By Allyson Chiu / The Washington Post
Don’t call Peter B. DuPré a musician. That’s not how the 96-year-old World War II veteran would describe himself.
“I am a harmonica player,” DuPré, who spent three years stationed in England as a U.S. Army medic, told The Washington Post. “I don’t know a darn thing about music, but I know how to make a harmonica talk.”
On Sunday, moments before the U.S. women’s national soccer team beat Mexico in its final exhibition match before the start of the Women’s World Cup next month, DuPré lifted his trusty instrument to his lips and did just that — delivering a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that has since gone viral, with many touting it as one of the best versions of the national anthem they have ever witnessed.
“This was just the simple ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ the way it was written, and played the way it was meant to be played,” said the resident of Fairport, New York, a village just east of Rochester.
In video shared by ESPN, DuPré, known fondly as “Harmonica Pete,” could be seen standing on the field in Harrison, New Jersey, wearing a white U.S. women’s national team jersey and khaki pants. His face was shaded from the bright sun by a well-worn black cap that was decorated with several pins a “World War II Veteran” emblazoned across the front. When the announcer introduced him, a cheer went up from the near sellout crowd of more than 26,000 people at Red Bull Arena, and players from both teams applauded. A smiling DuPré quickly acknowledged the warm reception with a wave of his hat.
Then, he took a breath and began to play.
A hush instantly fell over the stadium as the harmonica’s distinctive sound exploded from the loudspeakers. Midway through the performance, spectators joined in, singing along and cheering when DuPré hit the notoriously difficult high note toward the end of the song. Before the anthem’s final note had faded, it was drowned out by the crowd’s deafening roar of approval. A number of people enthusiastically waved American flags.
“Well, that was remarkable,” a commentator said as cameras cut away from the raucous fans and back to DuPré, who was now seated in a wheelchair. He waved and gave the crowd a thumbs-up.
“I got chills listening to that,” another commentator said.
As of early Tuesday, the video had amassed more than 9 million views across Facebook and Twitter, earning rave reviews from people including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, current and former members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, other professional athletes and celebrities.
Soccer legend Mia Hamm tweeted that DuPré’s performance prompted “Goosebumps and tears.”
One viewer praised it as “the purest and most American thing we could’ve asked for this weekend,” while someone else opined that it belonged “on the [Mount] Rushmore of national anthems.”
After the match, which the U.S. won, 3-0, a video showed DuPré exchanging congratulatory handshakes, hugs and cheek kisses with the American players as they boarded the team bus. The team first met DuPré back in January during a trip to Normandy, France.
More than 24 hours later, DuPré was still in shock at the crowd’s response and the millions of views his performance was receiving on social media.
“I have literally played in hundreds of places,” he told The Post. “Nothing of this magnitude. This was really something else.”
For DuPré, the journey to Sunday’s performance began decades ago when he got his first harmonica in elementary school.
It was the middle of the Great Depression and his family had just moved to Bellevue, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, which meant DuPré and his siblings had to start at a new school. In an effort to make friends because he “didn’t know a soul,” DuPré turned to the school’s harmonica band, a collection of “100 or more kids,” who played the instrument.
“One way I could get to know some of the other kids in school is if I had a harmonica,” he said, so his father saved up 50 cents and got him one.
Since his family wasn’t musical, DuPré said, he taught himself.
“I used to go into the only room we had that had tile,” he said. “I used to go in, close the door and sit on a seat in the middle of the room and learn what noises came out what hole in the harmonica. I never had any lesson. I do not know anything about music.”
But it wasn’t until much later in life that DuPré became “Harmonica Pete,” showcasing his talents at places including Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and the Staples Center in Los Angeles. He even released a Christmas album last year.
By the age of 17, both his parents had already died, “making him the acting patriarch of a five-person family,” the U.S. women’s national soccer team told NJ.com in a statement. Within a year, he was in the Army, serving as a medic in the 114th General Hospital Unit, the statement said.
DuPré told The Post he was trained as a surgical and medical technician, and his job was to put injured soldiers “back together again.” One of his most vivid memories was treating the wounded from the Battle of the Bulge, a last-ditch effort by the Germans in the wake of D-Day to alter the course of the war, he said.
“The Battle of the Bulge was an awful, awful thing,” he said. “By the time they reached us, they were in awful shape. … It was all blood and guts.”
On social media following Sunday’s performance, countless people thanked DuPré for his service.
Late Monday, while recalling the experience that skyrocketed him to viral fame, only one word came to DuPré’s mind: “Magical.”
“Something was in the air yesterday,” he said. “This was a perfect time. The mood of the people was just right. I played it just right.”