Fort Hood Herald | By Jeff Osborne FME News Service
EMPLE — Azmon “Tom” Dunham, with a humorous gleam in his eye, tells people that his service in a U.S. Navy band stationed in Trinidad during World War II was “instrumental” to the war effort.
Dunham, 89, grew up in a musical family, with several family members either singing or playing instruments.
“I started carrying around a violin in kindergarten, because my mother made me play,” he said. “You can imagine, that made me the target of every bully in the school, but my older sister is rough and tumble, and she took care of that.”
Dunham has written his reflections, including those about the war, in a compilation called “Once More, with Feeling.”
“I was playing the string bass and dodging rain showers twice a day in the rainy season and once a day in the dry season. … And who knew when each began or ended,” he wrote.
“In this band we had a jazz group we lovingly called the ‘Scuttlebutt Seven,’ although it only had five pieces. Sailors were notoriously poor counters as almost everyone knows.”
He also worked for an AM radio station on the island and played in a dance band in nightclubs to entertain the troops.
“I was able to live at the Army billet in downtown Port of Spain and allowed to drive my own jeep,” Dunham recalled, “and I was also able to berth my (private Navy 33) sailboat I had rehabilitated with another band member at the Trinidad Yacht Club.”
Dunham’s days of service during World War II were not filled with constant peril.
“It was a really tough job, but somebody really had to do it or our war effort would have surely failed,” he joked.
“It was hard to take the huge yellow moon shining down across the bay as a gentle breeze moved the sails to and fro.
“There seemed to be only the problem of shoehorning it all into one lifetime. But I bore up mightily and kept on trying.”
Ready to enlist
Dunham grew up in the St. Louis area, and vividly recalls Dec. 7, 1941.
“I was out washing my car at 10 a.m., and my little brother was with me, and we were listening to the radio when the news of the attack at Pearl Harbor came on.
“We were stunned. Almost all our fleet was there. The next day, at age 16, I went to a military recruiting station. I don’t remember if it was Army or Navy, but I was trying to join.”
At age 18, Dunham was able to enlist. He ended up at the U.S. Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C.
“I already had Big Band experience when I arrived, so they kept me busy playing jobs all around Washington,” he said. “I was working my butt off, and they still wanted me to take tuba lessons. I hated the thing.
“Finally, my commanding officer heard about my background and asked if I knew woodworking. I told him we had about every kind of tool in my dad’s workshop, and I knew how to use them.”
Dunham helped do woodworking at the Office of Strategic Services “without a security clearance,” and finally helped build a recording studio at the Navy music school.
“The officer told me if I did a good job, he’d send me to the best location in the service, and that’s how I ended up being stationed in Trinidad in the British West Indies.”
After a career that included selling pianos and working as an architect, Dunham moved to Temple about five years ago to be closer to the Veterans Affairs hospital.
He bought a house on Third Street and allows previously homeless veterans to reside with him, but because of health concerns, he is hoping to move to the William R. Courtney Texas State Veterans Home.
“I’ve had a truly wonderful life and I’m blessed to be this old and halfway lucid,” he said. “I’ve really had some amazing experiences, and I thank the good Lord for that.”