Women’s Military Bands
My original research started in December 2000. Using historical method and interviews with 79 women military musicians–most octogenarians–I discovered that there were eight U.S. women’s military bands and four drum and bugle corps serving during the war era. All ensembles were conducted by women, six of whom were music teachers before the war. Band members brought a variety of music experience and expertise with them into the military: music degrees, music teaching, professional dance band experience, and school, town, and industry band membership. Most women started their instrumental performing in school bands, and supplemented this instruction with private lessons. Women also remembered participating in other school instrumental activities prior to the war, such as rhythm bands, national band contests, solo and ensemble contests, and college bands. In addition to U.S. women’s military bands, Canada and England utilized women’s bands to serve their female troops. This World War II research led me to find more women’s bands that existed long before and after the war: the Women’s Air Force Band, the 14th Army Band, the Hormel Girls Drum and Bugle Corps, and nineteenth and twentieth century women’s town, military, immigrant, and suffrage bands. This important scholarly pursuit helps fill gaps in instrumental music history and music education by documenting women’s roles as instrumental musicians, music teachers, and conductors for a century in America (1870-1976).
During W.W. II the United States government created women’s reserve units and recruited women to “free a man to fight.” Each military branch enlisted women into separate units from the men and assigned these units catchy acronyms: the Coast Guard SPARS (Semper Paratus, Always Ready), the Army WAAC/WAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps/Women’s Army Corps), the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and the Marine Corps WR (Women’s Reserve). Women enlisted from all parts of the country and held a variety of jobs, one of which was being a member of a military band.
All branches of the service had women’s bands. The first activated was in 1942 at the WAAC Training Center in Fort Des Moines, Iowa. The following year all other military branches started bands, while the WAAC–later named WAC–added four more to training centers around the country. The WAVES were the only branch of the service that did not have full-time duty status for its women’s military band. At the close of W.W. II, all bands were deactivated except the 400th WAC ASF Band which was renamed the 14th WAC Band in 1947, and lasted through 1976. The following year men were accepted into the band, the name was changed to the 14th Army Band, and a man was assigned as conductor. In addition, the WAC had the only female black band in the history of the United States military, the 404th, located at Fort Des Moines.
Band membership ranged from 28 to 48 players, with a mix of musical backgrounds from high school to college conservatory graduates, music teachers, and professional dance band experience. Women jumped at the opportunity to perform in a military band since performance opportunities for women were rare. Some women reported that they turned down the chance to become officers to be in a band.
All of the ensembles had an assortment of patriotic duties that called for a variety of music. It was essential for each unit to perform concerts, march in reviews and parades, and perform at service clubs with a dance band. In addition, several of the groups had a Dixieland band, a drum and bugle corps, small chamber ensembles, instrumental soloists, vocal soloists, and choral ensembles. While touring the nation, these women helped raise millions of dollars in bonds for the war effort.