SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. --
The 4th Fighter Wing commemorated the 76th anniversary of the Battle of Britain Sept. 23, 2016, which celebrates the victory over the German Luftwaffe during World War II.
The evening began with a formal event with speeches from Dr. Roy Heidicker, 4th FW historian, and guest speaker, retired Lt. Col. Charles Konsler, a WWII veteran and pilot of the 335th Fighter Squadron.
The informal part of the night ended with the burning of seven donated pianos. Each piano was decorated by some of the squadrons at Seymour Johnson AFB and judged by Col. Christopher Sage, 4th FW commander, and Flt. Lt. Douglas McKay, Royal Air Force exchange officer and pilot assigned to the 336th Fighter Squadron.
“The ethos and importance of this event is heavily imbedded within the Royal Air Force,” said McKay. “We celebrate the (Battle of Britain) with the wake, which is the burning of the pianos, for all the dead fighter pilots who don’t come back.”
In May 1940, the Armed Forces of Germany had annihilated the Armies of England and France throughout the low-countries and France. Hitler’s next target was England and Reichmarshal Hermann Goering, head of the German Luftwaffe, assured Hitler that he could defeat the British Royal Air Force and leave England open to conquest.
“In the (Battle of Britain), the Royal Air Force against great odds stood up to the power of the German Luftwaffe and brought them to a standstill,” said Heidicker.
Seven Americans flew for the RAF during this battle. Three of them were the initial cadre of No. 71 Eagle Squadron, Vernon Keough, Andy Mamedoff, and Eugene Tobin, who went on to become the founding fathers of the 4th FW.
“Once a year we celebrate the Battle of Britain because of our ties to the Royal Air Force,” said Heidicker. “As far as I know, we are the only American wing that actually does that.”
According to Heidicker, one of the key components of the celebration is the burning of the pianos, which he believes can be traced back to one of two stories.
“The first is that during WWII there was this belief in England that in order to be an officer you had to also be a gentleman,” said Heidicker. “Well, what do gentlemen do? They play the piano. It was insisted upon that British officers who were flying in the RAF take piano lessons.”
Heidicker explained that during WWII, one of the RAF bases was bombed by the Germans and the building where the piano was kept, burned to the ground, taking the piano with it. Whereupon, an RAF pilot told other squadrons that their piano had been burned to the ground so he no longer had to take piano lessons. This prompted other squadrons to drag their pianos out and burn them so they too would not have to continue their piano lessons.
“The story that I believe is the actual origin of the piano-burning tradition happened during WWII where there was a pilot in one of the squadrons who just happened to be an excellent piano player,” said Heidicker. “At the end of the day when they licked their wounds and counted their losses, they would sit around in the club and he would beautifully play the piano. As fate would have it, one day this pilot went out to fight Germans and never came back, he was killed in action. That evening the officers and pilots sat around feeling the sorrow of losing their comrade, but also no more piano playing. They were moping around the piano when finally the squadron commander just looked at the men, looked at the piano and said, ‘Drag the damn thing outside and burn it.’ And that’s what they did. To the best of my knowledge that is the origin of the piano burning tradition and that’s why we celebrate the Battle of Britain here at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.”