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The 5th United States Army Band

Contributed by: Jack Kopstein

The Fifth United States Army Band was stationed at Fort Sheridan Illinois from 1949 when it was designated as the Fifth United States Army Band, until the Fifth United States Army moved its Headquarters to Texas in the early 1970′s. The mission of the band was to build troop morale, participate in military ceremonies, and to represent the Army at public events. The band played a major role in promoting a positive image of the Army and in recruitment efforts.

The unit, often called “Chicago’s Own,” was the official Headquarters band of the Fifth U.S. Army and was the first or lead-off unit in Chicago area parades, celebrations, and special events. Richard Daley made the band a priority in official Chicago ceremonies when dignitaries visited the city. Some folks called the band “Daley’s Own!” The band performed at many varied events. A typical week could include a choral concert in Saint Louis, MO, a band concert in Milwaukee, WI, a street parade in Gary, IN, and a military review at any installation within a 13 state area. Besides these engagements, woodwind and brass ensembles, dance combos, small choral groups, and buglers were often called on to perform at official military functions. The band had a weekly radio program on Chicago station WGN that ran for over 20 years. The Fifth Army Band was the Ceremonial Band for the funeral of President Eisenhower.

Be the occasion a solemn memorial or a festive affair, The Fifth Army musicians, in handsome dress blue uniforms, presented elite precision and spirited performances. The band traveled over 30,000 miles in 1966, as an example, to present concerts or parades in 141 cities and in 7 states. The band was know for its high standards, sharpness, “spit and polish” and outstanding musicianship.

A fifth Army Bandsman wore many hats. In addition to the 85-piece concert band (which had a full complement of instruments for a full symphonic concert band), musicians could have been members of units within the unit such as a wind ensemble, a chamber ensemble, one of two stage bands, dance combos, a 40 voice men’s chorus with 40 piece accompaniment, or other various smaller groups.

The Fifth Army Band Music Library was one of the most complete music libraries in the country for band, dance band, and choral music. The collections included over 4000 arrangements for Symphonic Band, 700 Marching Band publications, 900 arrangements for Brass and Woodwind Ensembles and a very extensive selection of Choral and Dance Band publications and charts. There were unique and special arrangements found in the library that were composed or arranged by members of the band.

One of many highlights of the Fifth Army Band experience was the appearance of Czech composer Vaclav Nelhybel, who had a major impact on symphonic band music with his exciting, rich, dramatic compositions. Nelhybel  was known throughout the world for his emotional and extensive compositions. Nelhybel conducted the Fifth Army Band during taping and recording sessions of his works. In the early 1960′s, Chief Warrant Officer B.G. Cook, Bandmaster of the Fifth U.S. Army Band decided to invite Czechoslovakian born composer, Vaclav Nelhybel to come to Ft. Sheridan and record some of his works for symphonic band. The circumstances were right for such a venture as enlistments were up because of the Vietnam War, there was no instrumentation wanting, and the 5th U.S. Army Commanding General, J. H. Michaelis was supportive of the band and Mr. Cook. Plans were made, additional bandsmen were invited to participate in the recordings, augmenting the group to nearly one hundred musicians. The significance of these recording sessions are three fold. One, there was to be no shortage of Nelhybel’s beloved woodwinds. Unlike band publishers who “trim” the instrumentation to help sell the music, here, there composer could have all the players he would like. Secondly, there was little restriction on the rehearsal time available. And finally, having the composer present is key to authenticity.

On June 22, 1966, the band recorded “Symphonic Requiem,” “Andante and Toccata,” “Chorale,” “Trittico,”, and “Prelude and Fugue.” The composer conducted all except for “Trittico,” for which Mr. Cook was on the podium. The next year, Mr. Nelhybel returned and on March 2nd and 3rd conducted, “Symphonic Movement,” “Toccata,” “Concerto Antiphonal,” and “Estampie” for the second recording. Mr. Cook conducted “Adagio & Allegro.”

The history of the Fifth Army Band actually can be traced back to December 1, 1941 when at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, the band was activated as the Signal Corps Reserve Training Center Band. The band was then assigned to Camp Crowler, Missouri where it became the 348th Army Band in 1943. In 1946, the band was used extensively to support the war effort as a “Goodwill Ambassador” and traveled over 20,000 miles to help recruit troops and raise funds in the U.S. Saving Bond drives to support our troops in battle overseas. In September 1946, the band came to Fort Sheridan, Illinois and on April 25 1949, the band was designated as the Fifth United States Army Band. It remained at Fort Sheridan for over 25 years until the Headquarters was moved to San Antonio, Texas in the 1970′s.

In 1972, the Band was decommissioned as the 5th Army Band, and the unit was sent to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. It was then renamed the 81st Army Band.  Fort Sheridan, was officially closed by the Army on May 28, 1993.

Commercial recordings of Nelhybel’s music are few and usually contain half of the players that were utilized by Mr. Cook and the Fifth U.S. Army Band, but  fortunately the music of Valclav Nelhybel can be heard on Commemoration by the United States Navy Band.

* Some excepts: Edited by John Haugen Fifth Army Bandsman 1965-1968.

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