The U.S. Navy Band was as much of a source of pride for the Navy as the sea-bearing military force is for America, which is why both the Navy and America suffered a tragic loss from a plane crash in 1960.
At the time, Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower was making an official visit to Brazil and was a guest for Brazilian president Jascelino Kubitschek. The band was to perform that evening at a dinner where both presidents would be in attendance.
According to Naval archives, the chief of naval operations, Adm. Arleigh Burke, wanted to schedule the band for several appearances on the South American trip. Upon leaving from Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Navy transport plane collided in air with a Brazilian airliner near Rio de Janerio. Sixty-one people on board were killed, including 19 members of the band, specifically the strings section. Only three sailors survived the crash. They had been playing cards near the back of the plane.
A Washington Post article on Feb. 26, 1960 described how horrified spectators watched as the two planes smashed into pieces and sank in Guanabara Bay in the middle of the afternoon. Eisenhower and Kubitschek visited the survirors that day at a hospital. One eyewitness said to the Post he saw the plane coming out of the fog near a mountain. The plane was missing its rear section and the eyewitness said he could see objects spilling out of the fuselage including what he thought was a human figure.
According to a more recent Washington Post story (in 2009), the other members of the band were ordered to continue with the tour, even though their moral was devastated after the crash. "Boys, I want you to know that your playing in South America may stop the Russians from coming with guns," an admiral told the band members, columnist Drew Pearson reported. "This is part of the cold war." "The only thing stopping the Russians from coming here with guns isn't the Navy Band," one member replied. "It is the Strategic Air Command, and we both know it."
The Navy band was formed in 1924. The 16 members killed in the plane crash were part of a 90-man member band at the time. The strings section was never added back to the band after the crash. A year after the crash, a window painted in honor in the band members killed in the crash was dedicated and placed in Christ Church in Rio.