S2c William Moore Mccary

Unknown Sailor

S2c William Moore Mccary

Billy McCary was five when the Birmingham, Alabama newspaper published a photo of him dressed in a sailor suit in April 1930. The caption said he was a pupil at the V. L. Vines Music School and described him as “quite a talented young man” who delighted friends and relatives with his playing.

Billy, as William Moore McCary was then known, was the only child of William Nabers McCary and Nell Moore McCary. He was born July 24, 1924. The Census conducted when Billy was five said his father ran a candy store and his mother was a homemaker.

The son attended South Highland Elementary School, where he played almost every instrument in the band. He also liked diving and fashioned a diving helmet out of oil cans. He wrote to John Craig, author of a popular 1938 book, Danger is My Business. Craig wrote back with tips about diving. Billy also loved dogs, and according to his school principal, they followed wherever he went.

The boy was drum major for the Sons of American Legion Band and played bass tuba in the Birmingham Concert Orchestra. He graduated from Shades Cahaba High School.

He attended the college preparatory program at Georgia Military College for one year and served as the school’s substitute band director. He enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 9, 1940. He trained at Norfolk, Virginia, then was accepted into the Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C., that December. 

His acceptance was a testament to his skill. Band members were supposed to be at least 18 years old. William McCary became the youngest member of Navy Band Number 21. His training was supposed to last two years, but with the possibility of war looming, the government shortened the program. Mr. McCary graduated in May 1941. The tuba was his specialty, but he also played the cornet, piano, and flute. Bandmates nicknamed him “Swede.”

A late change turned Band Number 21 into Band Number 22 and it was assigned to the U.S.S. Arizona. The musicians made their way to the battleship, whose home port was at San Pedro, California, by way of an ammunition carrier, the U.S.S. Lassen. During the trip, which included passage through the Panama Canal, Mr. McCary met deep-sea divers who were also aboard the Lassen, and they let him use their equipment.

It was mid-June 1941 when the band boarded the Arizona for the first time. Less than two weeks later, the ship sailed for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory.

The Arizona was one of the best bands in the Navy, but in combat its members hoisted ammunition to the battleship’s 14-inch guns. And so it was on Dec. 7, 1941 — with the band assembled on the fantail at the stern and about to play the National Anthem. Just then, Japanese planes flew overhead with their guns firing. The bandsmen raced to the third deck to make sure the 75-pound powder bags made their way smoothly up the electric hoists to the guns in turret two. All 21 musicians were killed when the Arizona was bombed on the other side of that turret, exploded, and sank.

In February 1942 the Birmingham Concert Orchestra performed a concert in Mr. McCary’s memory that included some of his favorite compositions.

His old principal, R.C. Johnston, formed the McCary Courtesy Squad at South Highland School. The idea, he explained in a 1953 interview with the Birmingham News, “is to create in the hearts and minds of the boys a deeper love of country, a fuller appreciation of what sacrifices have been made for us to live…” Squad members served as ushers and marshals at school functions. Mr. McCary’s parents, meanwhile, honored their son with a plaque in the school library and for years after donated books.


Sources: The Birmingham (Alabama) News is the major source of this profile. Other sources include: the Census; Navy muster roll; “USS Arizona’s Last Band, The History of U.S. Navy Band Number 22,” by Molly Kent; “At ‘Em Arizona,” the ship’s newspaper. The Episcopal Diocese of Alabama says Mr. McCary was born July 24, 1924, which matches with the newspaper account of his boyhood musical skill and his age in the 1930 and 1940 census. However,  the Defense Department says he was born July 24, 1923. 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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