Military Bands and the Women’s Army Corps

Written by Stephanie Nickols

On May 15, 1942 the United States government enacted Public Law 554 creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Thousands of women enlisted in the WAAC in order to help with the war effort. Five training centers were formed to train the women for Army life and to be placed in one of the 239 different jobs established for women in the Army. One of these was the band.

With WAAC enlistment increasing, it became clear that military bands would need to be placed in each of the WAAC training centers in order to perform the martial duties of the Army as well as maintaining a positive morale amongst the troops[1].  To create these bands, the Army recruited women who indicated that they had musical backgrounds and/or experience during their enlistment interviews. Once they had completed their basic training, the chosen women were sent to join the band in their respective training facility[2]. All of those selected for the first WAAC band had musical backgrounds as either teachers or former professional musicians. More bands would be formed by either pulling from the current members of the first WAAC band or by teaching other enlisted members of the WAAC to play instruments. By 1943 the WAAC had formed five separate bands, each given Army Band numerical designations: 400th, 401st, 402nd, 403rd, and 404th[3].

Figure 1: 400th WAC Band, Fort Des Moines, 20 June 1944. Source: U.S. Army Women’s Museum

By the fall of 1942, WAAC Band 1, later designated the 400th WAC band, had grown to forty members, twice the size the Army intended the band to be. When the second WAAC training center opened in Daytona Beach, Florida, WAAC band 1 was split in two and twenty-eight members of the 400th were sent to form a new band for the WAAC recruits stationed at Daytona Beach[4]. Three more bands were created by the fall of 1943, one of which was the all African American 404th WAC band. 

In 1943, six enlisted women were sent to study at the Army Music School in Virginia with the idea that they would then lead the WAC bands. The first graduating class, graduating in April 1943, consisted of Mary Belle J. Nissly; Florence A. Love; Mary T. Nelson; and Margery L. Pickett. They were then joined by the second class, Joan A. Lamb and Celia I. Merrill, who graduated in July 1943. These women were supposed to be given the rank of Warrant Officer (W.O.) after graduation to match the male band directors but at the time of their graduation that particular rank was not available to women. It wasn’t until 1944 that the first class of women graduates were given the rank of W.O. Junior Grade. The second class, Lamb and Merrill, remained Master Sergeants for the duration of the war[5]. Each of these women went on to direct one of the 5 WAC bands.

Figure 2: 401st ASF Band, Fort Hamilton Brooklyn NY Spring 1944. Source: Harbor Defense Museum archives

As the end of the war approached, the bands were placed under direction of the Headquarters Army Service Forces and sent to bases on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts where they welcomed troops home and played for injured soldiers[6]. The 404th WAC band was the only one that did not as they were told to remain at Fort Des Moines until they were deactivated in 1945[7]. The 400th WAC band was the only band left after 1947. The band was renamed the 14th Army Band and was sent to Fort George G. Meade in Maryland[8]

WAC Band Duties

The primary duties of the WAC bands were to perform martial duties and to supply the troops with moral boosting music. According to Field Manual 28-5 “The Band”, the band’s official missions are to “participate in and to furnish the desired music at military formations, to furnish musical entertainment for the command on such occasions as may be prescribed by the commanding officer… [and] to perform suitable combat duties as directed by the commander of the unit to which the band is organically assigned or attached”[9]. The band performed for formations and inspections, for ceremonies and parades. WAC buglers called taps, signaled when classes began, sounded reveille in the morning and retreat at night, and ensured that troops were kept on schedule throughout the day.

Figure 3: WAC Bugler Donna Mae Baldenecker, Fort Des Moines IA. Source: National Women’s History Museum

Along with its martial duties, the WAC Bands provided ceremonial music for the training centers and travelled the country performing in parades, concerts, dances, and war bond drives. They became the showpiece for the WAC and received invitations to perform all across the country[10]. W.O. Florence Love, director of the 403rd band, stated that the band “played concerts, dances, parades, award ceremonies and any other music performances needed. We went into parts of the hospital wards playing in small groups, special concerts in the psychiatric enclosure, and anything else the Commanding Officer could think of.”[11]

Typical music played were John Philip Sousa marches such as “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Washington Post” as well as show tune medleys and standard band/orchestra transcriptions. Pieces like “Little Brown Jug” were big hits with audiences[12].

Figure 4: SSgt Lenora Brown and the 404th ASF Band, Savoy Ballrom Chicago, 1944. Source: http://ninekatztwodogs.tripod.com/id59.html

Each of the five WAC Bands travelled the country performing in War Bond Tours. For example, beginning in January 1944, the 400th WAC Band travelled the U.S. and Canada during the national Fourth War Loan Drive, also called the Four Freedoms Tour. This event was to raise money to support the war and the band travelled with the drive, providing music and accompanying speakers[13]. Similarly, the 401st WAC Band toured the East coast in October 1943 for the “Back the Attack” war bond drive and then travelled to New York City for a recruiting drive[14].

As the war went on, the WAC bands performed another essential duty: playing for returning soldiers and injured soldiers. Edith Knouff, a trumpet player of the 403rd band, stated, “In the hospital, the WAC Band’s job was to provide entertainment for the soldiers. We would give concerts in a large assembly hall. Every Wednesday afternoon we would broadcast a concert over the local radio station. Sometimes we would work with movie stars who would also come to entertain. Also, our dance bands would play for dances. Injured musicians in the hospital were asked to “sit in” with the band during our concerts. Sometimes men would even sing in our concerts”[15].

Figure 5: 403rd WAC Band, Charleston SC. Source: U.S. Army Women’s Museum

The all-female military bands in the Women’s Army Corps provided a much needed service for both male and female troops in the United States Army. They lifted people’s spirits through their music while also ensuring that troops were kept on schedule. They played for returning and injured troops, celebrities, and even President Roosevelt. When asked about their experiences in the band, many of the women described it as one of the best times of their lives. Florence Love, director of the 403rd band, sums it perfectly here: “I enjoyed and appreciated knowing and working with the band. It was one of the most wonderful experiences I ever had, and only one thing made it so, the grand girls who made it an organization in spirit as well as name”[16].

Figure 6: 400th WAC Band welcoming home the Henry Ford to San Francisco Port Nov 1945. Source: US Army Women’s Museum

End Notes:

[1] Jill M. Sullivan, Bands of Sisters: U.S. Women’s Military Bands During World War II (The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2011), 12.

[2] Jill M Sullivan, “Women’s Military Bands in a Segregated Army: The 400th and 404th WAC Bands,” Journal of Band Research 41, no. 2 (March 1, 2006): 6.

[3] Jill M. Sullivan, Bands of Sisters: U.S. Women’s Military Bands During World War II (The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2011):12.

[4] Jill M Sullivan, “Women’s Military Bands in a Segregated Army: The 400th and 404th WAC Bands,” Journal of Band Research 41, no. 2 (March 1, 2006): 7.

[5] Jill M. Sullivan, Bands of Sisters: U.S. Women’s Military Bands During World War II (The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2011): 12.

[6] Sullivan, Bands of Sisters, 13.

[7] Sullivan, Bands of Sisters, 38.

[8] Sullivan, Bands of Sisters, 18.

[9] U.S. Army War Department. (1941). The Band (FM 28-5) : 1.

[10] Jill M Sullivan, “Women’s Military Bands in a Segregated Army: The 400th and 404th WAC Bands,” Journal of Band Research 41, no. 2 (March 1, 2006): 9.

[11] J. M. Sullivan, “Music for the Injured Soldier: A Contribution of American Womens Military Bands During World War II,” Journal of Music Therapy 44, no. 3 (January 2007): 16.

[12] Jill M Sullivan, “Women’s Military Bands in a Segregated Army: The 400th and 404th WAC Bands,” Journal of Band Research 41, no. 2 (March 1, 2006): 9.

[13] Jill M Sullivan, “One Ohio Music Educator’s Contribution to World War II: Joan Lamb,” Contributions to Music Education 33, no. 2 (n.d.): 43.

[14] Jill M. Sullivan, Bands of Sisters: U.S. Women’s Military Bands During World War II (The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2011): 19.

[15] J. M. Sullivan, “Music for the Injured Soldier: A Contribution of American Womens Military Bands During World War II,” Journal of Music Therapy 44, no. 3 (January 2007): 18-19.

[16] Jill M. Sullivan, Bands of Sisters: U.S. Women’s Military Bands During World War II (The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2011): 24.

References:

U.S. Army War Department. (1941). The Band (FM 28-5). Retrieved from https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/ref/FM/PDFs/FM28-5.PDF.

Sullivan, J. M. “Music for the Injured Soldier: A Contribution of American Womens Military Bands During World War II.” Journal of Music Therapy 44, no. 3 (January 2007): 282–305. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/44.3.282.

Sullivan, Jill M. “One Ohio Music Educator’s Contribution to World War II: Joan A. Lamb.” Contributions to Music Education 33, no. 2 (2006): 27-51. Accessed March 22, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24127207.

Sullivan, Jill M. “Women’s Military Bands in a Segregated Army: The 400th and 404th WAC Bands.” Journal of Band Research 41, no. 2 (March 1, 2006): 1–35. https://search.proquest.com/openview/815bdd3850c9dbfbc94b550243e46514/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=34879.

Sullivan, Jill M. Bands of Sisters: U.S. Women’s Military Bands During World War II. The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2011.

Sullivan, Jill M. “Women Music Teachers as Military Band Directors during World War II.” Journal of Historical Research in Music Education 39, no. 1 (January 18, 2017): 78–105. https://doi.org/10.1177/1536600616665625.

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