GIs SOAKED UP TUNES IN THE '50s

Music comforted service members on the often-forgotten battlefields of Korea and Cold War fronts of the post-WWII era. PART IV.






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Publication: VFW, Veterans of Foreign Wars Magazine
Author: Von Lunen, Kelly
Date published: January 1, 2012

Due to constant infiltration, sabotage and behindthe-lines attacks by enemy troops in Korea, bandsmen were at times caught up in combat.

Bands traveled miles to perform multiple concerts per day for units close to the front lines and even accompanied combat units to the front lines. Of 10 Army bands that served in- country, at least two (from the 2nd and 24th divisions) received the Distinguished Unit Citation (Presidential) as part of their divisions, six received Meritorious Unit Commendations, and six earned Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citations.

According to an Army history, one report read: "The closer we play to the front line, and recently we have been within a half mile of it, the more enthusiastic has been the response to our music."

A Marine drum major, Master Sgt. William J. McClung III, received the Navy Cross posthumously for his actions at the C ho s in Reservoir on Dec. 7, 1950.

"There was so much shooting and explosives, no one dared climb up to help wounded Marines in a burning truck of ammunition," Lt. John Y. Lee said in Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950. "Then I saw McClung climbing into it with bullets all over, but he was not thinking of his life or death. I still cannot understand how he could work so much before he was hit."

Assigned to HQ Co., HQ Bn., 1st Marine Div., McClung had previously been held as a POW for three years on Corregidor in the Philippines during WWII.

'ONE OF US'

Already a celebrity by the time, Eddie Fisher entertained combat units along the 38th Parallel. Jack Hickey, member of Post 12024 in Spring, Texas, attended one such show in the summer of 1952 near the headquarters of the 176th Armored Field Artillery Battalion.

"Unlike many famous entertainers 'who found "ways to dodge their military responsibilities, here he was," wrote Hickey in his book, KOREA-Up the Hill and Back. "In uniform, in the Army and in Korea. That made him one of us.

"The fact that Eddie was assigned to Special Services, considered by most to be a soft and safe assignment in the Army, mattered little. We knew as long as he was entertaining units along the 38th Parallel, he "was exposed to the same dangers we were."

During the show, three incoming artillery rounds burst a few hundred yards up the hillside.

"He only paused long enough to let the echo from the shells die out, then resumed the show. That was the only interruption by incoming rounds, although he frequently paused when the sound of our artillery fire floated up the valley."

Non-famous troops entertained their peers as well. Ed Potts, life member of Post 1355 in Sturgis, Mich., served in the Nevada Cities Outpost area. In early May 1953, he was on Hill 229, which overlooked the Panmunjom corridor. While there, he said, a Special Services warrant officer asked Potts if he would like to leave the front line and join the AllMarine Variety Show as a guitarist.

"I, of course, jumped at the chance," Potts said.

An August 1953 issue of the 4th Fighter- Interceptor Wing newspaper, the Jet Gazette, detailed one such performance: "Two guitarists, Potts and Trimble, came out and began the act "with a comical routine and ended up "with some really great guitar picking. Among their selections "were Lady of Spain, Caravan, The World is Waiting for the Sunrise and a little oí Guitar Boogie."

Potts traveled with the show until October 1953, when he was rotated back to the U.S., where he served his final year.

Some soldiers took instruments with them to Korea, primarily for their own entertainment. Once there, Army Master Sgt. Jerry McGivney worked to get a band together, scheduling practice around regular duties. The "Alabama Ramblers" recorded tapes and sent them back to Athens to be played on WJMW radio.

Dale Casteel, a member of Post 4765 in Athens, Ala., served as a corporal with the 1343rd Combat Engineers in Korea for 13 months in 1951-52, much of that time near the front lines.

"On occasion, we "would be able to perform at the field hospitals," said Casteel, who played guitar for the Alabama Ramblers. "The patients and nurses treated us like we were big stars. Everyone was hungry for any kind of entertainment, so the band was always welcomed."

'I REMEMBER YOU GUYS'

Band members did more than entertain off-duty troops. Joseph English, a member of Post 1157 in Vincennes, Ind., served with the 2nd Infantry Division band. Even as part of the division rear, the band played a direct role during fighting.

"Division combat units were pushing rapidly north, and it was imperative that the rear echelon maintained close support," Charles A. Evans wrote in 2002 for the 2nd Infantry Division Korean War Veterans Alliance Bulletin. "Although 'Ivanhoe Rear' personnel did not undergo the extreme combat conditions endured by the combat units, they were responsible for providing logistical and administrative support, which was vital to the division's combat effectiveness."

English says he and his fellow band members had two jobs during what they later found out was the Battle of Wonju: to collect ammunition and rations airdropped in, and to help load ammo from the dump along the airstrip into trucks.

After the "war, English met a fellow veteran who had served with C Co., 9th Inf. Regt. "I remember you guys bringing us ammo and rations on Hill 444 west of Wonju," the vet told him.

As The Tacoma News Tribune explained on July 1, 1951: "The [2nd Infantry] band came to Korea intact, but manpower became critical "when the North Koreans cracked the Naktong River defense line in September. The band had been prepping for a series of concerts around the regiments. There was a hole in the river perimeter that left division headquarters exposed. The band was ordered to plug it."

During that time, six bandsmen and four truck drivers liberated the village of Kumsan in South Korea. At least one 2nd Infantry Division band member was KIA in Korea during 1950-51, and others were MIA. Thomas Gerard Carr was captured December 1950 and died in captivity.

Rudolph Newfield, life member of Post 6229 in Peabody, Kan., went to Korea with G Co., 5th Cav, 1st Cav Div. During roll call one day, the company commander told any bugle players to come forward.

"Everyone tried to play, but no one could," Newfield said. "When I got there, I thought I would show off and play it. The commander heard it, and I became company bugler and his personal runner."

Newfield learned bugle calls in his school band back home and in basic training. Once assigned as a bugler, he obtained a copy of all bugle calls- as well as the Chinese retreat call- from the division band.

One day, Communists were defending Hill 469 against a 5th Cavalry company. Then Newfield sounded the old-time cavalry "charge," as Stars and Stripes reported soon after. The Chinese "turned and ran, while some of them hid in their foxholes," C apt. Thomas S. Owen, company commander, told Stars and Stripes.

"After this battle, the division commander ordered all companies to have a bugler," Newfield said. "If they didn't have anyone who could pia}', I would teach them. We played everything from first call to Taps at night."

GERMANY: 'PUBLIC RELATIONS GESTURE'

Some 5,000 miles away, more than 700 musicians performed as the 7th Army Symphony from 1952-62. Based in Stuttgart, in what was then West Germany, the symphony played for mostly civilian audiences while German orchestras rebuilt in the postwar period.

"The orchestra was conceived largely as a public relations gesture, a goodwill and cultural liaison between the American military and the European civilian population, especially the Germans," according to Uncle Sam's Orchestra: Memories of the Seventh Army Symphony.

"In the years immediately following WWII, the average German's perception of American GIs was that they listened to hillbilly music, got drunk on Saturday night, and molested the local frauleins. ... The orchestra, then, would show the Germans that American soldiers were made of finer stuff."

In August 1953, U.S. High Commissioner James Bryant Conant, "who attended the orchestra's performances, wr o te to Gen. Anthony McAuI iff e : "This group of young Army musicians has done more than any other single unit in Germany to promote a better cultural understanding between the American and German people."

Similarly, Ron Melvin served with the 8th AAA Group Band at Wiesbaden Air Base in Germany from 1954-55. While his MOS was not bandsman, that was his primary duty.

"I am proud of the services we rendered for many formal occasions throughout that part of Germany for all branches of the U.S. military on posts and in the field," said Melvin, a VFW life member of Post 3331 in C irci eville, Ohio. "We were also recognized for appearing at many functions for the Wiesbaden community."

Whenever a large group of soldiers was redeployed home, the band of approximately 20 musicians "would march into the railroad station to send off the troops. It played classical marches and Glenn Miller swing tunes, as well as the German and U.S. national anthems.

"It "was said we did much to improve post-WWII German-American relations," Melvin said.

POPULAR MUSIC OF THE DAY

Radio hits of the Korean War era included The Third Man Theme by Anton Karas, Cry by Johnny Ray and the seasonal I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by Jimmy Boyd.

"A particular song that would be played forever in our minds was Tennessee Waltz by Patti Page," Casteel wrote. "Of course, this would make each of these 'ole country boys' homesick."

The later 1950s would be dominated by the likes of Doris Day, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Elvis Presley and Pat Boone.

By the next decade, popular music would come to include protest songs and be the harbinger of a so-called cultural revolution.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the fourth of a six-part series. Look for additional stories in the near future.

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E-MAIL kvonlunen@vfw.org

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