WWII veteran Pete DuPre got to travel to his “mecca” earlier this month — West Point Military Academy. The 96-year-old was invited to the Army vs. Navy basketball game between West Point and the Naval Academy. He wasn’t just there as a spectator, he was there to perform.
DuPre has become known as “Harmonica Pete.” He got his first harmonica as a boy during the Great Depression.
“So, it was 1933 … And my dad ‘scared up.’ In the Depression, you did that when you were trying to get extra money,” DuPre told CBS News. “He scared up 50 cents. And he bought me a harmonica.”
Despite having no musical knowledge, DuPre taught himself how to play and has kept a harmonica with him ever since.
“If I’m on a plane, I play the harmonica. If I’m on a train, I play the harmonica. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I play my harmonica, and I play myself back to sleep,” he said.
He has brought his trusty instrument with him around the world — he even played it while serving as a WWII Army medic during the Battle of the Bulge.
Now, DuPre serves his country in a different way. He travels to sporting events, funerals, parades and charity benefits to play his harmonica.
He can play almost any tune by ear — he just has to listen to it a few times first. His daughter, Mary Ann, told CBS News he’ll ask his Amazon Alexa to play a song on loop until he learns it.
DuPre did this to learn “Waltzing Matilda.” He wanted to be able to play the Australian ballad for his friend, Timothy Davis.
Davis is an Australian native who founded the Greatest Generation Foundation in the U.S., which American combat veterans visit the places they served as well as war memorials.
The Greatest Generation Foundation helps fund DuPre’s travel when he has a performance. He’s traveled the world playing his harmonica — most often, the “Star Spangled Banner” is requested.
DuPre recently found himself playing his harmonica at a Carolina Panthers game and before a Women’s World Cup match in France. But his visit to West Point earlier this month was one of his most significant gigs to date.
“I’m honored to be here. I’m an Army guy,” he said. “So, being able to play here is like Mecca. It’s a key place to go and be accepted. It’s good for my ego.”
Mary Ann helps her father book the gigs, and DuPre’s son, Michael, drove him from Rochester, New York, to the picturesque military academy overlooking the Hudson River.
CBS News joined DuPre ahead of his performance and the self-proclaimed “ham” said he wasn’t nervous — he loves the attention.
“They said it’s a sell-out and it’s standing room only. All those people are gonna be in there — and then me. That’s a pretty good feeling,” he said.
As DuPre made his way to the court, students and teachers at the military academy stopped to shake his hand, thank him for his service and inquire about his harmonica.
DuPre said the attention would only grow after he performed the “Star Spangled Banner” in front of the crowd.
Before he performed, DuPre joked that he might be the most patriotic person in the room — which was difficult to achieve since both the Army and Navy academies were present.
He made his way to center court, then showed off that patriotism by playing his harmonica.
The crowd went wild when DuPre finished. He took his hat off, basked in the praise, and sat back in his wheelchair to be led off the court.
And DuPre was right — after his performance, even more people stopped him to shake his hand.
“It’s a magical thing. It’s a key that has opened up wonderful doors for me,” DuPre told CBS News. “To have people say, ‘Get a hold of that harmonica guy.’ And I’m that harmonica guy!”