The Guitar with A Broken Neck
True Story From World War II
By Norm Walters
The guitar and I went overseas to war and It got seriously wounded, but, thank the Lord, I never did.
During the depression, I traded my single shot .22 caliber rifle for this special guitar, It was an “even up” trade. And in 1936 I left the farm with my guitar under my arm and moved to a town. Where I enjoyed a number of musical years with a carnival. The guitar and I traveled through the states of South Dakota and Minnesota. Later we traveled with a road building construction outfit throughout the State of Minnesota. 1942 came the big move to Southern California and the guitar came along then too. Didn’t play it much then as I worked 7 days a week and there wasn’t much time.
June of 1944, when Uncle Sam said anybody 25 years old regardless of job or dependents was needed in the service. Spending 17 weeks training at Camp Roberts, California. There was no time for playing my guitar during that period, I graduated and had 10 days furlough. Then we went on to Ford Ord, California and I kept the guitar with me as I knew we were headed for the South Pacific. (It might be mentioned at this time the Norm’s wife Alice was living in an 18′ trailer with her two young children, Ron Walters and his sister, living on a G.I.’s salary and trying to hold a family together on the home front.)
Actually, we headed for the replacement depot in Finschhafen, New Guinea. This is when the guitar started getting a real workout. 1,880 G.I.’s were aboard the ship and it seemed about half of them could strum the guitar a little and wanted to. My guitar was the only one aboard the ship and they used to sit or stand in line to play it for a few minutes.
The weather near the equator was so hot (and of course, no air conditioning) that the G.I.’s would be sitting up doing nothing half the night and the guitar really got a workout. The guys never asked who owned it or if they could play it. They just did.
About the time we reached New Guinea someone said to me “Oh, your guitar is broken.” I said, “What happened to it?” The G.I. said that he thought it got knocked over. We went and looked at it and there it was, the head hanging on the strings, the first casualty on our trip. Its’ head was broken off right back of the nut, I said, “Oh, that’s the worst thing that could have happened to it.” The G.I. said, “You might just as well ‘deep six’ it. I don’t think anyone can or would fix it.” I said, “NO, I’m going to keep it and someday I will fix it.”
By now we thought we would be reaching our destination when we found out that the replacement depot had moved to Leyte Philippines, so we had a new port to head for. In the meantime, I held the broken body of my guitar. I wrapped the head with the strings still attached and tied it to the neck. That way it was one piece instead of two. It would be easier to carry that way.
When we left the ship in Leyte we crawled over the side and down on a cargo net into a waiting landing boat. With my complete pack on plus the old broken guitar tied to my back, must have looked quite a sight because I got a few laughs and there were some snide remarks. We were in Leyte, Philippines for about a week then were assigned to the 116th Combat Engineers 41st Infantry Division. They wanted me in this unit because of my previous experience.
Zamboanga City, Philippines
Soon we set out for a landing on Zamboanga (Southern Mindanao). I kept the broken guitar with my backpack saying to myself, “Someday I will have time to fix it.” About a month after we landed things were quieting down a little, As it was two guys were assigned to each heavy equipment shovel, bulldozer and heavy motor patrols which were actually road scrapes. We were maintaining the airstrip. I found out later that this airstrip was sniper ridden.
The enemy would hide up in the tops of the palm trees and take aim from there. I took the place of a G.I. that had been shot to death on that very airstrip. I knew angels were watching over me and my buddies during this time. As it was with two men per heavy equipment that meant we had to work one afternoon and the next morning ’till noon, then we would be off an afternoon and a morning. So I found myself with some extra time on my hands. Now I could fix the guitar!
The Motor Pool
The motor pool had all kinds of tools, saws, etc.. So I carefully took all the strings off, saving every one of them because I knew there would be no chance to get new ones. I fit the head back on the guitar and clamped it in place.
I found a twelve-inch piece of half round brass and painstakingly started bending and adjusting it to fit. After I got a perfect fit I took a saw and cut into the back of the neck approximately three inches from the nut. I then carved out all the wood from the cut back to the head, just deep enough so the back of the neck was level or straight with the half round brass piece that had been bent and adjusted so that it fit the back of the neck and the head of the guitar.
I drilled holes in the brass piece for the placement of the screws and the head. There it was tight and solid. I took off the clamps and put on the old strings and started tuning up. When along came another G.I. from another outfit who had a clarinet. So I tuned the newly fixed guitar with the clarinet as a reference point. Behold, I got it tuned without breaking one string!
In the meantime, I had been writing to Alice (my wife of six years), who wrote me every day, to send me a couple of strings every time she wrote. That is how I kept the guitar in playing condition. Since now it was in playing condition and I knew we would be in Leyte a week more, I decided to make a pickguard for the guitar as well. I found an 8-inch piece of clear Plexiglas and traced a hole and curves of the guitar. I beveled and polished the edges as well as the whole pickguard.
I had a photo of Alice that I had cut out of our wedding picture. I’d been keeping it in my billfold. I took the picture and cut it in a perfect circle laid it in place on the back of the pickguard then I sprayed the back side black all except the circle that held the photo. It made a perfect picture frame. I drilled a hole in the picture guard (as I now call it) and installed it on my guitar. I was always going to put another picture guard with my photograph just opposite the guard with Alice’s picture but never got around to it.
The people of Zamboanga City, Philippines liked to party at night and during the day sleep and take it easy. A G.I. with the clarinet and I played for a number of their dances. They were usually held in a home or in a clubhouse that had a dance floor.
Thirty days after the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima we set out for Japan. Actually a town by the name of Kure, which is only about thirty miles from Hiroshima. The guitar continued on with me and was used and played in Japan.
Good Old U.S.A.
The last part of December 1945 we started back to the Good Old U.S.A… We finally landed on home shores the first few days o January 1946. We then headed back to Fort McArthur, California and I was discharged the last part of January 1946. The guitar was enjoyed the whole time except after it got wounded. Once it was back in playing condition it continued to be a joy to me and the other G.I.’s.
Once home, I hung it in the garage and it has been there ever since. Recently, I took it down and put new strings on it and it still plays OK and sounds pretty good. But now I have a D28 Martin so the old guitar is mostly for memories and a keepsake.
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