historic trip and flight over Little America, South Pole. Additionally, Contreras was heard on NBC radio as part of Arthur Godfrey’s “Hours of Memory.”

Contreras retired from the Navy in 1938. However, he continued to work for the Navy at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., until 1955. A retirement letter from Secretary of the Navy C.S. Thomas, dated Oct. 10, 1955, reads “During your many years of service, you have had an active role, both in a military and civilian capacity, in the growth of our Navy to its present formidableness. The loyal, conscientious attitude which you have displayed in carrying out your assigned duties has made you a valuable asset to the Navy.”

Contreras was a young musician who had seen the power of the United States Navy’s Great White Fleet as an opportunity to excel. He followed his dream to serve, took the chance for a better tomorrow, and rose to the top of his profession. Contreras symbolizes the spirit of hard-working U.S. immigrants, who helped forge the path of our democracy.

Senior Chief Musician Mike Bayes plays saxophone in the Ceremonial Band, as well as serving as the Navy Band's head archivist.

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