The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band (MCWRB) was active during 1943-45. This band, along with other female military ensembles, created valuable opportunities for women to perform within the military, and acted as a catalyst for performing female musicians. Classical Music Indy interviewed Dr. Jill M. Sullivan, associate professor of Music at Arizona State University, to learn more about the historical impact of the MCWRB. Written by Jennifer Rodriguez, cover photo from the scrapbook of Jean Beverly (Mikkelson) Zaudtke/via Peter Zaudtke.
Paving the Way for Female Musicians: The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band
Conductor, performer, and Marine: Three titles typically reserved for men – until World War II, that is. As male Marines were in high demand during WWII, a turning point in music history occurred, paving the way for females to take on new positions in the military.
During the year of 1939, a very talented Clarinetist named Charlotte Plummer had just graduated with a degree in Music Education from the University of Oregon.1 Plummer had a long history of musicianship in her life, growing up in a musical family and starting piano lessons at the age of 5. Her life continued up the musical ladder, learning saxophone in 3rd grade, and adding clarinet to her arsenal in her teens. Plummer played both clarinet and saxophone in her family’s dance band, utilizing those skills later in her life after graduation to play in a dance band in California called, “Babe Egan’s Hollywood Redheads.”2
Plummer’s musical ability ranged from the creative outlet of dance bands, to the intricacies of being Principal Clarinetist for the University of Oregon Band and Orchestra, and soloist in the university’s Band.1 In a time where women were not typically highlighted as performers, Plummer was a double threat. Not only was she a phenomenal performer, but was an equally skilled educator and conductor. During her time at university, Charlotte Plummer taught at University High School as a part-time band director. After graduating in 1939, Plummer worked as the assistant conductor in La Grande, Oregon, and then gained the Band Director position at Commerce High School.2 It wasn’t until Charlotte Plummer’s previous professor showed her a clipping from the newspaper that she decided to leave her position as a teacher for a much different lifestyle.3
“Be a Marine… Free a Man to Fight.” Some may recall this slogan from World War II, used to recruit women to fill the place of men’s positions during the war so more men could be sent out for combat. Women have always held roles in the military, serving as nurses, clerks or cleaners.4 This involvement in the military increased to a new degree in 1942 when the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC/WAC) formed, creating a separate unit for women to join the military. In the following year, all other branches created female units, with the Marine Corps being the final branch to form the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (WR).5
Among the variety of positions created in female units during WWII, one job involved joining a women’s band. Each branch of the military at this point had a women’s band, with the first being formed in 1942 by the WAC, followed by each other branch forming a band in 1943.6 The final branch to form their female unit and women’s band was the Marine Corps: The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band (MCWRB).5 These bands were utilized to boost morale, travel to raise money for the military, and in turn created extremely promising opportunities for women to gain positions as performing musicians. 6 Seeing as it was now possible to receive a position as a female musician in the military, many women, including Charlotte Plummer, took the opportunity to join the band.
Though each branch of the military formed a female band, the Marines went above the standard with their screening process for building the MCWRB. The Marine Corps took it upon themselves to travel around the country, auditioning women at universities and conservatories to assure the ensemble would have a solid foundation. Captain Santelmann, director of the Marine Corps band, and three of his top musicians in the Marine Corps band would travel to Camp Lejuene, where Marines would train, to oversee the training and hear the musicians who would be joining the MCWRB.5 Here, the MCWRB would not only practice with their ensemble, but would attend lectures on combat weapons, and observe demonstrations in hand-to-hand combat, use of mortars, bazookas, flame-throwers, an assortment of guns, and landing craft.7
After 3 months of training with the MCWRB, Charlotte Plummer was selected as the conductor for the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band. In this position, Plummer would conduct the band from 1943-45, travelling the United States and raising money for the military, selling war bonds as the main way that people could come see the MCWRB perform. In her final year conducting the MCWRB, Charlotte Plummer was given the opportunity to be the first woman to ever conduct the “President’s Own” Marine Band.8 73 years later, the impact of the MCWRB can be seen in today’s military. On March 11, 2018, Major Michelle Rakers (Ret.), the first female in history to be Assistant Director of the United States Marine Band, conducted the 75th anniversary Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band Tribute – a performance that replicated a concert put on by the MCWRB. Major Michelle Rakers is quoted saying:
I would venture to say, had it not been for the women back at that time and women 100 years ago joining the Marine Corps, that the paradigm would have taken longer to shift and we still wouldn’t have as many women in this organization today, and perhaps I wouldn’t be in this position as the first female Assistant Director of the United States Marine Band. And so, it is a huge debt of gratitude that I wish to pay to these women for their courage in paving that way for so many to follow.9
In the short period of time between 1943-45 that the MCBWRB ran, women such as Charlotte Plummer had a great impact on how modern military and performance roles are handled today, and continue to pave the way through influential women, such as today’s Major Michelle Rakers.
To read more on this subject, follow the links to purchase Dr. Jill M. Sullivan’s Books:
Bands of Sisters (WWII book, 2011) at Roman & Littlefield or Amazon.
Women’s Bands in America (3 centuries of women’s bands in U.S. 19th-21st century, 2016) at Roman & Littlefield or Amazon.
- Simmons, Master Sgt. Amanda. “Celebrating 75th Anniversary of Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band.” The Official Website of the United States Marine Corps. March 8, 2018. https://www.marineband.marines.mil/News/Article/1461164/celebrating-75th-anniversary-of-marine-corps-womens-reserve-band/ (acessed December 1, 2018).
- Sullivan, Jill M. “Women Music Teachers as Military Band Directors during World War II.” Journal of Historical Research in Music Education 39, no. 1 (2017). 78-105. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1536600616665625
- Plummer Owen Charlotte L. “Interview with Charlotte Louise Plummer Owen.” Interview by Shirley Ann Stevens. Veterans History Project, October 26, 2011.
- Katz, Lucy V. “Free a Man to Fight: The Exclusion of Women from Combat Positions in the Armed Forces.” Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice 10, no. 1 (1992). 2. https://scholarship.law.umn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1479&context=lawineq
- Jill M. Sullivan (Associate Professor of Music at Arizona State University), interviewed by Jennifer Rodriguez, Pendleton, IN, December 5, 2018.
- Sullivan, Jill M. “Women’s Military Band Research,” Arizona State University. December 1, 2018. http://www.public.asu.edu/~jmsulli/Webpages/military.html (December 1, 2018).
- Stremlow, Colonel Mary V., USMCR (Ret.). “Free A Man to Fight” (PDF). Women Marines in World War II. Marine Corps Historical Center. 1- 20.
- Sullivan, Jill M. “A History of Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band: 1943-1945,” Journal of Band Research 42, no. 1, (2006). 1-41.
- United States Marine Band. “INTERVIEWS – Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band Tribute – “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band”. Filmed (March 2018). YouTube video, 13:38. Posted (October 2018). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fdujg2iSNuk
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