Marching Band of Brothers

May 10, 2012

The Japanese government surrendered to Allied forces in 1945, but World War Two came to an official end in April, 1952, when a peace treaty went into effect.  Witnessing the declaration of peace, 60 years ago, were members of the 24th Infantry Division Band.  The American soldiers were in Japan on occupation duty.

Since wars are fought by young people, memories of conflict can last a generation.  But, as fate would have it, Calvin Whitt’s memories are not of war, but, of peace. Whitt, who grew up in Paintsville, in far eastern Kentucky, was working on a music education degree at Eastern Kentucky University, when the mailman delivered a draft notice.  Shortly after basic training, Private Whitt got a choice.

“They came through their camp and asked, `Are there any musicians here?’  There was about 20-some of us that raised our hand and we went over to band school and out of 27 that had interviewed and tried out, I was one of three that made the auditions. (They) gave me a choice, said you can either be a military policeman in Tokyo or you can be with the 24th Army band in Sendai.  Didn’t take a whole lot to guess which one I chose,” said Whitt.

In Sendai, Japan, Whitt met Bob Garner, a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

In the winter of 1952, the 24th Army Division was taking a break from the Korean War, where it had fought on the Pusan Perimeter and the Yalu River.  As those war weary troops arrived in Japan, many were welcomed by the 24th Army Division Band with Whitt on the french horn and Garner on the souza phone.

“In the middle of the night, we would go out and meet a troop train, and here was these guys staggering off, just waking up to martial airs that we were playing,” said Garner.

It was not all military music.  The Big Band Era was winding down, but the Broadway and Hollywood musical were in a golden age. American Jazz was definitely in high demand, and top musicians could be drafted.

“We had a very good dance band, and the director of the dance band happened to be a corporal, Tommy Moses, and he played with Blue Barron before he was in the service and one of his assistants, I’d guess you’d say, one of the guys that helped and so forth with that, had played with Count Basiem,” said Garner.

The band also performed for the Japanese.  The band traveled the country, sometimes in the dead of winter and often in the back of canvas covered trucks.  Whitt says the audiences loved the G-Is and American soldiers were equally generous…once passing the hat after a concert at a leper colony.

“We looked at these poor people there and the condition they were in, I saw all of our band guys reaching down in their pockets, pulling out some bills, the few bills that we had, and the people that had been there to hear us play for them, they start running after us and yelling, `Thank you GI! Thank you GI!” said Whitt.

There were other rewards.  Bob Garner says they were regularly sent out to gauge anti-American sentiment. Fearing an insurgency, the band was ordered to a do a public concert in a Japanese community where communists were active.  He says both the concert and the ride back to the barracks went well.

“The square was full, jammed with people down the side streets that came into the square.  And we gave our concert. Very well received. And we went back to the buses and there were cases of sake and rice beer and other things, compliments of the mayor or the city,” said Garner.

But at its heart, the 24th Infantry Division Band was a marching band.  And on April 28th, 1952, it was ordered to march.  The unit participated in a ceremony marking the official beginning of peace between Japan and the United States. 

“They had these big flag raising ceremonies, where their flag was given back to Japan.  See, it had been abolished by the Americans until that time.  So that there were three flags then out, the American flag, the United Nations flag and then the Japanese flag,” said Garner.

We wanted them to be able to have a sense of pride in themselves.  We just felt like we weren’t there to crush them physically or morally in anyway.  That we give them a sense of honor, which is very, very important,” added Whitt.

In the late summer of 1953, finished making their piece of history, both Whitt and Garner rotated home.  Both men went into education, teaching kids and leading peaceful lives.  As for the band, it went back to war with the rest of the 24th Infantry Division Band…arriving back in Korea just before the shooting, more or less, ended in that conflict.