Humble Beginnings: Our Guide, Our Fame and Glory Too

The piano used by the late Coast Guard Capt. Frances Van Boskerck to compose the melody for “Semper Paratus” sits in the home of Unalaska, Alaska, resident Zoya Johnson March 10, 2013. Johnson’s husband rescued the piano after it was discarded in a burn pile in the 1980s. U.S. Coast Guard photo by the Coast Guard Cutter Munro.

The piano used by the late Coast Guard Capt. Frances Van Boskerck to compose the melody for “Semper Paratus” sits in the home of Unalaska, Alaska, resident Zoya Johnson March 10, 2013. Johnson’s husband rescued the piano after it was discarded in a burn pile in the 1980s. U.S. Coast Guard photo by the Coast Guard Cutter Munro.

Story by Lt. j.g. Jacob Hauser

It’s no secret that the remote, but vibrant, Aleutian city of Unalaska, Alaska, is home to many treasures of Coast Guard lore, yet one of the most prominent would seem unlikely: a piano.

This piano is so important to the Coast Guard that crewmembers from Coast Guard Cutter Munro gathered in their service dress blue uniforms on March 6 at the house of Unalaska City Councilwoman Zoya Johnson just to see it. Johnson generously opened her home so that her guests could gather around the keys and give a showing of the Coast Guard’s hymn, “Semper Paratus.” Why this song? It was on Johnson’s piano, in 1927, that “Semper Paratus” was first composed.

Groundwork for the event began in January when Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher King, an electronics technician on the Munro, was studying for his advancement exams. Deep in the history and traditions study guide, he made a discovery.

“I noticed a simple line saying Semper Paratus was written on Unalaska,” King said.

The island’s name stood out, of course, as he’s visited it many times during his Coast Guard career. In fact, the port of Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island has been a primary port of call for Coast Guard cutters conducting Bering Sea patrols since 1885.

“Capt. Cawthorn always liked to talk to us about history, so I mentioned the piano to him,” King added.

Following King’s tip, Capt. Mark Cawthorn, the Munro’s commanding officer, researched the story further and made an announcement to his crew later that week.

“Word has it they’ve got the piano ‘Semper Paratus’ was written on, right here in Dutch.” Cawthorn said. “So, when you’re in town, ask around. Who knows, maybe we can find it.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Martin, president of Munro’s morale committee and a volunteer in the Unalaska community, took his captain’s advice during lunch with Unalaska School District Superintendent John Conwell. Conwell didn’t know whether the piano was on island anymore, but he referred Martin to his friend and neighbor, Johnson, who in addition to being a councilwoman is also the director of the Museum of the Aleutians. She seemed likely to be the resident expert. Not only did she know exactly where the piano was, it turned out that she had come to be its private owner. The story of how the “Semper Paratus” piano came to prominence and how it came to be with Johnson is equally noteworthy.

Eighty-six years earlier, America’s oldest continuous seagoing service had no marching song, but it could not have had a more qualified composer than Capt. Frances Van Boskerck. Having joined the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service in 1891, his generation witnessed the heroic feats performed by the cutter Bear throughout Alaska, of the cutter Hudson in the Spanish American War and even the official birth of the modern Coast Guard in 1915, when the Revenue Cutter Service merged with the U.S. Life Saving Service. According to the Coast Guard Historian’s Office, Van Boskerck served through World War I as Captain of the Port of Philadelphia, where the first Congress created the Revenue Cutter Service in 1790, and in 1920 he became commanding officer of the Bear. In 1922, while stationed aboard the cutter Yamacraw in Savannah, Ga., Van Boskerck wrote down the lyrics to “Semper Paratus.” But five years after penciling his ballad about the service he loved, he had still not come up with a melody.

While comfortably cloistered on Unalaska Island in 1927 as the Bering Sea Patrol commander, “Captain Van” finally found the time and the inspiration to finish his work. He had befriended Clara Goss, whose family owned the Unalaska Company. Goss’ family owned the only piano in the Aleutian Chain. According to local tradition, when Goss learned about Van Boskerck’s lyrics, she insisted that he put them to music and made her piano available for the task. Thus Van Boskerck, with Alfred E. Nannestad and Joseph O. Fournier, two accomplices from the Public Health Service, produced the enduring but simple complement to his lyrics.

Sometime after Van Boskerck left Unalaska, the Goss house burned in an accidental fire, and the piano was salvaged and brought to the Jesse Lee Home for Orphans. No record was maintained of the piano’s historical importance and, after decades of good use, it fell into disrepair. In the 1980s, the home discarded the piano to a town burn-pile. Robert Johnson, Zoya’s husband, found the piano there, rescued it from the refuse, patched it up and brought it to the family home where it resides today.

As fate would have it, this historic instrument had also arrived in the home of the town’s historian and museum curator.

“It wasn’t until years later when we did a Coast Guard history day that we began to make the connection,” Zoya Johnson explained to those gathered at her home. “There was only one other piano on the island that might have been old enough and it belonged to my neighbor.”

An investigation revealed that her neighbor’s piano arrived on island almost a decade too late to have been the Van Boskerck instrument. This confirmed the identity of her piano and ensured its legacy would continue.

“It’s amazing,” Johnson commented to the crewmembers, gathered in her living room around the old upright, “We have always been so close to the Coast Guard here. So much that you are members of this community. To find a connection like this is remarkable.”

Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt, who was also present, heartily agreed. Her father, Capt. Robert C. Towell, was a Coast Guard aviator whose career spanned 30 years.

Prior to the gathering around the piano, the Munro’s wardroom and supply department staff hosted a special lunch aboard the ship for Johnson and Marquardt. There, the two were presented with framed watercolor portraits of the cutter on chart canvases. The Munro crew also presented a wardroom plaque for display at the Museum of the Aleutians. Engravings on each gift set in brass the feeling of the Munro’s deep appreciation for the hospitality of their generous hosts in Unalaska, and for their stewardship of our proudly shared heritage.

“In a 27-year career, I had never been to the Pacific or to the Bering Sea before reporting to Munro,” said Cawthorn while addressing his crew on the flight deck minutes after mooring up in Dutch Harbor. “In all that time, I have never felt so close to our history as I have right here.”

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