The United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own” has been an integral part of Army history, serving as its musical ambassador since 1922. This year, the band celebrates 90 years of storied musical history.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing formed the band in January of 1922 through a special order, assigning Capt. Parry W. Lewis as the unit commander. Lewis was “detailed to command the District of Washington band,” according to Master Sgt. Michael Parnell, band historian, who cited information he compiled from official sources.
By Jan. 25 of that same year, bands from a number of Army depots had been eliminated, and their Soldier musicians brought to Fort Hunt, Va., to form the new, consolidated band. The band made its public debut at the unveiling and dedication ceremony for the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, April 27, 1922. There was a parade before the ceremony, with Pershing’s Own leading the procession. The event marked a major accomplishment for the fledgling organization, Parnell explained.
The band began what would become a tradition at President Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration, March 4, 1925, marching as part of the official presidential escort – an honor Pershing’s Own has held in every inaugural parade since.
Less than 20 years after its first presidential inaugural performance, Pershing’s Own was ordered overseas to perform as part of a morale tour for Soldiers during World War II.
“In June of 1943, the band was called overseas to perform first in North Africa, and then in battle-weary Europe, returning to U.S. soil in June of 1945,” Parnell said. “The band received a battle streamer for their efforts during the Rhineland Campaign, and is the only Washington-based military band to have ever participated in a theater of foreign combat operations.”
Eddie Jenkins, a staff sergeant at the time, was a member of the band during its tour of Europe.
Jenkins was an accomplished drummer before joining the Army, keeping time for well-known jazz and swing ensembles of the 1930s like the Bunny Berigan Band. He enlisted in the Army just after high school graduation in 1935, and drummed for the National Guard’s 102nd Medical Regiment Band, his son Bill said.
Jenkins eventually joined USO Show No. 3 and entertained troops across America. In 1944, while performing overseas with the USO in London, The United States Army Band asked him to become their drummer — the previous drummer was actually the oboist.
“Basically I was a dance drummer,” Jenkins said, explaining that he specialized in big-band pieces and jazz music — the kinds of music that people could dance to.
Jenkins was with the band on Victory in Europe Day, as they marched down the Avenue de Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triumph.
“He and his buddies received kisses from young French girls — and men — running up to thank them along the parade route,” Bill said. One little girl came up to him and handed him a rose, but he couldn’t hold it, as he was playing the drums.
“I hooked it through the side of the snare drum,” and he continued to march, Jenkins said. He believes the band provided an invaluable morale boost for troops and civilians alike, and that it continues to do so today.
Jenkins ended his career with the band in 1946. Now in his 90s, he lives just a few miles from Fort Myer, Va., where Pershing’s Own now resides. He keeps in touch with the band and helped organize a reunion for World War II veterans in 2006.
The man current members call “the grandpa” of the band regularly visits Fort Myer for concerts, and wore his old combat boots to many events. Band members noticed, and persuaded him to donate the boots to a museum on base almost five years ago.
“(They) conned me out of my combat boots for the showcase, but I’d rather have them to wear for the winter time,” Jenkins teased.
In the years after Jenkins left, the band increased in both size and function. In 1950, The U.S. Army Strings were formed and in 1956, The U.S. Army Chorus became an official part of the unit, according to the Pershing’s Own website.
The band was part of several historically significant events in the 1960s. Its Soldiers played Taps at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in November of 1963. The band and chorus welcomed back the Apollo 11 astronauts and celebrated the lunar landing at an official state dinner hosted by President Richard Nixon and the first lady, Aug. 13, 1969.
“The United States Army Chorus premiered the song ‘One Small Step by Man,’” Parnell said. The piece, composed by Sgt. 1st Class Ron Harris, was inspired by the words spoken by Neil Armstrong when he first stepped foot on the moon.
The band was also responsible for performing at many funerals for service members killed during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 70s.
Retired Sgt. Major Jack Tilbury joined The U.S. Army Band in 1972, right after the end of the Vietnam draft. Entering on a delayed enlistment, Tilbury hoped to finish out the last year of his music education degree, believing he would stay in for three years and return to Oklahoma to teach.
“(When) I came in the band, I loved it. It was something I always thought would be really neat to do. Growing up in the Southwest, you always had these military bands from D.C. come through,” Tilbury said. It was that early exposure to military bands that drove him to audition. Once a part of the band, Tilbury was hooked — he kept reenlisting and made tuba playing into a 33-year career that ended in 2005.
The last four years of his career he served as the band’s command sergeant major. “I stayed there so long they gave me a real job,” Tilbury joked.
Because Tilbury enlisted at the end of the draft, he has a unique perspective on the band’s influence during the Vietnam era: Pershing’s Own was important because it put a public face on the Army, he explained.
“The band is basically a public relations arm of the Army, that’s part of its mission anyway. And at that time the military was not thought of very well, quite frankly,” Tilbury said. “It was not something that people aspired to be in and there was a lot of anti-military feeling … that persisted … even after the Vietnam War. … The band, I think, was really good about changing the perception of the military.”
The band had many gifted soloists who showed the public that the Army wasn’t a faceless organization — something that Tilbury believes helped the country view the Army in a more positive light. Since Vietnam, Pershing’s Own has performed at all U.S.-hosted Olympic games from 1980 onward, played overseas and for royalty, and has been twice awarded the Army Superior Unit award.
The band worked hard to “sell” the Army in the decades following Vietnam, but after 9/11, its role would change.
The Soldier-musicians assisted in recovery efforts at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 attacks, offering technical, logistical and musical support for recovery workers. In October of 2001, the band performed a memorial service at ground zero in New York, and in December it participated in a six-day USO tour of Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. This marked the first time the band had performed in a warzone since 1945.
“The last five years that I was in the band, I kind of got a feel for what it might have been like for the guys that were in the band during World War II,” Tilbury said.
Tilbury praised the band, saying musically, it’s the best it has ever been. The legacy of previous musicians, as well as the recruitment of members with advanced degrees in music studies has contributed to that, he explained.
“As somebody that’s retired, you want the people that replaced you to be better than you were,” Tilbury said. “You want it to improve. You want to be able to point back to it and say, ‘I used to play with those guys.’”
For more information about The U.S. Army Band and its various ensembles, visit www.usarmyband.com.