A History of the United States Coast Guard SPAR Band

By Hersey, Joanna Ross; Sullivan, Jill M. | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, April 2009 | Go to article overview

A History of the United States Coast Guard SPAR Band


Hersey, Joanna Ross, Sullivan, Jill M., Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


American women formed bands during the latter half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. These bands followed a parallel development to men's, with members forming town, family, immigrant, industry, school, swing, military, and professional touring bands. The women's bands provided music for a variety of community events, such as national holidays, suffrage campaigns, political campaigns, and veterans' activities, by performing in bandwagons, street parades, or in the town bandstand. (1) Women's participation continued to evolve during World War II as enlisted members of America's all-female military branches formed women's military bands. This article illuminates the responsibilities of one such ensemble, the thirty-five-member United States Coast Guard SPAR Band.

As European countries engaged in World War II, the neutral American government slowly began to prepare to become involved in the conflict. The question of when this involvement would begin was resolved after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, killing thousands of American men and destroying much of the Pacific fleet. This unexpected act catapulted America into declaring war on Japan and its allies the following day. Several months later, the government realized that more manpower was needed to win a war being waged on two fronts in the Pacific and the Atlantic. It was decided that women should be used in the civilian and military workforce to "Free a Man to Fight." Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War, called upon the women of America to join the labor force as part of a military strategy: "The War Department must fully utilize, immediately and effectively, the largest and potentially the finest single source of labor available today--the vast reserve of woman power." (2) This call to duty provided the first opportunity for women to assist in the war effort, and ultimately they were credited with helping to win the war. Millions of American women gladly stepped forward to serve their country and some used their musical talents to serve the nation in women's military bands or civilian swing bands.

By two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, while America was heavily engaged in war, women across the country had filled factory positions for men who had left to serve in the military. This work earned the women the nickname "Rosie the Riveter." Thousands of additional women were serving in separate women's units in branches of the military--the Army's WAC (Women's Army Corps), the Navy's WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the Coast Guard SPARs (from the Coast Guard's Latin motto Semper Paratus and its translation, "Always Ready"), and the Marine Corps Women's Reserve (MCWR). The WAC had the largest enlistment, with 140,000 women in their ranks. Only one other service branch, the WAVES, also had a six-figure membership. The Coast Guard was the smallest unit, having enlisted only 11,000 women during the war. (3) Hartmann reported that 370,000 women served in six different military organizations--the aforementioned plus the Army and the Navy Nurse Corps and the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). (4)

While women in the military was not a new concept in the United States, as women had served as nurses during the First World War, the creation of military bands of enlisted women was something quite different. This article illuminates the contributions of the thirty-five-member women's Coast Guard SPAR Band and the effect it had on participants by providing them a rare opportunity to perform professionally, an experience that many still believe was the most important of their lives.

Although a number of women's bands had formed in the United States during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) in much the same way men's bands had, it was difficult for some members of society to accept the idea that women would choose to play wind instruments. It certainly would not have been an acceptable choice for upper-class women. …

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