MUS2c Clyde Richard Williams

Clyde Williams USS Arizona

MUS2c Clyde Richard Williams

One of the best books about the men of the U.S.S. Arizona was written by the sister of one of the sailors, Clyde Richard Williams.

Mr. Williams, a musician and petty officer second class, and all 20 of his bandmates were killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

Molly Williams Kent was motivated to write about the band after she and her mother visited the Arizona Memorial in Hawaii in 1982. A film shown at the visitor center said the bandsmen were asleep on the Sunday morning of the attack — a reward for their stellar performance the night before in a contest with other Navy bands. Mrs. Kent knew the story was false, but she began to hear it from other sources as well. Finally, in 1993, she decided to tell the story of her brother and his fellow sailors — an effort that culminated in 1996 with publication of her excellent book, USS Arizona’s Last Band: The History of Navy Band Number 22.

Most of the information in this profile of Mr. Williams comes from her book.

Clyde was born Sept. 25, 1922 in Henryetta, a town in east-central Oklahoma with a population approaching 6,000. His father, Richard Williams, was a carpenter and later a postal employee. His mother, Martha Fretwell Williams, was a teacher, a homemaker, and later a saleslady at a store.

The family of four — Molly was a year older — eventually moved to nearby Okmulgee, population 17,097 by 1930. Both children took music lessons from a young age, and Clyde could play the violin, harmonica, cornet, French horn, and baritone.

“Music was our whole life,” Mrs. Kent wrote. “Our days literally began and ended with music. Mother played the piano and Dad played violin, the musical saw, the broomstick violin, etc. Grandpa Williams, Dad, and Clyde were all very good on the harmonica and often played together.”

Clyde, known to friends as “Proke,” graduated from the local high school in 1940. He was the drum major for the band, a baton twirler, and played in other local bands and orchestras. He had a sunny disposition, his sister said, and the school newspaper prophesied that he would one day lead the most sought after band in America with the motto “Swing and Slide with Happy Clyde.”

Job prospects were slim during the Great Depression, so Clyde, after consulting with his father, a World War I Army veteran, decided to seek admission to the Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C. He was accepted but had to wait until November for an opening at boot camp and then started at the music school in December. He became the cornet player for the Arizona’s band.

His sister once asked about his schedule aboard the ship, and he wrote back this explanation:

“Here’s what we do on board a battleship. We get up at 5:30 A.M. and eat at six-thirty. At seven-thirty, we go down below to the third deck and warm up until seven forty-five. At eight o’clock, we play colors. (That’s when the flag goes up on the stern-post.) We go in and those not in the dance band clean up the compartment.

“At nine-thirty, we start rehearsal. Sometimes it is dance band, sometimes concert band. We play until eleven, and then eat our noon meal. At twelve-thirty, we play a noon concert and then go back and rehearse until four.

“Next comes chow. At five-thirty, we give a dance band concert until six-thirty.

“After that, we are free to do anything we want to, unless there is a drill.

“Sundays we play for church and get off in the afternoon, sometimes.

“In case of a fire or collision, we fall in at the sick bay as stretcher bears. In case of an attack by air or sea, we fall in down on third deck at the ammunition hoists to send ammunition to the guns topside. When we go into actual battle, our horns will be left ashore and we will be detailed to the sick bay to take care of the wounded, pick up stray arms and legs, etc.”

And so it was that December morning — with the band assembled on the fantail and about to play the National Anthem. Just then, the first Japanese planes flew overhead, with their guns firing. The Arizona bandsmen raced to the third deck to make sure the 75-pound powder bags made their way smoothly up the electric hoists to the 14-inch guns in turret two.

Within minutes, a bomb penetrated the forward magazine on the opposite starboard side of turret 2 and the ship exploded.

One part of the story that Molly Kent heard when she visited the Arizona Memorial 40 years after her brother’s death did have a kernel of truth. The Arizona band was good. It had already qualified to compete on Dec. 20 in the finals of the Battle of Music. But it did not perform the night before the attack. Instead, the Arizona musicians went to hear four other bands duke it out for a spot in the finals. (The other bands later voted unanimously to posthumously award the Arizona the winning trophy.)

Molly Williams moved to Washington, D.C. six weeks after the attack to work for the personnel department of the Army Signal Corps. She met her husband, a Navy man, during the war, and they moved to Oklahoma after his service ended in 1946. Molly Williams Kent died in July 2020 at age 99.

Unfortunately, the false story of the Arizona band’s last day lives on. As of November 2020, the web site of American Legion Post 10 in Okmulgee, named in honor of Mr. Williams and another local man killed in World War I, says “for doing so well in the competition the band was allowed to sleep late that fatal morning.”


Sources: Molly Williams Kent’s book was published by Silent Song Publishing in Kansas City, Kansas. Other sources include: Census; Navy muster roll; application for military headstone of marker; This profile was researched and written on behalf of the U.S.S. Arizona Mall Memorial at the University of Arizona.

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