Peck came from London, Johnny Halliburton and Jack Ferrier from
France. Six came from California and seven from New York. Others
arrived from Texas, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Canada.
Lynn Allison, my singing 'Crew Chief' pal, was there with his lovely
wife, Gloria, and equally lovely daughter, Nan. Cecille, the widow
of our brilliant and beloved concertmaster George Ockner, was also
there, as was Steve Miller, the adopted son Glenn never got to see.
All had gathered
for the very first-ever reunion of the Glenn Miller Army Air Force
Band, and we were each in Dayton, Ohio, to receive the coveted
Air Force Medal of Commendation for our morale-building efforts
in the European Theatre of Operations during World War Two. Forty-one
years after the band's final in person appearance at the National
Press Club in Washington, D.C., before an audience that included
President Harry S. Truman and Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and
'Hap' Arnold, 24 of the surviving members of Glenn's AAF Band
would make one more attempt at a proper military salute as Major-General
Charles D. Metcalf affixed the Air Force Medal to each man's jacket.
The General gently handed the box containing the award and the
accompanying citation to George Ockner's widow, as he softly kissed
and impressive citation contains the phrases "distinguished
himself by meritorious service" and "performed as a
musician under frequent adverse conditions to entertain military
personnel in the European Theatre of Operations."
As I write,
my mind flashes to conditions that might properly qualify as adverse.
Perhaps arriving at Euston Station at 7:25 AM on June 29th, 1944,
in the midst of a flying V-Bomb attack on London, might justify
the adjective. We were too new to such events, perhaps too naive
to understand the danger as we watched Glenn holding himself quite
rigid against a station stanchion until All Clear sounded.
It was the
bus trip across London to our quarters in Sloane Court that first
opened our eyes as we drove through areas of intense devastation
where flying bombs, called 'doodlebugs' by the British, had struck.
By the time
we were unpacking in the series of small houses meant to be our
home-away-from-home, a general mood of deep introspective seemed
to grip each man except for one. The ever-fastidious pianist,
Jackie Russin, glanced around the room he was to share with the
Steck brothers, Jack Steele and me, and shouted indignantly, "No
hangars!!!.... "How the hell are we supposed to hang our
clothing?" I think one of us threw something at him.
first night in London, most of the band headed for neighborhood
bomb shelters with their blankets, but several heroes or idiots
(you make the choice) -- by name: Johnny Desmond, Steve and Gene
Steck, Jack Steele, and this writer, put on our steel helmets
and climbed to the roof of our house to watch as the rockets with
their flaming tails flew over the city. Fortunately for us, they
were concentrated on targets at some distance from our perch.
When the flame coming out of the rear of the bomb went out, the
engine would cut out and in a brief few seconds a thunderous explosion
would follow, with ensuing death and destruction.
was surely working overtime when he insisted we be moved out of
London by no later than Sunday, July 2nd. The American motor pool
said, "We don't work Sundays!" It is my recollection
that Glenn proceeded to make a deal with the RAF to provide transportation
to Bedford, East Anglia, which was to be our new base, near the
tower at Twinwood Airfield near Bedford before it was
restored in 2002.
for the lorries, we would play a concert for the Royal Air Force.
A very good deal it was. At noon on Sunday we traveled the 55
miles to Bedford. The very next morning, at 8:00 AM on Monday
July 3rd, a V-1 bomb struck our previous day's dwellings on Sloane
Court. Twenty-five Military Policemen seated in a truck were killed,
as were several woman of the American Woman's Corps -- their first
overseas casualties. The women had been in formation ready to
march to the local mess hall for breakfast. Glenn's intuition
surely saved some of our lives. It is tragic we couldn't save
his five months later.
Glenn Miller and His AEF Band bringing a "touch of
home" to American troops in the U.K. -- and winning
over British fans at the same time.
the term adverse, it could apply to those kidney-jarring
rides in what seemed to be springless half-ton trucks delivering
us to some Air Force base to play a concert. And, what about flying
in planes marked with stripes on the side bearing the discomforting
phrase "condemned for combat!" Ray McKinley and Trigger
Alpert might have a word to add here, for they were being transported
by either a B-24 or B-17 to a base for a concert. Ray sat next
to all his drum cases while Trigger kept one hand and watchful
eye on his valuable bass fiddle, never giving a second thought
to the improvised look of a plywood strip that spanned the floor
of the bomb bay they shared. They did wonder every now and then
about the peculiar bounce they took each time the plane seemed
to hit an air pocket. It was only upon landing that they learned
the bomb bay itself had been completely open during the entire
flight. Only that thin strip of half-inch plywood lay between
them and the verdant but ever-so solid English soil.
has to include the transient mess hall in Paris where we had to
go for our meals. Food was kept warm there 24 hours a day for
G.I. truck crews passing through Paris on their various missions.
The food was truly horrible and being kept warm around the clock
didn't help it one bit. I remember the night Harry Hartwick, one
of our scriptwriters, was carried out of our Hotel Des Olympiads
on a stretcher with a virulent case of food poisoning. Other arrangements
were quickly made for meals, although we had to travel halfway
across Paris. But, the American rations were prepared by a French
chef, a vast improvement we thought.
the winter of 1944-1945, which Parisians swore was the coldest
ever? We had no heat and couldn't bathe. We slept in every item
of clothing we could get on and still nearly froze. I recall learning,
with appropriate dismay, that the one big shipment of coal that
had been sent to our billet was quickly sold on the black market
by our very own concierge, the infamous Monsieur Gombere.
Oh, I could
go on and on, but so could each of the 43 survivors. Every guy
has his own tale to tell, and the definitive book will probably
never be written, although a superb work -- researched in depth
and written over a span of seven years -- was suddenly available
to us at the Air Force Museum bookstore. The book was written
by an English fan of the band named Geoffrey Butcher. He came
to Dayton especially for our reunion on his first trip to the
U.S. Geoffrey is co-founder of the Glenn
Miller Society of England, which still flourishes actively
today. The title of the book, Next
to a Letter from Home, is a direct quote from a statement
made by the famous General 'Jimmy' Doolittle, who said, "Next
to a letter from home, the Major Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band
was the greatest morale booster we had in the European Theatre
of Operations in World War Two."
now celebrating his 90th year (in 1986), couldn't come to Ohio,
but we each received a copy of a letter he sent. It concludes
with, "While it is just not possible for me to join you in
person to offer my sincere thanks and to congratulate you on receipt
of the long-overdue commendation medal, you know that I am with
you in spirit. May God Bless each of you." What a kick it
was to see ourselves and a younger, vigorous General Doolittle
on a film that was shown just prior to the awards ceremony.
The film was
shot 42 years ago at Eighth Air Force Headquarters, code named
"Pinetree", Highwycombe, England. The scratchy soundtrack
faded in and out, but there was our band playing excerpts from"
In The Mood," "Stardust," and "I'll Be Seeing
You" with Johnny singing beautifully, as always. When the
soundtrack quit entirely, I could still detect the Crew Chiefs
lips moving to "Juke Box Saturday Night."
Glenn Miller with American movie actress and singer Irene
Manning on the BBC in November 1944.
of you who couldn't make it to Dayton on the 15th and 16th of
August 1986, it is beyond me to describe the emotional surge we
all felt. There was a lot of love there.... We were once again
part of a unique extended family and we are past the point of
being shy about hugging and kissing one another. Cameras were
flashing constantly, everyone eager to capture the joyful images
this reunion evoked. It was wonderful to see the entire trombone
section intact and reunited: Jim Priddy, John Halliburton, Larry
Hall and Nat Peck. The original sax section was also in force.
There, posing for a photograph with borrowed horns in hand, were
Hank Freeman, Peanuts Hucko, Jack Ferrier, Freddy Guerra, Manny
Thaler and Vince Carbone.
deserves an additional cluster on his medal, for it was he who
spoke to retired Lieutenant-Colonel Weddle about the fact that
there had never been any official recognition for our unit. Colonel
Weddle contacted General Charles Gabriel, the Air Force Chief
Of Staff, and it all began to come together. Thanks are also due
to Rick Gerber, a treasured fan of the band who, together with
the late, great Johnny Desmond, first began talking about a band
reunion back in 1984.
Damn! If it
had only been possible to have the event take place in the 40th
year, Johnny would certainly have been there and so perhaps would
Murray Kane and Broderick Crawford, the most recent members to
have left us.
section was represented by our brilliant jazz soloist, Bernie
Privin. Strings were represented by eight players including, Phil
Cogliano, our "Hot" fiddle; Maurice "The Ear"
Bialkin, undisputed master and bearer of the latest rumor; Earl
"The Duke" Cornwell, truly one of natures noblemen,
who reminded me that we were together at an art gallery in Paris
when he pointed out a sturdy, rather bulky woman dressed in baggy
woolen garb. I immediately recognized her from newspaper photographs
and 'The Duke' -- whose true métier was diplomacy -- introduced
both of us and invited Gertrude Stein to a concert at the Olympia
did come. Some of you may remember the talk she gave backstage
after our performance. Too bad portable tape recorders had still
to be invented. She spoke, as my dim memory recollects, for about
forty minutes, remarking on her love for jazz and how much she
enjoyed the precision of our performance. She also touched upon
man as the creator and man forced to kill by circumstances beyond
his control. In my view then, and now as well, the Nazi insanity
left humanity no recourse but all-out combat and eventual complete
and total victory. I know I wouldn't be writing this 41 years
after a Hitler victory.
a small group of us including Earl, Ray McKinley, Mel Powell,
Peanuts, Carmen Mastren, the Stecks and a few others I can't recall
at the moment, were invited to the legendary Stein salon at 27
Rue De Fleurus, where a little "jazz" was played while
Alice B. Toklas served her homemade cookies and special brownies.
We were in a room laden with Picasso paintings, including the
magnificent nude of the young Alice painted in his blue-tint period.
Gertrude sat on the couch in front of the fireplace and regaled
us with stories about the great and near great who passed through
to Dayton, Dave Sackson, looking fully fifteen years younger than
he is, was there eyes alight at the possibility of finding a rare
violin bow in Ohio. "Cow Cow" Kowaleski and Dave Schwartz
make the trip, and the very last string player to arrive was Ernie
Kardos, now celebrating his 50th year with the Cleveland Symphony.
Bill Conway, one of our original 'Modernaires' with Glenn's pre-war
band, made it. So did Emil Mittermann, a cellist who had joined
us in Paris. Emil had earlier been assigned to a hospital unit
and it was there that he first met one of our violinists, Al "The
Agent"' Edelson. Emil reports that Al attempted to secure
copious supplies of the then secret drug penicillin for the entire
band. Al was absolutely certain we'd need huge quantities of it,
based as we were in the sinful, (but oh so blissful) city of Paree.
"The Agent"' couldn't swing the deal; but a cluster
on Al's medal for trying.
one of our superb instrument repairmen, looking particularly dapper
and content, was also with us. If some of you still wonder just
how Vito filled the free time we had in France, let me clue you
in. He managed to contact Leblanc, manufacturers of the world's
best woodwinds, flutes and other reed instruments, and after the
war he somehow managed to buy the company. Only Vito has the details.
He is now the king of Kenosha, Wisconsin and one of America's
leading instrument manufacturers. Not to worry much about Vito,
stories that flew back and forth across hospitality suites we
used as meeting places were hysterical. We were wall-to-wall mouths
constantly. Stories continued to be told on the Air Force buses
that took us to the USAF Museum on Friday August 15th, where there
was to be a rehearsal for the concert to be given on the following
night. On a personal note, Ray McKinley had phoned me several
weeks before the event to ask whether I would sing a duet on "The
G.I. Jive." Show biz, as the cliché goes, is indeed
my life, so I quickly said, "Yes." Ray sent me a lyric
breakdown to memorize in which he was much too kind, saying I
could alter it if I chose to. I did! He had given me much more
that I felt I could commit to memory and I mailed a revised routine
to him in Canada. It never got there in time so, at the rehearsal,
Ray said, "Just point when it's my turn to sing."
At a break
in the rehearsal, we were all fed truly and very well, seated
at tables placed inside the huge hangar containing many models
of Air Force planes and also containing a special glass case containing
Glenn's trombone and other Miller band memorabilia. After the
rehearsal we returned to our hotel for more reminiscing until
the wee hours. Sleep was difficult for many of us. We were too
August 16th, we left our hotel in USAF buses at 1:30 PM for the
award ceremonies scheduled for two o'clock. Everyone was dressed
very smartly, wearing a name tag on the right jacket lapel, leaving
the right pocket free to which the medal was to be affixed. An
audience of about 500 joined us in the Museum's theatre, and at
one point gave us a standing ovation. We were briefed by Linda
Smith and Judy Wehn of the Museum staff, assistants to Dick Baughman,
the chief of public affairs. I must interject here that the planning
and co-ordination of the entire weekend event by those already
mentioned and by Richard Uppstrom, Director of the Air Force Museum
was superbly efficient and considerate, for which I and everyone
who attended is deeply grateful.
We were directed
to form a single line and wait until each individual's name was
called. At that point each man would walk to center stage to receive
the award. We were told we could salute General Metcalf if we
chose to, and everyone did. While we were lining up, Richard Uppstrom
made a brief opening statement and then read a letter that had
been received some time back by Ray McKinley from a former Air
Force Officer. To capsulate: This officer recalled a concert
we gave at his base in England during a period of low morale due
to losses of aircraft and men. The letter said that his men truly
needed a lift to their spirits, and our band provided that lift
and then some. Glenn had often said that he wanted to bring "a
hunk of home" to the men overseas, and our mission that day
succeeded beyond our expectations. The letter also reminded us
that as we prepared to get back into our transport planes after
the concert, 1,800 enlisted men and officers assembled on the
airstrip and saluted Glenn and the band -- an incredible display
letter was read, Dick Baughman gave a brief biographical sketch
about each of us and our postwar careers, as we individually strode
to center stage to receive the medal and citation. After 25 presentations
were made, the names of those who had died were read starting
with Major Glenn Miller ... then Sgt. Jerry Gray ... Sgt. Jack
Sanderson ... Sgt. Harry Katzman. I'll dispense with their military
rank as I continue: Dave Herman ... Carmen Mastren ... Jimmy Jackson
... Bobby Nichols ... Junior Collins ... Stan Jarris ... Dick
Motylinski ... Joe Shulman ... Frank Ippolito ... Johnny Desmond
... Murray Kane ... Paul Dubov ... Paul Dudley ...Carl Swanson
... Henry Brynan ... Don Haynes ... and Brod Crawford. A third
of the band gone much too soon.
stepped to the podium on our behalf to offer a gift to the Museum.
The gift, prepared by Thomas W. Myrick, a longtime friend of the
band, consisted of cassettes of every "I Sustain The Wings"
broadcast the band we ever did. The collection begins with the
program of 29 May 1943 and ends with the show on 17 November 1945,
a truly magnificent job of research and preparation. Thank you,
Tom. The cassettes are now part of the Glenn Miller collection
at the Museum.
award ceremonies were over, we all gathered on the second floor
of the Museum for lunch and general relaxation prior to the concert.
At 7 PM, the USAF dance band, The Airmen of Note, wearing uniforms
similar to those we wore with the SHAEF patch on the left sleeve,
began with the theme "Moonlight Serenade" and segued
to, what else, "In The Mood." McKinley emceed and sat
in with the band, too, dropping at least 30 years as he picked
up his sticks. Amazing man, that Mac! Peanuts played magnificently,
the high spot for me being his solo On Steve Steck's swingin'
arrangement of "Stealin' Apples."
reminded me in a recent letter that in playing "The Eyes
and Ears of The World" for the first time in some 41 years,
Peanuts forgot to play the melody line in the 2nd eight bars of
the 1st chorus. For 8 bars then, all that was heard was a bunch
of band figures that had nothing much to do with the tune itself.
As Peanuts turned to Ray with a look of surprise, Ray yelled,
'You forgot to come in." Peanuts hollered back, "Didn't
it sound great?" It was that kind of relaxed concert. Peanut's
wife, Louise Tobin, who sang with Harry James during the Big Band
Era, did several solos beautifully. The current Modernaires, with
Paula Kelly, Jr. also performed a number of Miller standards.
Ray and I did our own thing on "G.I. Jive," during which
I suddenly possessed and did a few dance steps rejected by Fred
when Fred showed up at Rainbow Corners in Piccadilly to visit
his sister Adele who was then Lady Cavendish and a volunteer hostess
at thE Red Cross Club? Mr. Astaire, the one performer I idolize,
was importuned by the audience of G.I.'s to "Dance Fred,
c'mon and dance." Fred shyly agreed to try. As the dance
band under McKinley began, a medium-tempoed blues in B-flat, the
Astaires improvised an enchanting routine in the postage-stamp
space that was available. It was something I'll never forget.
is my fatal flaw, I admit, but you must forgive me. My mind keeps
unreeling a personal film of past events like the time Dinah Shore
sang with us at the Roughham 200 mission party, or of our landing
at Twinwood Farm after a concert to be greeted by Bing Crosby
who recorded with the band and the Crew Chiefs at Co-Partners
Hall in Bedford. That "studio" was in a seedy one story
building that had formerly belonged to the local gas company.
I can see us at the recording session in London with Bing when
he had a waiter wheel in bottles of booze, inviting all to "have
a blast" before the session. Glenn did not look too happy
at the invitation, but wisely said nothing. The memories keep
flowing, but it was not my intention to go quite this far when
I set out to write. I feel I've overstayed my welcome.
All of us
are grateful for the recognition and award for "meritorious
service," but in our hearts we know that medals belong primarily
to the men who did the actual fighting. I love the medal, but
realize that we were all blessed to be able to work as musicians,
singers, actors, writers, arrangers, and copyists in our unique
one-of-a-kind unit. It will never be duplicated.
we performed in person or recorded on more than 900 occasions
in thirteen months. That averages out to three sessions per day.
We did precisely what Glenn had set out to do, and we did it well.
Our lives, whether we choose to admit it or not, are infinitely
better and richer for having been members of what many people
consider to have been the greatest band of its kind ever assembled.
Never forget that Glenn had his choice of thousands of musicians
and hand-picked those of us who went overseas. How he made the
decisions is a mystery to me, just as his own untimely death
We are all
brothers in the very best sense of that word, and even if there
is never another reunion, at least we had this one. The joy, the
laughter, the tears as the list of those no longer with us was
read, and the warmth of being together once more, will never fade
for me. It fed my soul and the glow is still with me as I sign
Beverly Hills, California