Celebrating 75th Anniversary of Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band
by Master Sgt. Amanda Simmons
At 2 p.m., March 11, 2018, the United States Marine Band will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (MCWR) Band during a concert at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center in Alexandria, Va. The MCWR Band was formed under the supervision of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band and was active from 1943-45. It was one of eight all-female military bands, and the last to be formed. The concert will be curated by Dr. Jill Sullivan, author of “Bands of Sisters: U.S. Women’s Military Bands during World War II” and conducted by Major Michelle A. Rakers, the Marine Band’s first female assistant director and first female commissioned officer. The concert will stream live here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qFg3yqi5SY
August 4, 1943
Dear Miss Jones:
A Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band is to be organized for duty at Camp Lejeune, New River, North Carolina to release for field duty the male musicians who are in the band at the camp. The roster provides for a master technical sergeant, two technical sergeants, a drum major, a staff sergeant, ten sergeants, twelve corporals and sixteen privates. The band will pace parades, play for inspections and reviews, give concerts, and perform all other functions regularly assigned to the male band.
An effort is being made to obtain exceptional women for General Service who qualify for this duty. Outstanding women musicians and artists are assisting in the procurement of personnel, as the Marine Corps intends to make its women’s band the best in the country. Players of the following instruments are needed: flute and piccolo, E-flat clarinet, B-flat clarinet, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, B-flat cornet, B-flat trumpet, French horn, euphonium, baritone, trombone, and E-flat bass, B-flat bass, snare drum and tympani, and bass drum.
Your name has been given to us as an able and patriotic musician who should be interested in joining the Marine Corps for this type of duty. The qualifications for enlistment will be found on page eleven.
If you are interested in the USMCWR, you can either write to this office or call in person to discuss the matter.
Yours very truly,
Floyd H. Emery
Trombone player Eleanor Jones of Cornell, Wis., was recruited for the MCWR Band and successfully won an audition conducted by Marine Band Director Capt. William F. Santelmann in 1944. She was 19 years old and had won several district competitions prior to her enlistment. According to Sullivan’s research: “The Marine Corps was different from other divisions of the military in that it specifically identified that it was the desire to make this the most outstanding female band of the country.” This was evident in both the recruiting for and training of the ensemble.
Santelmann made an effort to recruit from institutions such as Julliard, the Eastman School of Music, and New England Conservatory, but members were also procured from Marines serving in other reserve specialties. Jones recalled two members were recruited out of motor pool.
Pictured: Marine Band member Louis Saverino with MCWR Band members
The band was stationed at Camp Lejeune and authorized for43 members. Women began enlisting in July 1943 and attended recruit training prior to being released to the band. Santelmann and four principal musicians from the Marine Band arrived at Camp Lejeune in November to assist with training. Within 10 weeks, the band grew from 15 to 37 members and the Marines were ready for their first concert.
Throughout this training process, a clear leader emerged from the group. Charlotte Plummer, from Eugene, Ore., was a music education graduate from the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she was principal clarinet. She also had conducting experience with high school bands and she led a professional dance band. She was praised for her musicianship and was well respected by her fellow Marines.
“The kind of band we became was due to Charlotte,” explains Jones, who had the bunk next to Plummer. “Charlotte came well equipped to conduct and lead a band. Of course she didn’t have any military experience, but she adapted very quickly.”
The training from the Marine Band, coupled with Plummer’s leadership, helped lay the groundwork for the success of the MCWR Band.
During Sullivan’s interview with Charlotte Plummer, she noted that: “I think the fact that we were backed by the U.S. Marine Band made us try to get up to those standards. We knew we were representative of them, and that was a good thing. If we had been just any band, we wouldn’t have the publicity, mentoring, and everything else that we did get.”
Like the Marine Band, the MCWR Band had varied repertoire, which included marches and transcriptions, and was designed to entertain a varied crowd.
“The programming for this anniversary concert was derived straight from the MCWR Band playlist, with most of the works coming from their concert programs, including Tchaikovsky’s Finale from Symphony No. 4,” notes Rakers. “I chose this piece because it displays the musicianship and technical ability that these women must have possessed to perform this challenging work.”
Rakers will also pay tribute to the Marine Band’s first female member, French hornist Ruth Johnson, who enlisted in 1973. Female Marines currently serving in the Marine Band will perform Robert Schumann’s Lebhaft from Konzerstück in F for Four Horns, Opus 86.
As predicted in their recruiting letters, the MCWR Band participated in numerous parades and concerts, but other musical opportunities quickly emerged. By 1944 several other ensembles formed within the group, including a Dixieland sextet and dance band.
“The Dixieland group was initiated to entertain the wounded,” notes Rakers. “Its size and instrumentation made it easy for the group to maneuver throughout a hospital setting. Our concert this week will include a nod to this group with a Dixieland band performing ‘Muskrat Ramble.'”
In addition to its duties at Camp Lejeune, the MCWR Band conducted three tours, two during the war and one post-war to help bring the troops home. Its first tour was in 1944 and included stops at Marine Corps bases on the east coast. The tour then went as far west as Chicago to support the Sixth War Loan Campaign to sell war bonds. The tour lasted 34 days and consisted of 14 concerts, 12 parades, and eight formations. The group also took part in five radio shows, including one very high profile spotlight.
On Nov. 14, 1944, the MCWR Band was invited to sit in for the Marine Band’s weekly Dream Hour broadcast. This nationally broadcast show began in 1931 and continued through the 1940s. The original program was created for shut-ins, and musical selections were largely determined by patrons sending in requests. The result was a delightful mix of classic marches, thrilling overtures, virtuoso solos and novelty numbers.
MCWR Band performing at Sousa Hall in Washington, D.C.
To honor this special event, the second half of the anniversary program will be a reenactment of the MCWR Band’s appearance on the Dream Hour. Clarinetist Master Gunnery Sgt. Charles Willett, in his final appearance with the Marine Band before retirement, will serve as announcer, and mezzo-soprano vocalist Gunnery Sgt. Sara Sheffield will reprise MCWR Band vocalist Jean Mikkelson’s role in a period uniform. The original Dream Hour performance is the only known recording of the MCWR band.
“The MCWR Band was an important part of our history,” notes Rakers. “Had it not been for them, the paradigm could have taken longer to shift and I may not have had the opportunity to be in the position I am in today. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.”
The concert is free and no tickets are required. Prior to the concert, patrons can enjoy hearing a Dixieland Combo in the lobby and Marine Band Historian Gunnery Sgt. Kira Wharton will have on display MCWR Band images. In addition, the National Museum of the Marine Corps TFONTOS Outreach Team will have on display Women Marine Uniforms from WWI to current era in celebration of the 100 years of the founding of the Women Marine Reserves. This concert will be live streamed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qFg3yqi5SY
Reprinted from the Marine Corps Band