Unknown Sailor

MUS2c Harry Gregory Chernucha

The “senior wills” section of Harry Gregory Chernucha’s high school yearbook said he “leaves his intense patriotism to all those who are too passive in their appreciation of America.”

Though Mr. Chernucha was born in Connecticut, his parents were immigrants who left Eastern Europe in 1913 —  just ahead of World War I. They taught their only child to appreciate the United States. The father, Harasim, was from Russia, and the mother, Anna, from what was then known as Galicia, a province in the Austrian Empire.

Harry, born Sept. 25, 1922, grew up in Nassau County, New York, where his father was a gardener and his mother a housekeeper for another family.

The son was a well known student at Mepham High in Bellmore, New York. He had a lead role in a play, Little Miss Fortune, competed in wrestling and track, and wrote a gossip column for the school’s underground newspaper, Trade Secrets.

The yearbook for 1940 — the year he graduated — described him as hilarious, athletic, and verbose.

Most of all, though, he was known for his music. He played saxophone in the band and sometimes conducted the group. He also performed on sax and clarinet with the Jolly Rogers, the orchestra that played at school dances. Outside of school, he and a small group of friends played for dances at fire halls and clubs.

Mr. Chernucha wanted to pursue a career in music, so he sought admission to the Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C. The entrance requirements were rigorous and included written and physical tests as well as an audition. Mr. Chernucha was accepted and became a member of Band Number 22, assigned to the U.S.S. Arizona. Classmates called him “Cherry” or “The Mad Russian.”

He was a musician and petty officer second class when he was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. All 21 band members were killed after they rushed to their battle station in the ammunition hold below the No. 2 turret, whose black powder magazine  exploded when the battleship was bombed.

His body was not recovered, but a Requiem Mass was held for him in January 1942 at Church of the Curé of Ars in Merrick, New York. Five-hundred people attended, including the uniformed senior band and 25 wrestlers.

Chernucha Avenue in Merrick was named in his honor in 1951.

Sources: the Nassau (New York) Daily Review-Star; Census; Mepham High School yearbooks; Mepham High alumni association; Navy muster roll. Yearbook photo. 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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