No one can blame the women in this group for tooting their own horns.
The U.S. Women of the Air Force Band will have a reunion this week in Myrtle Beach and is giving two free concerts for the community, both at 7:30 p.m.: Wednesday at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10804 in Little River and Thursday in Coastal Carolina University’s Wheelwright Auditorium, in Conway.
Jan Wurst of Myrtle Beach, a clarinetist and one of the concerts’ conductors, said former WAF members have gotten together almost annually for about 15 years at sites across the country, including its first Grand Strand get-together in 2007.
Wurst was one of the 235 people who served in the 50-member band in its tenure begun in 1951 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, until its disbandment in 1961 over larger variables involving gender issues and military staffing.
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She called the WAF the “only one of its kind” in the U.S. armed forces, but through reunions, they have not let the music or memories, and awareness of the band’s history, end.
“Nobody is younger than 65,” said Wurst, a WAF member from 1953 to ’58. “I think our oldest is ... 88. She will be conducting; she no longer can play.”
Retired from teaching music in Fairfax County Schools in Virginia, Wurst gathers with fellow artists to paint once a week, and she plays in the Pawleys Island Concert and North Myrtle Beach Community bands.
Question | Breaking these two WAF concerts down by instrument, how many horns will sound?
Answer | We’ll have about two flutes; nine clarinets; two alto, one tenor and two baritone saxophones; five trumpets; three horns – all of those are ringers; two trombones; one baritone; and one tuba; and two percussionists.
Q. | How is the musical flow for each reunion concert ironed out?
A. | We have a librarian, and the conductors get together and make up a list of music, and it stays pretty much the same every year, but we always try to add different pieces every year.
Q. | What numbers remain standards?
A. | “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Air Force song ... and also marches. We’ll do some pop tunes and generally band concert stuff. ... The Air Force theme is the one that united us. I start to play it, and after the song, I get weepy a little bit.
Q. | How different was playing professionally in the service decade ago?
A. | We were still segregated then – the men and the women. ... The band was in existence ... just 10 years, and there were several reasons why it ended. ... We began to get invitations to play overseas. ... There began to be a jealousy ... and it kind of flew in the faces of military authorities. ...
Capt. MaryBelle J. Nissly – she was hand selected by Col. George Howard. ... She was our only leader. ...
Also, women who got married had to get out of the band, and that’s been the problem. ... We still have about 60 members we have not found, because married people change their name and we’ve lost track of them.
Q. | What other entertainment awaits this reunion attendees and their families?
A. | We’ll have these tours in the middle of the day, when we’re not rehearsing, with hopes for a side trip to Brookgreen Gardens and perhaps to Barefoot Landing or Broadway at the Beach. ...
Myrtle Beach is universally know throughout the country. They’ll say, “You live in Myrtle Beach – wow!” That’s why I planned this in the fall. The waters are still warm enough, if they want to swim. ... We’ll be at the Sands Resort, because we have to have a rehearsal room and a banquet room.
Q. | How important is remembering this American heritage in which the WAF played such a big part?
A. | Everyone remembers that, and we are very full of patriotism. One of the husbands said that we’re the only women’s military group that is still carrying out its mission – to entertain the troops and the public, and act as a liaison to represent the Air Force.
Q. | What common threads among the members never wear out?
A. | These people come here at their own expense, and it’s a struggle that some people make to come here. In 2007, we had three wheelchairs backstage; I don’t know how many we’ll need this year.
But this is the life. When we were girls, we’d squabble a bit ... but the years have mellowed us. Any kind of hardships or hard thoughts, or anything of that hard nature, is long gone. We only think about making music together and entertaining our audiences.