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Music bridged cultures for serviceman

Staff Photo: Jay Jones
 Bob Astalos sits in his Conyers home surrounded by his musical instruments. His love of music served him well in the Army Band when he was a member of the First Cavalry near Sendai, Japan, in 1953. 

Staff Photo: Jay Jones Bob Astalos sits in his Conyers home surrounded by his musical instruments. His love of music served him well in the Army Band when he was a member of the First Cavalry near Sendai, Japan, in 1953. 

CONYERS — Robert "Bob" Astalos fell in love with music at the impressionable age of 7 listening to the Big Band sounds of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. The clarinet and saxophone were his weapons of choice.

He formed his own band, "Bobby's Knights," in high school and played social events, school dances and smoked-filled honkytonks that should have been off-limits at their age. Astalos' went on to Michigan State to major in music, but after two years Astalos and his younger brother joined the Army.

"We were undecided about our future," Astalos said. "So, even with the Korean War in full swing, I signed the dotted line."

After basic training, he volunteered for the Army Band. The music instructor handed Astalos a clarinet and said, "Soldier, play me a C scale." Astalos played him a C scale and that easily, he was in the Army Band. Sent to Fort Dix for music training, he played with an assortment of talents including musicians that had played with Tommy Dorsey and other big name bands.

"We played music, we jammed, talked music, played jazz, lived music, ate and slept music," he said "It was great!"

Astalos married his sweetheart, Joanne, in September 1952, but their honeymoon ended in December when he received orders for Korea. Boarding a troop ship in Fort Lewis, Wash., Astalos endured intense storms en route.

"The ship would dip like a submarine into huge waves; then suddenly point straight up like a missile. We slept in hammocks slung eight-high, so when the guy in the top hammock got sea-sick, well, it wasn't a pleasant experience."

The troop ship was halfway across the Pacific when the armistice was signed in July 1953 to end hostilities in Korea, so Astalos ended up in Japan and assigned to the First Cavalry just outside the town of Sendai.

Astalos said, "I reported to Camp Schimmelpfennig right outside..."

"Camp what?" I interrupted.

"Camp Schimmelpfennig. It was named after a German officer."

"A German officer? Why?"

"I have no idea."

"How do you spell Schimmelpfennig?"

"I have no idea."

"I'll look it up."

A short taxi drive out of Sendai, Camp Schimmelpfennig was named for a U.S. Army Colonel Irving R. Schimmelpfennig, who was killed in action in the Philippines in 1945.

"I remember my taxi ride to the camp," Astalos said. "The taxi driver was drunk and played chicken with concrete bridge abutments. I was never so glad to get out of taxi in my life!"

As the world knows, Sendai was the epicenter of the recent earthquake and victim of the massive tsunami that has ravaged Japan.

"I'm heartbroken for the people of Sendai," he said. "When I was there the Japanese treated us with respect and honor. The fragile homes were decorated in beautiful pink and gold colors, and the land was so flat, filled to capacity with rice paddies that covered miles and miles of mother earth. You'd see odd and stunning slopes to the roofs and Japanese women strolling along with gorgeous silk umbrellas, just like in the movies."

Asked about animosity by the Japanese from World War Two, Astalos said there was none.

"You'd see the rusting hulk of a ship every now and then, but the people never mentioned the war nor did we," he said. "In fact, the Japanese Army bands would jam with us. They loved American music. We couldn't speak because of the language barrier, but music is the language of the world."

Armed with his clarinet and saxophone, Astalos and the First Calvary musicians led every military parade and made frequent trips to distant mountains to play concerts for local villagers, all for goodwill. Jazz concerts at the Officer's Club were common.

"One of the neatest things was walking into a bar in Sendai and listen to a Japanese band play the music of American legends, like Benny Goodman. They were outstanding musicians, and we'd jam with them at every opportunity."

After the recent earthquake and tsunami, the world heard repeated stories of entire trains missing. "That's easy to understand," Astalos said. "I took many a train trip, and the majority of track ran right beside the ocean. The land was so flat it wouldn't take much of a wave to flip a train."

After a year in Sendai, Astalos was transferred to Camp Drake outside of Tokyo and joined by his wife, Joanne. "We enjoyed Tokyo," Astalos said. "But I suppose my fondest memories will always be of Sendai." Astalos and Joanne lived in traditional Japanese homes with mats, futons, and no heat in the piercing cold. A barrel on the roof provided water.

After returning home, Astalos re-entered Michigan State and earned his undergraduate degree in personnel management, followed by a Master's in Psychology.

Now retired from a lifelong career in business and personnel consulting, Astalos and Joanne are active church members of Epiphany Lutheran, work in Kairos Prison ministry, and both are practicing Stephen Ministers and Spirituality leaders. In his retirement Astalos enjoys teaching future generations how to play the clarinet and saxophone, and for his own continued musical education Astalos has mastered the flute, guitar, banjo, electric bass, keyboard, violin and autoharp.