The 543rd Air Force Band
3700 Air Base Group
3700TH Air Force Indoctrination Wing
Lackland Air Force Base
San Antonio, Texas
The 543rd (WAF) Band was officially activated at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, on Jan. 14, 1951, with 18 members. Col. George S. Howard, Chief of Bands and Music for the Air Force in Washington, DC, had earlier set the creation of such a musical unit in motion in 1949 and had tapped CWO Samuel Kurtz, Conductor of the Band of the West at Lackland AFB, to organize it. Kurtz auditioned candidates for the women’s band, recruiting directly from basic trainees. When a sufficient number of WAF musicians had been selected and trained, they were assigned to the all-WAF unit. They were then assigned to seasoned male musicians for further musical training and temporarily placed in the male base band. Kurtz tapped Pfc. Mary Divens as the WAF Band’s first enlisted director, and she led the trainee band playing for retreats and concerts at Lackland.
Until October 1951, the ranks of enlisted personnel were private, private first class, corporal and sergeant. Women serving in the Air Force still wore the Army olive drab uniforms, but in keeping with the name change of the branch of service from “Army Air Corps- to “Air Force,” the uniform and rank also changed. The olive drabs were exchanged for Air Force blue, the brown shoes and boots became black, and privates became airmen, with pay scales ranging from about $78 a month for an airman basic to $350 for a master sergeant. The women accepted into WAF ranks had to be age 18 to 35, and those under 21 needed their parents’ permission. They had to pass tests for higher intelligence than the average male entering the Air Force and have a feminine appearance. Besides excelling in musicianship, young women had to be Caucasian to enter the band, which was stationed in the South and would travel in the South where segregation of the races ruled.
Once the band was official, Col. Howard recruited MaryBelle Johns Nissly to take charge of the new WAF Band. Since they were personally acquainted, Col. Howard knew her background and lured her back into the military with the promise of a direct commission. An enlisted WAC in World War II, Nissly had been made the first woman Warrant Officer in the music field in any of the services by a direct order of Congress. Nissly accepted the rank of Captain in December 1951 and stayed as the WAF Band Conductor and Commander until the band’s deactivation in 1961.
The Future Foretold Like the WAF component within the Air Force, the WAF Band was established with outward support from its male leadership but with little commitment from the top for its long-term survival. The all-women band was formed just as the WAF gained a new director, Mary Jo Shelly, who tried for the next 30 months to define and expand the WAF mission. MaryBelle Nissly had similar struggles throughout her decade as director of the WAF Band, running up against a hierarchy which, in the end, decided to terminate this popular and elite musical unit rather than commit more resources to it.
Both Shelly and Nissly had left military careers at the end of World War II and gone back to civilian life, with no further thoughts to more days in uniform. During her first time in service, Shelly was among the first women to be commissioned in the Navy in 1942 and was involved in setting up WAVE training. By 1951, when she was approached about taking on the WAF assignment Shelly was assistant to the president of Bennington College. Then, Secretary of the Air Force Thomas Finletter asked her to rejoin the military as the new director of the WAF, and after some hesitation she took on the assignment.
According to Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm, USAF (Ret.) in her book “Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution”, Shelly found the WAF in disarray, suffering from low-quality recruits and declining morale. From an overly optimistic goal of enlisting 46,000 women at the beginning of that decade, by 1952 Shelly reported to the Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Air Force that the strength would probably level off at around 12,000, which also turned out to be too high. Fewer women were enlisting than once envisioned, and most of them left after their first term. By 1953, the WAF force numbered around 6,000 women, with studies over the next few years calling for reducing it even further. By 1957, when the official ceiling on the program was set at 8,000, there were about 7,200 women on active duty, representing less than 1% of the total enlisted force of 734,000 in the Air Force. In the spring of 1958, the Air Force targeted further manpower reductions, and the WAF component was dead in its sights.
More than the recruiting, however, Shelly and the succeeding WAF directors through the 1950s wrestled with the question of what to do with these women – not only what kinds of jobs could they do but what kinds of jobs was the Air Force willing to allow them to do? During the Korean War expansion, some in the Air Force had viewed women as a potential source of high quality personnel to supplement their forces. But instead of opening more career fields to women, the military leadership directed they be used only in limited roles – clerical, stenographic and medical fields. General Holm reports on one study in 1958 that cited commanders who preferred women in certain jobs in air defense combat control centers and passenger air transport operations, statistical analysis and data processing as well. Adding more women to these slots could justify increasing their numbers to more than 9,000. But despite the positive feedback, the study concluded the WAF force could be further reduced to 5,000 by 1960. This amounted, General Holm writes, to a reduction of over 30 percent in the WAF strength at the same time the Air Force strength had been increased overall. Also around 1960, General Holm notes, the Air Force decided to phase women out of nontraditional fields and any other fields where their numbers were small. They were to be employed only on those jobs ‘women do better than men.’ The Air Force also closed more bases to enlisted women.”
Captain Nissly persists it was in this period of drawdown in the WAF force that MaryBelle Nissly was trying to upgrade her WAF Band. Despite having been given promises of full support from Colonel Howard, Nissly’s office correspondence shows that she fought for every nickel that was granted to train and equip her band members. In the first years most of the recruits joined the WAF Band only with high school musical experience, as was the case for most of the men qualifying for Air Force bands. She was successful at obtaining funding to send the whole band for advanced musical training at the military band school at Bolling Air Force Base. But when she requested small allowance increases for band members – for extra shoes or gloves, for example – to help offset the cost of their uniforms and accessories, since a “spit and polish” appearance added to their glamorous image, Nissly was only able to get S2.50 for each band member to buy an extra suitcase. And her request for a fund-raiser to buy WAF Band jackets, embroidered with the band logo was denied, though they were projected to cost merely $1.50 each.
The band grew to an official number of 50 members but suffered losses continually through attrition, usually because of marriage. Since band members had to be single and between the ages of 18 and 35, they were in their prime marriageable years and often found mates within the enlisted or officer ranks. In one year’s time, the band lost more than 20 members. At one point, Nissly requested that the band’s official staffing number be set higher than 50, since musical gaps were hard to fill, but that request, too, was turned down. In addition, as her musicians languished in their enlisted ranks, Nissly also requested a raise in the special promotion quota, which after a back-and-forth correspondence of more than six months was also denied.
Air Force Regulation 190-21, published June 13, 1955, made the 543rd officially the U.S. WAF Band. The redesignation changed the status of the band from that of a base band to an official U.S. Air Force representative. Its mission, as set forth in the regulation, was to ‘assist, within their capabilities, in promoting Air Force objectives and enhancing the prestige of the Air Force and the United Slates’. That made two special Air Force bands designed and made available for worldwide use, with emphasis on building the prestige of the Air Force. However, this designation did not bring with it any added support from the Pentagon. The band traveled extensively right from the start, including, in Nissly’s first year, trips to Little Rock, Ark., an 11-day California tour, and a 13-day tour to the East Coast including stops in Washington, DC, and New York City. They performed at football games, open-air concerts, county fairs, civic events, and on television and radio. In 1953, they marched in President Eisenhower’s inaugural parade, the first of three inaugurations in which the band would participate. As the band’s popularity grew, requests for appearances started coming in from around the country. Nissly had to find ways to manage transportation and housing at their performance sites. If there was not a welcoming base near an engagement, towns sometimes arranged to host the band members in private homes. The band filled two military C-47s and flew later on C-124s as they logged hundreds of thousands of miles from coast to coast, as far away as Alaska, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
In 1958, Nissly sent a memo to Air Force recruiters requesting suggestions for events – military and civilian – which could be venues for WAF Band performances. Up to this time, scheduling responsibilities shifted between the band, its base commander (first at Lackland AFB and later at Norton AFB), the AMC wing office, and information and recruiting wings.
According to General Holm, in 1958 the Air Force was in the throes of a manpower reduction, and the prevailing theory was that if the WAF program was eliminated, 8,000 manpower spaces would also be eliminated. Col. Emma Riley, then Director of the WAF, completed a study which showed that elimination of the WAF program would save only about 155 manpower spaces and, since women held validated manpower spaces, they would have to be replaced by men, thus creating no reduction in strength. Riley was sent back to the drawing board to come up with an answer that would satisfy the Pentagon. Her next version showed that many commanders preferred women for certain jobs.
This was the climate Nissly had to operate in. When transportation requests to carry the band to concert venues out of the base area were denied, she scrambled to find ways to get her band there anyway. It seems she managed to take control of the scheduling in 1959, and the band had its biggest year ever. From the start, Nissly had asked that the WAF Band have a direct hand in sorting out its own performance schedule, but 1959 is likely the only year she was able to do that.
End of the Era Some former band members today believe they could have been victims of their own success. One story comes from Sgt. Marjorie Sanders, who worked in the band school office at Bolling AFB in Washington, DC, while attending band school in the summer of 1960. She learned from an overheard phone conversation that when an invitation specifying the WAF Band came into Bolling from a venue in Europe, Col. George Howard turned down the request by stating that the U.S. WAF Band was “busy” but that the U.S. Air Force Band could come.
Also in 1960, in a directive issued to spell out the appropriate military occasions for which the WAF Band could perform, all concerts for civilian audiences, such as at fairs or schools where the band had developed popular followings, were explicitly forbidden. Despite this directive, Nissly continued to accept invitations. Because the issue of whether women should be permitted in the Air Force was still on the table with strong adherents on both sides of the issue, those supporting elimination of women from the ranks seized on this excuse to deactivate the band.
In 1961, band members, including the officers, were given the choice of accepting a different nonmusical assignment in the Air Force or leaving the service altogether. The majority of enlisted women left the service. Nissly and Thomas both stayed in. Interestingly, when Air Force brass suggested to the Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in 1981 that the Air Force would be better served by discontinuing the recruitment of women, they were told in no uncertain terms that Carl Vincent, then chairman of the committee, would never stand for such a thing. How sad that such affirmation of the role of women in the Air Force came too late for the WAF Band. After the Band was deactivated, there remained 33 bands in the Air Force, none of which included females. It would be 12 years more, during a Civil Rights movement for women, before women found a place as musicians in Air Force uniform again. By that time, the Air Force had successfully buried the existence of this brilliant and pioneering aspect of its history. The spotlight on the WAF Band would not shine again for more than 40 years.