As told to Keith Kenny by his father, Edward Kenny
Primary Flying School, Bonham, Texas, July 1943
I stood at attention two paces in front of the Commandant’s desk, the sergeant’s bark still ringing in my ears. “The Commandant! … His office! … On-the-double!” A trickle from my interrupted morning shower and shave ran down the back of my neck. I was nineteen, younger than most of the air cadets, and trembling in my newly pressed uniform.
Still catching my breath from the sprint up from the barracks, I ran through my mental checklist. Had he found a tin can or cigarette butt in the yard? Had I combed my hair after the shower? Aligned my belt and tie? I couldn’t remember. With my eyes forward and level and hands at my side, I couldn’t check.
The Commandant of Cadets stood hunched, the knuckles of his balled fists pressed onto his metal desk. His tan uniform was as angular and crisp as the creased folds of a paper airplane. His neckless square head was fixed to his shoulders, and his jaw muscles worked relentlessly. What was the infraction?
Suddenly, he jerked his head up and bored his burning blue eyes into mine. “Mister, I want a band out there … this Saturday … for the review. Any questions?”
“No sir,” I saluted, toed an about face and shot through the door. “A band?” I mouthed. “In five days?” I shook my head.
As the appointed cadet group commander, I had six squadrons to keep in line, each with its own squadron commander. “Men,” I said to the gathered commanders, trying to capture the Commandant’s bearing, “this Saturday I want a band out there … on the parade ground … for the review. Any questions?” I thought it sounded weak.
Six lean hard expressions dropped in unison. Heads shook. Everyone grumbled. “What! Impossible! Not another … !” What with flying schedules, classwork, PT, daily inspections, course study, and letter writing, we had no extra time.
Still, the grumbling passed in minutes, and we began working on a plan. Where would we find instruments? Who could play? Where would we practice? Could one of the schools or the local men’s club help? How much would it all cost? We fanned out to collect answers.
Next evening, as the bugler played taps back at the post, the band had its first practice in the gymnasium of St. Theresa’s Catholic School for Girls. Sister Barbara Graham opened the doors and patiently helped orchestrate our first rehearsal. The next few days, between flight training and classes, we worked to synchronize our music with field maneuvers. In the evening we played, and Bonham’s Air Cadet Marching Band slowly came together.
Mid-morning, that Saturday, the entire air cadet class assembled on the parade ground in full dress. Six squadrons of pressed uniforms, sparkling brass buttons, and mirror-polished shoes marched onto the field under a cloudless, blue, Texas sky, and wheeled to face the reviewing stand. Officials and senior officers occupied the stand’s central seats, tactical officers and instructors beside them. Civilian guests sat in bleachers on either side of the stand. In the steady breeze, the American flag snapped high above them and its cord and pulley slapped on the pole.
After all the dignitaries arrived, the Commandant took the high platform at the center of the stand. He stood tall, his five feet six inches drawn taut like a bow string from his door-wide shoulders to his diminished waist then down the lines of his diamond-cut uniform. At parade rest, he watched unmoving as the last of the cadet squadrons formed. Then he addressed the seated assembly and turned to the cadets on the field.
Six rectangular formations were lined up abreast, each with a squadron commander out front. In the center, ahead of the formations, I stood with my three-man staff facing the reviewing stand.
No band was in sight.
The Commandant nodded for me to begin. I faced about and barked, “Ree-PORTS!”
In sequence, each squadron commander down the line saluted and shouted, “All present and accounted for, SIR!” The adjutant read the orders of the day. Then I stepped forward.
“Sir!” Holding my salute, I directed my comments to the Commandant. “Sir, the parade is formed.”
The Commandant snapped to attention, saluted, and directed, “Pass in review!” A hush swept over the crowd. Official regulations required that a band lead the formations. There were rumors, but no one had heard any details about the band.
Pivoting left I commanded, “Sound Off!” Then waited. Silence ticked by. Then came a loud drumbeat, “Boom-boom.” It echoed off the barracks walls behind the reviewing stand. Another, “Boom-boom,” sounded from a big bass drum, this time followed by the “rattling-tat-tat” of a snare drum.
The drum major emerged first, high kicking, back leaning, waving and thrusting his oversized high-school baton. In his tall, fur busby, Cadet Jameson Jones was genuine world class. He had led his school band in the Orange Bowl parade and competed nationally as a top collegiate drum major. Jones high strutted, jamming his baton skyward on each downbeat, as proud and aloof as if leading 101 pieces in the Florida State band.
Behind Jones’ panache the talent diminished. For brass, we had a tuba, trumpet, and French horn; one clarinet made up the reeds section; then two drums—one snare and one bass. Seven stouthearted cadets marched and played, snapping their heads and instruments, left then right, in flawless unison, each simulating the motion of an entire section with bursting exuberance. The music was ragged but high spirited, and usually on key.
Keeping precise step, they marched with erect distinction across the field. As the band passed, each cadet squadron wheeled in formation and filed in behind. They paraded one hundred and fifty feet to the end of the field then executed two ninety-degree turns to align with the review stand. Marching back, they passed directly in front of the Commandant and the officials in the stand.
Sniggers, quiet and respectful at first, rippled through the crowd. The sniggers gave way to smirks, then loud laughter, then full guffaws. Laughter rocked the stands spreading down to the cadets marching in formation. On the high platform, the Commandant himself smirked and gripped the rail with both hands, shaking with laughter.
Only the drum major stood firm, discipline unbroken. To the crowd’s heightened amusement, Jones’ expression remained unrelenting stone. Passing the Commandant of Cadets, he jerked his head sharply about and crossed his chest with his baton in a formal salute. Stride steady, he marched past the reviewing stand punching his baton upward in constant time for the cadets to follow.
On reaching the far end of the bleachers, the drum major’s baton crossed his chest once again to salute a dark-clad figure standing alone. The six band members, as they passed, followed his salute with a head twist and a bow of their instruments. Sister Barbara pulled stiffly erect to receive the salute. I think only I saw her wipe two fingers beneath her eye.
The cadet squadrons followed in regular fashion, each saluting while passing the stand then marching off the field to return to barracks. As cadet group commander, I held fast at attention until the end, when the Commandant would pass his judgment. He double-timed down from the stand, stopped in front of me, and turned to face me. Following a good review, he normally declared the post open for the weekend. Everyone looked forward to getting a few hours away from the base.
I saluted. The Commandant returned my salute over a non-regulation face-splitting grin. “Mister … that was an excellent parade. Excellent!” He stifled a laugh then blurted, “From now on, I want the band at every review and parade. You will have open post until twenty hundred hours Sunday, any question?” Anticipating my, “No, sir!” he saluted, turned, and walked off.
In later years, I learned that the band continued until war’s end. It never exceeded six musicians and remained a perpetual curiosity to the military and to the locals. But not, I suspect, to Sister Barbara or to the seven stouthearted men of Bonham’s first Air Cadet Marching Band.