Carolyn Whaley raised her arms, steadied the band and off they went, playing one of those classic tunes that military bands play.
But this was no typical band. This was 55 years down the road and Whaley was conducting a band of all women. Indeed, this was your grandmother’s band. It played in the CSUSB Recital Hall at high noon on Wednesday, and the sound from the horns and drums was strong and crisp.
The 543rd Women in the U.S. Air Force Band – the only all-female music group in Air Force history – began at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in 1951, moved headquarters to Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino in 1958 and was deactivated in 1961.
The band has forged a resurgence over the last 10 years, flying at their own expense for reunions and performing throughout the United States. This year the band met in San Bernardino.
“This is no vacation reunion for them,” said Jeananne Nichols, a professor of music education at the University of Illinois and master of ceremonies for the full and enthusiastic house at CSUSB. Now writing a history of the band, Nichols weaved between musical numbers some of that history in words, pictures and film for the CSUSB show.
The commercial airlines they catch for their reunions today are luxurious compared to the webbed bucket seats of the military transports planes that the women rode during the band’s prime. Then, the women played at festivals, such as the Sea Fair in Seattle, the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. They also played at inaugurations for Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. But their main mission was to perform for air force personnel.
For Whaley, though, one of her greatest memories was not a show put on for presidents or huge public gatherings. Once, the band of 45-to-50 members stood on the front lawn at a boy with an iron lung and played a concert for him.
It was only after 1972, following the passage of Title IX, that female musicians were permitted to play with the men in the U.S. Air Force Band.
But by that time, says Jan Boxill, an alto sax player who was in the WAF Band when it came to Norton, the remarkable history of the band already had been lost. After an Air Force Band show several years ago, when Boxill told a female band member that there was once a WAF Band, recalls Boxill, “she looked at me strangely saying, ‘That's not possible, I am the first woman to play.’… She had never heard of such a band, but wanted to know more.”
The women didn’t just play music together. They played and worked together. “We did everything together,” Boxill says. They rehearsed every morning, mowed the base lawns, some did office work, all held instrument practices and many trained as medics.
The WAF Band plays one of its favorite gigs today, performing for veterans at the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Veterans Medical Center in Loma Linda. The band also will visit the Norton Air Force Base Museum at San Bernardino International Airport.
For more information, contact the CSUSB Office of Strategic Communication at (909) 537-5007 and visit http://news.csusb.edu.
Click on WAF Band to learn more about the band's history.