Earl Smith Jr. would love to be there.
But at 96 years old, the long flight across the Pacific Ocean for a concert in the Philippines simply isn’t practical. Still, the longtime Modesto resident would make the trip if he could.
After all, this isn’t just any kind of concert, at least where Smith is concerned. The Manila Symphony Orchestra will re-enact its performance of May 9, 1945, the original of which was in the bombed-out ruins of Santa Cruz Church in Manila.
Smith, under a direct order from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, sat in as the lead clarinet and was one of just two non-Filipinos in the orchestra during that concert and others that followed. The orchestra will perform Thursday night the same two pieces of work it did as World War II neared its end: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 and Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
So how did an American Army staff sergeant find himself front and center amid the ruins of the old church in a concert intended to symbolize the resilience of the Filipino people after the Japanese occupation?
“I arrived in Manila and was assigned to the band of the 37th Infantry,” said Smith, a lifelong musician who played in the Oakland Symphony before and after the war and later supervised school music instructors in Modesto for 25 years.
By the time he reached Manila, the once spectacular city lay in ruins, mainly from the American artillery that helped drive the Japanese out of town.
“We were stationed north of Manila in large buildings that probably were warehouses,” Smith said. “There was a whole line of Big Bertha cannons that fired night and day, pounding the downtown. The damage was horrendous. There were buildings that were literally tipped over on their sides – block after block after block blown to pieces.”
His division commander asked him to assemble a choir to sing during Army chapel services, and he agreed under two conditions: “No KP (kitchen patrol) and no guard duty,” he said.
One day, Smith borrowed the chaplain’s Jeep and drove to a church to listen to the Manila Symphony, under the director of Herbert Zipper, an Austrian. After the rehearsal, he introduced himself to Zipper, who asked him to sit in with the orchestra during its next rehearsal. He did, and Zipper called him up to the podium and invited him to join.
“I told him there was a war going on,” Smith said. “He said, ‘Go tell your bandleader you want to play with the symphony.’ I thought that would be a sure way to get a medical discharge.”
As he headed to breakfast the following morning, he ran into the Army’s bandleader.
“He handed me my new orders,” Smith said. “They were from General MacArthur to play with the orchestra.”
He asked Zipper how he arranged that so quickly.
“He said, ‘I invited General MacArthur’s secretary over for dinner,’ ” Smith said.
He settled into his new digs in the bombed-out shell of the building MacArthur used as his headquarters.
“I had a little cubbyhole I called my own,” Smith said. “That’s where I slept.”
The concerts in the Santa Cruz Church were open-air events, because the roof no longer existed. They played the first one as a command performance for the Manila Symphony Society, which raised money to support the orchestra.
“The orchestra members got to the church and workers were still putting up lighting and building the stage,” Smith said. “We started the concert late.”
While they were performing the Beethoven symphony, they heard a loud explosion. One of the light fixtures crashed to the floor “next to the trombone player,” Smith said. “If I didn’t believe in levitation before, I did then. I thought, ‘Had the enemy returned?’ ”
They also performed on numerous other occasions and in different cities at the behest of the U.S. Army Special Services.
“On or about July 20 (1945), I received orders to return to the division band,” Smith said. “They were beginning to prepare for the invasion of Japan and they wanted all hands on deck.”
Instead, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war in August.
“I waited in Luzon for a couple of months to go back (to the States),” he said.
He arrived back in the Bay Area to find that his wife, Gerry, had purchased a home even though he had no job to which to return.
“We either had to take it or lose it,” she said.
So he worked for a few years for Bank of America before teaching music in Richmond schools. He resumed playing principal clarinet with the Oakland Symphony before moving to Modesto in 1958. He taught music for 25 years. He and Gerry – married now for 72 years – stayed young together and raised their family here. He continued to play the clarinet until he was 80.
“I miss his playing even now,” Gerry said. “He had such beautiful tone.”
Word of the concert in Manila brought back great memories. Earl Smith contacted organizers in Manila, who were thrilled to learn one of the two non-Filipinos who played in the orchestra is still alive. They asked him to send along his remembrances of the time in a video that will be shown during the performance. He sent something equally important: an original flier from the May 9 event nearly 70 years ago.
He’d love to be there in person, but at 96 that wasn’t going to happen.
“Ninety-six and a half,” Gerry said proudly.