U.S. Army Field Band celebrates 65 years

By Lisa R. Rhodes
Fort Meade Public Affairs

News story photo
Photo credit: Command Sgt. Maj. Loran McClung
Current and former members of the U.S. Army Field Band rehearse for the organization's 65th anniversary concert. The performance, however, was canceled as part of inclement weather precautions leading up to Hurricane Irene.
Last week, Sgt. Maj. Michael Culbertson, a retired member of the U.S. Army Field Band, called Dr. Sidney Werkman, a psychiatrist with a private practice in Washington, D.C. Culbertson, who is compiling a list of all the band's members since its inception in 1946, found Werkman's name on the Internet and discovered he was one of the original members of the Army Ground Forces Band, the predecessor of the U.S. Army Field Band. The sergeant major wanted to confirm what he had found.

When Culbertson inquired about Werkman's tenure with the band, the former clarinet player spoke fondly about his service.

"I'd go back and play right now; I'd do it in a heartbeat," the 87-year-old Werkman told Culbertson. "I was very proud of that time in my life."

Werkman's sentiments are similar to several of the 100 other alumni of the U.S. Army Field Band who gathered at Fort Meade the weekend of Aug. 26 to celebrate the organization's 65th anniversary. Although the band's anniversary concert, scheduled for Aug. 27, was canceled due to Hurricane Irene, its new commander was installed in an informal change of command ceremony in Elkridge.

"I'm excited, humbled and very pleased," said Col. Timothy J. Holtan, who replaces Col. Thomas Palmatier, leader of the field band for nearly four years.

The U.S. Army Field Band is the Army's official touring musical organization. It is comprised of four separate performing components: the Concert Band, the Soldiers' Chorus, the Jazz Ambassadors and the Volunteers. Each group tours more than 100 days a year, performing in concert halls and even in schools throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia, South America, Canada, Mexico, Korea, Japan and India.

Every four years, the field band leads the first element of the Presidential Inaugural Parade and has participated in the state funerals of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.

"Our mission is to provide music in support of Solders and their families," said Command Sgt. Maj. Loran McClung, a saxophonist who joined the field band in 1983 and has performed with the Jazz Ambassadors and the Concert Band.

McClung said the band and its four components allow Americans and people around the world "to see a Soldier close up" while enjoying the very best of the nation's musical traditions as well as musical styles from diverse cultures.

The band's highly qualified musicians, vocalists and entertainment specialists are graduates of top music schools, universities, conservatories and professional music organizations. As of last year, about 37 band members had earned a bachelor's degree in music, 77 have a master's degree in music and six have earned a doctorate of musical arts.

In addition to musical training, the Soldiers also receive advanced military training.

The U.S. Army Field Band's roots date back to 1944 with the creation of the 1st Combat Infantry Band, made up entirely of combat veterans. Under the leadership of Chief Warrant Officer Chester E. Whiting, the band traveled the country. People purchased war bonds to gain admission to the concerts. The band eventually raised more than $1 million for the war effort.

A year later, in 1945, Gen. Jacob L. Devers, commander of Army Ground Forces, decided to form a special band that was comparable to the Army Air Forces Band. He believed a band made up of active-duty Soldiers would be effective in carrying "into the grassroots of our country the story of our magnificent Army."

By March 1946, the Army Ground Forces Band was formed under Whiting's direction and was headquartered at Fort Meade. Whiting was commissioned to the rank of captain a month later. Many of the band's musicians came from the original 1st Combat Infantry Band and helped to form the Concert Band. Two years later, the Field Band gained public recognition when several members of the Army Ground Forces were presented the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman.

In the spring of 1950, the band assumed its new name, the U.S. Army Field Band. Seven years later, the Field Band began auditioning vocalists specifically for the Soldiers' Chorus. The Jazz Ambassadors was formed in 1969. In the early 1970s, the music organization's first full-time female members enlisted into the ranks of the Soldiers' Chorus. By 1981, the Volunteers was established.

Culbertson joined the field band in 1977 after serving as a vocalist with the U.S. Army Forces Bicentennial Band for two years. He then served as its assistant tour director from 1977 to 1993, and became the resource manager in 1983. He retired in 2009.

One of his fondest memories was performing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" during Reagan's funeral on June 11, 2004.

"It was an amazing experience," said Culbertson, noting that musicians in administrative positions often perform with the Field Band. "Everybody sounded so good together. It was very emotional."

For the past two years, Culbertson has been researching unit rosters and searching through phone books, the Internet and old documents to create a list of all the band's current and former members to produce a commemorative publication.

"I want to memorialize the service of these individuals," Culbertson said.

He has complied about 1,680 names so far. "It's like doing a family tree with 1,700 cousins," Culbertson said.

Holtan said the Field Band's 65-year legacy is rich and its future is bright.

"We've been effective in inspiring, entertaining and educating the American people," he said. "No musical organization does it better than the U.S. Army Field Band."

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