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WAF Band still making music

DALLAS (AFPN) -- A military band that was formed when the Air Force was just 4 years old performed four concerts here, more than 40 years after the group’s deactivation.

The Women in the Air Force Band, in conjunction with its annual reunion, gave back to the nation in the Lone Star State. After three days of rehearsals, the band took its sentimental journey Sept. 30 to the Texas State Fair where, more than 50 years after its initial concert in October 1953, it performed two concerts to a crowd of more than 1,500 veterans and fair attendees.

On Oct. 1, the musicians performed for more than 100 veterans and hospital employees at the North Texas Veterans Affairs Health Care System. The group’s last concert for the week was Oct. 2 at the Arts Center in Mesquite.

Performances like these are nothing new for the band. Concerts and parades were part of the reason it was established in June 1951 at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, by Col. George Howard, then-chief of bands and music for the Air Force in Washington, D.C. He wanted an Air Force counterpart to the Women's Army Corps Band, according to his autobiography, “A Symphony in the Sky.”

The colonel picked the group’s first and only commander, Capt. MaryBelle Nissly, a former WAC enlisted Soldier and warrant officer. In his book, he said he offered her a direct commission to captain and gave her full authority to hire the musicians. She picked 235 women during the group's 10-year existence.

The group performed at numerous events, including “football games, open-air concerts, county fairs, significant events, TV and radio programs,” and, in January 1953, the band “marched in the inaugural parade for President Eisenhower,” according to the recently published book, “The U.S. WAF Band Story,” by band member Dixie Johnson.

In June 1955, according to Ms. Johnson's book, the group “was officially designated as the U.S. WAF Band," and remained at Lackland AFB until 1958 when it moved to Norton AFB, Calif. It remained there until 1961 when it was deactivated.

Colonel Howard wrote in his book that he “supported the [WAF Band] program for years, but when the Air Force was faced with personnel reductions and (he) reached mandatory age for retirement, the WAF Band was disbanded.”

Some people, including Ms. Johnson in her book, said the band was dissolved because of sexism in the 1950s and 1960s, and that more than 35 all-male bands continued to remain on duty.

After the group disbanded, many left the Air Force and scattered all over the United States. Throughout the years, there was talk of reunions, but nothing came to fruition until 1997, when clarinet players Barbara Paulick and Betty DeVaughn and other band members organized the first reunion in San Antonio. Thirty-seven people attended and started what has become an annual event that includes spouses and family members who help get the group to its concert locations and help set up before and tear down after each performance.

The group continues to search for more of its members.

“We’ve located 149 of our 235 members and are in contact with them, and we know 32 are deceased,” said Helen McClammy, this year’s host and euphonium player. “We’re looking for 54 more, and we hope that by playing in the different cities around the nation when we have our reunions, that someone will come up to us and say, ‘I was a WAF Band member’ and want to rejoin us.”

Finding those 54 is even more vital as the band members get older. This year's attendees range in age from 62 years old to the group’s first chair trombonist, 80-year-old Ann Everitt. She was the band’s back-up director to Captain Nissly. At each concert site, she tells the story of how she never got to direct the band because the captain was so healthy -- that is until the day the captain broke her right arm.

In 2001, the band celebrated its 50th anniversary in Washington, D.C., and performed at the Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home, Women In Military Service to America Memorial and at the Andrews AFB air show in Maryland. Next year, they will meet near Kansas City, Mo. for their 8th annual reunion and perform concerts for veterans and the local community.

“We’re still proudly serving our country,” Ms. McClammy said.

The WAF Band was the only female military band performing in the United States, until the WAC Band began including performances during its reunion this year.

For more information and history about the WAF Band, visit the Web site at www.wafband.org.