Sept. 24, 1941: Music history begins at Bolling Field

  • Published
  • By Andy Stephens
  • 11th Wing Historian
It began with a four-man saxophone quartet and has grown into the internationally renowned group of professional musicians which serve as goodwill ambassadors for today's Air Force. This is the story of the United States Air Force Band and how it came to be.

On Sept. 24, 1941, the first chords of the Bolling Army Air Forces Band are heard. The commanding officer of the Air Base Group at Bolling Field, Lt. L. P. Holcomb, a saxophone musician since youth who lamented the small number of available musicians, sponsored the first band to perform at base events and promotions. He was the fourth man in the quartet. One week later, the Band was officially activated along with 58 other Army Air Forces bands nationwide.

The first conductor of the Bolling Army Air Forces Band was Warrant Officer Alf Heiberg. Their first performance was a Christmas concert held in the Bolling Field gymnasium. Warrant Officer Heiberg was eventually commissioned in this position, and it was under him that the Bolling Band really distinguished themselves from the other bands. Under Warrant Officer Heiberg, by April 1942, with the nation fully committed to a war in both Europe and the Pacific, the Band grew to 48 musicians. By the end of 1942, the Band had 100 musicians and performed at fairs and athletic events. Warrant Officer Heiberg also created the distinctive emblem of the Band that is still sworn today: a musical lyre in front of a pair of pilot's wings. Warrant Officer Heiberg is also responsible for getting the Band's designation as "The" Army Air Force Band after the war started and Headquarters AAF moved to Bolling.

In 1943, the National Broadcasting Company began broadcasting the Band's recorded concerts on national radio. This maneuver gave the Bolling Band the necessary exposure to become the official Band of the Army Air Forces. The newly constructed Pentagon created the Air Force Band and Music Programs Office to oversee all Army Air Forces bands. Heiberg, now a lieutenant colonel, became the first "Chief of Bands."

There have been 11 conductor-commanders of the United States Air Force Band, two of whom served in that capacity for longer than 19 years. In the years since Colonel Heiberg, the Band survived post World War II military drawdowns, became the operations component at Bolling Field when its runway closed, and even resurrected the Glenn Miller AAF orchestra of 1943-1945 for several concerts honoring the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Today's Band has 223 musicians in eight musical flights. They now have components that also deploy into combat zones, carrying the spirit of music to the warfighter.

Editor's note:
The commander-conductors of the U.S. Air Force Band have been:
Alf Heiberg, 1941-1944
George S. Howard, 1944-1963
Harry H. Meuser, 1963-1964
Arnald D. Gabriel, 1964-1985
James M. Bankhead, 1985-1990
Amy R. Mills, 1990-1991
Alan L. Bonner, 1991-1995
Mark R. Peterson, January-May 1995
Keith R. Lance, May-September 1995
Lowell E. Graham, 1995-2002
Dennis M. Layendecker, 2002-Present