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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Bill Farmer poses with his uncle's, John Wilson Farmer, guitar on Monday, July 13, 2020 in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn. Farmer's uncle died on the U.S. Arizona battleship at Pearl Harbor. Farmer was going to take the guitar to the Pearl Harbor museum this spring before the virus hit. He hopes to take it now in December. It is believed to be the only musical instrument known to have been on the Arizona that survived the war.

The mail-order guitar is 85 years old and showing its age. The strings are missing and the wood finish has dulled.

Yet, to 63-year-old Bill Farmer, a Soddy-Daisy carpenter, the guitar means everything.

A six-string parlor guitar made by the Slingerland Musical Instrument Company in the 1930s, it was dubbed a May-Bell model.

It once belonged to Farmer's uncle, John Wilson Farmer, who was killed on the USS Arizona battleship at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

"I've been carrying it around for 46 years," Farmer said of the old guitar. "I've been lucky to keep it, as many times as I've moved over the years. I don't let it out of my sight. If you had an uncle that died like that, you'd feel the same way."

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Heirloom guitar reminds man of Pearl Harbor sacrifice

For two years, Farmer even kept the guitar in his work truck, he said. There was just something about having it close to him that gave him comfort.

John Wilson Farmer, whose Navy buddies called him "Will," was a coxswain on the 600-foot battleship that was sunk by Japanese bombers on Dec. 7, 1941, killing 1,177 sailors and Marines aboard. Farmer's body was never recovered.

The Pearl Harbor attack was years before Bill Farmer was born, but his uncle's legacy lived on in family lore. When he was a boy, Bill's father kept the guitar on the top shelf of his closet. Bill was not allowed to touch it until he was 16 .

As the story goes, John Wilson Farmer brought the guitar home with him to his mother's home while on leave in 1940. She lived on North Chamberlain Avenue in Chattanooga near the old Buster Brown Apparel plant. When he returned to the Arizona, the guitar stayed here.

John Wilson Farmer lived in Rockwood, Tennessee, before the war. He moved to California in 1935 and joined the Navy in 1939.

The old guitar is part of a collection of World War II artifacts that Bill Farmer has put together over the years. He also has old photographs of his uncle, who stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall, and a heavy wool Navy uniform.

Farmer often thinks about what it must have been like to be on the USS Arizona on that fateful day in 1941, but he takes some comfort in the fact that the ship sank quickly, perhaps limiting the human suffering.

Farmer's greatest wish is to donate the old guitar to the Pearl Harbor memorial operated by the National Park Service in Honolulu, Hawaii. He has a 2019 letter from the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument that reads, in part: "This artifact would be a valuable addition to our collection."

"That's where I want it," Farmer says, noting that it might be the only sailor-owned musical instrument that was played on the USS Arizona and survived the war.

Farmer said government officials asked if he wanted to ship the guitar to them in Hawaii, but he is afraid it might get lost or damaged. He and a friend had planned to hand-deliver the guitar on a trip to Hawaii in May but then the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to cancel their plans.

Now, he thinks it might be fitting to deliver the guitar at the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 2021.

"That would be really cool if I could hand it to them then," he said. "I think about it all the time."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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