Women and Military Bands in North America July 23 2013, 1 Comment
A Summer Celebration of Servicewomen
The following was taken from the Canadian Veterans Affairs Memory Project and are the words of Zona Davidson (nee West) who was a member of the RCAF Woman’s Division Band on cornet. “I was in the first all-girl military band [part of The Royal Canadian Air Force Central Band] in the world. A few months after, the army decided to get a girls’ band too. They got into the position where they couldn’t get people who could play, therefore, they took beginners and trained them.
There are rules and regulations about what time you’ll get up and what time you’ll go to bed. And I was used to getting up around 8:00 am and staying up and reading until as late as 3:00 am. And that wasn’t allowed. We had to be on the parade ground at 8:00 am dressed, brass polished, the works. And then we reported and got our meals and then reported down to the band hut and practiced. And waited for more people. When I first got there, there was only five of us, which isn’t enough for a band. So we were marking time. Well, and Central Band was in the, there was a band hut and there was a whopping big room that Central Band, there still is a Central Band. At that time, it was 60 pieces of the best in North America. And I don’t know what the situation is now and I don’t know if they’re still in [RCAF Station] Rockcliffe [near Ottawa, Ontario] or not.
I noticed a little article in the paper the other day when there was some beginning of parliament or something like that, these government things. Anyway, Central Band was there. And at the time that I knew them, there was 60 pieces and they were the best in North America. You have to pass trade tests before you get accepted. And then that’s all you do all day, practice or give concerts or be on parade. So obviously, you get pretty good. You can’t help it if you’re good, that’s all you do all day long. Marches are great but concert stuff, we were able to play pretty doggone nice music. And all kinds. Well, I was in heaven. I think most of the girls were. Five of them were married, their husbands were overseas. A couple more got married during the two years, 26 months that there was such a thing. But I don’t know, it was just … Well, it was, let’s say it was the best two years of my life. I was doing something I loved, playing music”.
The following is a review of Dr Jill Sullivan’s Book “Bands of Sisters” from RESEARCH MATTERS –Arizona State University Members of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band, which played for two years during World War II, from 1943-1945, sometimes marched in high heels during a last-minute parade. Question: What sort of musician would dare to march in a parade wearing high heels – and playing a Sousaphone? Answer: A member of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band, which played for two years during World War II, from 1943-1945.
Most people know that women were called up to work in factories during World War II, such as the iconic “Rosie the Riveter,” but few probably are aware that women also stepped forward to help the war effort by making music. Jill Sullivan, an associate professor of instrumental music in the ASU School of Music in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, was not aware of the all-female World War II military bands either, until she attended a luncheon sponsored by Women Band Directors International (WBDI) during the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago in December 2000. As the conversation flowed, she discovered that she was seated next to octogenarian Master Sergeant Charlotte Plummer Owen, who had directed Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band – the group that marched in high heels – and soon learned that there were all-women bands in all of the U.S. military branches during World War II. This was a revelation to Sullivan, who said, “Never in any of my music history classes throughout any of my education did I learn of all-female ensembles. We just accepted that historical ensembles were all male most of the time. It was quite a shock for me to find locations where women were employed professionally.” At the same luncheon table was Gladys Wright, founder of WBDI, who unknowingly issued a challenge to Sullivan. “She made the remark, ‘I wish someone would do research on those World War II women’s military bands,’” Sullivan said. “I thought that was a good idea, and so I wrote a book on this topic.” Her book, published last September, is called titled “Bands of Sisters: U.S. Women’s Military Bands During World War II.” It’s part of the American Wind Band Series published by Scarecrow Press.
Sullivan, who teaches university students who want to become band teachers in schools, said she was intrigued partially because she herself had encountered no female musicians as role models during her own schooling in Illinois, or as a student at the universities of Michigan and Iowa. “During my doctoral studies in the 1990s, I did finally have a female clarinet professor, and this was very significant to me; to this day, Dr. Maurita Murphy Mead at the University of Iowa remains an important mentor.” One of the WAC Concert Bands performs during World War II. Sullivan said that “the contributions of the women members of the World War II bands should stand as role models for women musicians today. They certainly do for me. They were trailblazers in many ways before, during, and after the war.”
After receiving her first grant to travel to Washington, D.C. from ASU's College of Fine Arts (now Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts), Women and Gender Studies and the School of Music, she began her research by combing the Library of Congress and the Women in Military Service for America archives in Arlington, Va.; the Smithsonian Institution; the U.S. Army Women’s Museum and archives at Ft. Lee, Va.; and the Marine Barracks, where the U.S. Marine Band (The President’s Own) rehearses and stores its archives. One of the important items artifacts she found in the archives was band rosters, some with post-war contact information. “I was able to begin collecting oral histories,” Sullivan said. “Over the course of several years, I gathered 79 interviews with the band women. I found that once you located one woman, she was in contact with her band sisters, so it made it easy to find the others.” As she collected the oral histories, Sullivan said, she began to realize that there was more to the story than simply women volunteering to play an instrument during wartime. “I realized they were all telling me it was the most important event of their life. I found it curious how playing in a military band for just 30 months could equate to ‘the best time of my life’ – for an octogenarian!” Sullivan found that there were more than a half-dozen permanent-duty women’s military bands, a recreational concert band and several drum and bugle corps during the war, and perhaps more that she did not learn about. Some of the women also did double-duty performing in all-female dance bands at their bases and on tour.
Most of the conductors of the bands had been music teachers before the war, and all but one held degrees in music. (The lone non-degreed conductor graduated from the Army Music School during her enlistment.) The bands were used to recruit women into the service, promote goodwill about women serving in the military, and perform for war-bond drives, Sullivan said. The musicians also entertained injured troops, serving as some of the first music therapists in our country, and “contributed in helping the U.S. government win a war.” Women had played in bands before World War II, but there was a certain “shadow” on those who were members of all-female city, family, industry, swing and immigrant bands during the “Golden Age of Bands,” from 1870 to 1930. Some members of society thought that women, particularly upper-class women, should not play wind instruments. Piano, harp and mandolin were acceptable, but certainly not brass instruments, Sullivan explained. But the school band movement during the 1920s and 30s made it acceptable for women to play all instruments, and “produced enough young women with the necessary prerequisite skills to form military bands during the Second World War.”
Each branch of the service had at least one band. The first Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) band – and the first women’s military band formed during the war – was organized at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in July 1942. There was such a strong response to the recruiting that a half-dozen bands were formed to serve the various WAAC bases throughout the country. The Navy WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – ensembles were “vastly different” from the other military ensembles, Sullivan said, because of Navy traditions, the multiple locations where WAVES trained, and the lack of a musicians’ rating for women. Unlike the other military branches, the Navy musicians practiced and performed on their own time, as “extra service done in a martial or recreational capacity to boost the morale of fellow WAVEs and themselves.” The Coast Guard SPAR (“Semper Paratus” – “always ready”) band had perhaps the most interesting accommodations – the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., which the Coast Guard took over in 1943 to use as a SPAR enlistee training center. SPAR was the only female military ensemble to give the members special musicians’ ratings and an insignia to wear on their coat sleeves, according to Sullivan.
The Marines were the last to organize a women’s band, but this band had a “vastly different start and level of support than did the other bands,” Sullivan said. “It was established and instructed by members of the U.S. Marine Corps Band, ‘The President’s Own,’ in Washington, D.C.” That band also had a privilege that Sullivan said is still a highlight of the women’s experience. The ensemble was invited to replace The President’s Own on a nationwide weekly radio broadcast on Nov. 14, 1944. Members of the Marine Corps Women's Reserve Band. Thanks to the foresight of Charles Owen, the principal percussionist of the Marine Band, the concert was recorded, which turned out to be the only complete recording ever made of the band. That radio performance also was significant because the women’s band performed in the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., where the men’s Marine band rehearsed and performed. Sullivan writes that one band member, Zetta Little, who played double-belled euphonium, said, “When we went to Washington, D.C., and we got to sit in for ‘The President’s Own Band,’ we sat right where they played. We’re the only women’s band that sat there in their place. I thought that was quite an experience.”
The band members received additional benefits, Sullivan said. “Because of the GI benefits, they purchased homes, received support for college, and became part of veterans organizations. They got all that this by playing an instrument.” So what was it about the military bands that brought the women together as lifelong friends? Sullivan wrote, “Because these women traveled the country, roomed together for two and a half years, rehearsed together daily, performed concerts nearly daily, celebrated birthdays and mourned lost family members, it is no surprise that a lifelong community based on friendship would be forged.” Sullivan said the bandwomen she interviewed would often say they felt guilty about getting to serve as musicians during the war. “I think this job opportunity arising from a nation going to war was bittersweet. It was a dream job that they loved doing, but while the men they loved (brothers, husbands, fathers, cousins, neighbors, friends) were dying from their jobs in the military." “They loved performing and touring raising money for the war, but knew their work was never life threatening. But they raised a lot of money for the war.”