Women made 'WAVES' in World War II military bands
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. (They didn’t always march in heels, but sometimes did for a last-minute gig.)
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 of 2000.
As the conversation flowed, she discovered that she was seated next to octogenarian Master Sergeant Charlotte Plummer Owen, who had directed the 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 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.
The search for female musician role models
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.”
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 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.)
Bands of sisters, trailblazers
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 military band formed during the war – the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) band – 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. And, the SPARs were the only female military branch to give their 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.
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 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.”