"Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast..." said William Congreve in The Mourning Bride in the 1600's - and he did not say beast. Believe it or not military women have been very much a part of military music since World War Two. In fact two of the services had their very own all-women bands - the WAC Band and the WAF Band.
On July 20, 1942, the first contingent of women was inducted into the Women's Army
Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. By early 1943, five bands, the
400th Army Band, 401st Army Band , 402d Army Band, 403d Army Band, and the
404th Army Band were composed entirely of women. WAAC bands were later
redesignated and officially activated in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) on January
Eventually the only Army Band made up entirely of women, was the 14th Army WAC Band, activated at Fort Meade, Maryland in August 1948. The 14th reported to the Women's Army Corps Training Center at Camp Lee in March the following year. Its commander was WOJG Katherine V. Allen, a graduate of the Julliard School of Music. She also attended the Boston Conservatory, University of Virginia,
and The College of William and Mary.
Under WOJG Allen's command the 14th Army WAC Band toured many different regions including the Fifth Army area of responsibility, Hollywood, California, and the Rose Bowl Parade in 1951.
This picture, showing the WAAC Band in the background is from 1943.
The very first military all women band, the Women's Army Band organized at Fort Des Moines in 1942, was led by then Sergeant Mary Belle Nissly. As a result of special legislation, early in 1944 WAC Sergeant Nissly became the first woman in military history to win a warrant officer band leader appointment.
Warrant Officer Nissly left the Army in 1946 but returned to the service as a Captain in the Air Force in 1951 to organize the United States Air Force WAF Band.
The 50 member concert unit performed all over the world playing everything from classics to rock and roll and mambos to marches. Their home base was Norton AFB in California but they were on the road 70% of the time. Unique to the WAF band was the only woman coach horn soloist in the USA - Technical Sgt Martye Awkerman, pictured above in the shadow image.
In the mid 1950's the WAF band played in New York City and as an Air Force recruiting sergeant at the time, I had the pleasure of being their escort. When they played at the dress rehersal of the Garry Moore Show the program's orchestra "vacated the orchestra pit" and invited the WAF Band to take the stage and play for the show. Circumventing the musician's union rules this way was a grand tribute to the WAF band.
A mid '50s picture of the WAF Band in concert.
The WAF Band - Visit their new web site to find out more - and to learn more about this great group of Women in the Air Force who served as military musicians - many of whom are still playing.
Ostensibly the disestablishment of the women's components brought an end to the women's bands - although my personal opinion is that their planned demise was a result of politics and funding long before that.
And what happened to military women musicians?
Fortunately as women were integrated in to their respective service branches, they were also given the opportunity to audition for the various military bands.
Military women musicians are playing world-wide with Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard bands, specialty groups, ceremonial units, marching bands, the White House, the Old Guard and in Reserve and National Guard bands as well. They are performing as soloists, band directors, and leaders - and doing it splendidly.
Critcs often question the reason for having military bands - but unless you've "been there" and stood proudly in uniform for our National Anthem being played by a military band - or marched to a Sousa beat, or sat enthralled at a military band concert - you have no grounds for criticism. Military bands are essential to morale, public relations, recruiting, ceremonial events, and most important - good old fashioned "espirit de corps".
The Singing Sergeants, the 24-voice official chorus of the United States
is one of the world's most versatile and traveled choral
It is also one of a select few singing groups internationally
for its commitment to excellence in vocal performance.
Military women musicians are an integral part of all of this tradition.
Please note: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
displayed without profit or payment for those who have expressed an
interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only. Nothing on this site is for sale nor is it a commercial venture of any kind - it is a one person page for, and about military women - by one retired military woman. The modern band photos are DOD photos, the WAAC and WAF pictures are from this authors personal collection.
Unless otherwise noted contents © 1996 to date by Captain Barbara A. Wilson, USAF (Ret)