Cold War Tragedy and Triumph
For U.S. Navy in South America
By DAVID F. WINKLER
The design team for the U.S. Navy Museum’s future Cold War Gallery has completed plans for a
“Service and Sacrifice” section to commemorate Sailors
wounded or killed during the Cold War. Not all of those
being recognized made sacrifices in combat, however.
On Feb. 25, 1960, a tragic accident involving a Navy
R6D transport plane claimed 35 Sailors. What grabbed the
headlines was that the majority of those killed in the
midair collision in bad weather with a Brazilian Airlines
DC- 3 over Rio de Janeiro were members of the Navy Band
chamber orchestra en route from Buenos Aires, Argentina,
to perform at a reception for President Dwight D.
Eisenhower and Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek.
U.S. relations with its Latin American neighbors were
strained during this period. During a May 1958 trip, Vice
President Richard M. Nixon met strong protests in Peru
and Venezuela, where his car was assaulted and the
Venezuelan military had to clear a route for escape. Seven
months later, Fidel Castro seized control in Havana,
Cuba, and began moves to establish ties with the Soviet
Union. With Cuba in the Soviet camp, Soviet Premier
Nikita Khrushchev aimed to support Communist movements throughout Central and South America.
Understanding the gravity of the situation, Eisenhower
elected to head south during the final year of his administration on a fence-mending mission. To support the
presidential trip, the Navy dispatched USS Macon.
Although not asked to do so by the White House, Chief
of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Arleigh Burke ordered
the embarkation of 92 members of the Navy Band to the
heavy cruiser to conduct their own good-will work during Macon’s port calls at Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.
The first concert on Feb. 16 in Rio was well received
by some 6,000 attendees. Impressed, the American
ambassador asked the commander of the U.S. Navy’s
South Atlantic Force, Rear Adm. E.C. Stephan, if the
chamber orchestra section of the band could return nine
days later to perform at a reception for the Brazilian and
American presidents. Because Macon would be at Buenos
Aires, an R6D transport plane was dispatched to transport
the orchestral section back to Brazil.
In addition to the orchestral section and the seven-member flight crew, 12 members of an anti-submarine
warfare team who had been working with the Argentine
Navy boarded the flight to Rio de Janeiro. Four of these
men were playing cards in the tail section of the aircraft
at the time of the collision. The collision cut loose the tail
section which fluttered down to the harbor waters below.
Of the four men in this section, three were able to extract
themselves before the tail sank. They were the only survivors. Another 26 people aboard the DC- 3 were killed.
Back in Buenos Aires, the news devastated the remaining members of the band and the crew of Macon.
Given the circumstances, Stephan recommended to the
CNO that the remaining concerts be canceled. Burke,
however, did not agree.
Subsequently, Stephan held an emotional two-hour
meeting with the remaining members of the band to
discuss the important contributions it was making.
Impressed by his argument that continuing the concert
schedule would be a potent symbol of American determination, the band rallied behind the CNO’s decision.
The performance in Buenos Aires on Feb. 27 drew
20,000 to an outdoor amphitheater. Stephan later
wrote: “… number after number brought thunderous
applause from the audience that filled the outdoor
arena. The reception of the band was climaxed by a 10-
minute standing ovation.”
The band flew on to Santiago, Chile to perform before
40,000 at the municipal stadium and 100,000 at
Constitution Plaza. At Montevideo, Uruguay, it gave three
concerts at the opera house before a total of 15,000. The
warm reception given to the band boosted morale.
Though Burke continued to claim the band trip had
been unrelated to the president’s trip, a Congressional
subcommittee formed to look into the plane crash
thought otherwise. Its May 17, 1960, report observed:
“… it appears abundantly clear that the presence of the
Navy Band in South America was not only a happy
coincidence but rather an understandable and appro-
priate effort on the part of the U.S. Navy to utilize the
occasion of the president’s visit to further strengthen
our cultural ties with our Latin neighbors.”
The report gave credit to the band for contributing
to “the overall benefits achieved by our president’s visit
to South America.” ■
Navy Band archivist Chief Musician Michael Bayes assisted
with the research for this article.
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical