History of California Militia and National Guard Units
561st Air Force Band
(Air National Guard Band of the West Coast)
by TSgt Gordon Williams

The Air National Guard Band of the West Coast traces its roots back to 1942, when the country was in the midst of World War II. On 8 July 1942 the Air Force Band became an official military unit. The 61st Army Air Forces (AAF) Band was activated on 11 August 1942, and was assigned to the 3rd Air Force at Columbia Army Air base, S.C. It was reorganized on 27 December 1943 and was renamed the 561st Army Band, and later, the 561st Army Air Forces Band on 3 March 1944, with all members transferred to the Air Corps. The band "built up quite a reputation playing concerts, at (war) bond rallies, and the like." On 1 February 1945, the band moved from South Carolina to the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation (HRPE) at Newport News, VA, with a readiness date of 1 February 1945 .

The band prepared to go overseas, and on 23 March 1945, the men of the 561st AAF Band under the command of CWO Marion O. Sell, embarked on the Liberty Ship William M. Evarts for a journey that would take them to the warfront. In a letter dated 26 March 1945, the 561st AAF Band was assigned to the CG, North African Division, Air Transport Command, upon their arrival in Cairo, Egypt, which occurred on 16 April 1945. Based at Payne Field, the band flew aboard C-46 and C-47 aircraft to many U.S. bases on the Northern border of Africa to entertain the troops. "They kept busy playing for retreat ceremonies, in mess halls and at dances, besides giving occasional open-air concerts".
The Jive Bombers under the direction of SSgt Milford Allen, and the Skyliners directed by T/4 Edgar Calvert, a former sideman for Artie Shaw's band, comprised the swing component of the 561st. They "rehearsed 4 hours a day, and played quite a bit at dances, officer's clubs, and off base functions, even for King Farouk of Egypt. " The 561st AAF Band was also the first U.S. Army band unit to play at a commencement at the American University at Cairo.


The 561st Army Air Forces Band was deactivated at Cairo Egypt, on 10 April 1946, and then allotted to the National Guard Bureau, effective 24 May 1946. The unit was entitled to the history battle honors and any colors earned by the 561st AAF Band, and on 26 September 1947, was redesignated the 561st Air Force Band. In May 1948, the unit was allotted to the California Air National Guard with 29 slots. Later, in August of that year, the 561st was authorized to organize at the National Guard Center, Alameda, CA. The unit was ultimately extended federal recognition on 14 October 1948, and assigned a commanding officer, CWO John D. Schary. With 5 enlisted men and their commanding officer, so began the formation of the 561st AF band, which over the next few months grew to a full complement of personnel.


The early formative years saw the band occupied with military training. In the summer of 1949 the 561st Band's first summer encampment took place at Victorville Army Airfield, CA, and at the California State Fair, where former governor and Chief Justice Earl Warren acted as host of ceremonies, and introduced the unit. Since it's inception, through to the late 1970's, the band has performed regularly at the California State Fair, both in concert and in formal military ceremony. Through the loyal rapport built between the California State Fair, the Governor and the 561st, the band soon became known as the Governor's Own. On 1 November 1950, the unit was attached to the 144th Fighter Wing for administrative and logistical support. Annual summer encampments from here on out were spent drilling with the Wing at Gowen ANG Base at Boise, Idaho. On a particular arrival for encampment in 1954, the band's first duty was rising early to serve on K.P. as a unit, cleaning barracks, latrines, and the rehearsal hall. After that, there was marching in formation, lunch, then rehearsal with the dance band and glee club, and later, more marching in formation. This would turn out to be the routine for every summer camp for the next several years.


On 15 February 1953, shortly after the unit was attached to the 144th Fighter-Bomber Wing, the 561st AF Band moved to Hayward ANG Base at the Hayward Municipal Airport. Under the driving leadership of Mr. Schary, the band performed for many civilian, military, and international dignitaries. In 1954, the unit entertained the Princess of Thailand at a United Nations reception. President Dwight D Eisenhower's Second Inaugural Parade on 21 January 1957 saw the 561st AF Band representing the state of California as well as the Air National Guard of the United States. The efforts of the band were recognized by a letter of appreciation from Major General NathanTwining, then Air Force Chief of Staff. In 1962, the 561st made an appearance at the Century 21 Expo at the Seattle World's Fair.


This was the first summer encampment separated from the 144th Fighter Wing, and the band has since toured as a separate unit.


No history would be complete without noting that the 561st is the only ANG band to have been shot down while in flight, by a bolt of lightning. The incident occurred while enroute to Hurlbert AFB, Florida for summer encampment training in 1964. With a four foot hole burning in the wing, and losing altitude rapidly, the plane somehow managed to land safely without further incident at Grand Junction, CO.


Annual Training in 1967 brought the 561st AF Band to Denmark as part of the People to People program, a goodwill program instituted by President Eisenhower. Upon arrival in Denmark, individual band members were introduced to their own sponsor families, who provided them room and board, and a cultural introduction for the length of their tour in Denmark. On meeting with the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, CWO Schary presented a pair of cable car cufflinks to the mayor, as a gift from the Mayor of San Francisco.


In August of 1968, the 561st embarked on a two-week dual destination encampment, which brought them first to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to perform for and with the National Guard members there. Week 2 brought the band to Andrews AFB, where they performed at very high profile venues in the District of Columbia area. They performed at the Watergate, and at the inner court of the Pentagon, where the 561st was complimented on its performance by Major General Francis Greenlief, who later on took over as Chief of the National Guard bureau in 1971.


The 561st AF Band was selected to represent the Air National Guard for the 1972 NGAUS conference in San Francisco, where the band played for Ronald Reagan and Bob Hope.


In July of 1974, the 561st traveled to England for a three-week summer encampment. The band was delayed due to an emergency landing at Fallon NAS, NV, where they spent the night waiting for a replacement aircraft. On arrival at RAF Greenham Common, disembarking from the aircraft the band was officially greeted by representatives of the Air Tattoo, the largest Air Show worldwide, while an audience of 1500 spectators looked on. The 561st became the newest attraction at the air show that day.


In 1976 CWO-4 Schary retired after 28 years as Commander of the 561st Air Force Band. 1LT Michael Garcia was assigned as the interim commander for administrative purposes, while SSgt Gary Wulbern took over duties as musical director. A transitional commander, Captain John Boyer, was very briefly assigned to command the unit. In 1978, following his audition for the post of band officer and the completion of training, SSgt Wulbern received his commission as Captain and took over as the unit's commander, making him the third officer to hold this position.
1979 brought the 561st and its counterpart, the 562nd AF Band (from Van Nuys ANG Base at the time) to Cal Expo at Sacramento to play for the grand reopening ceremonies there.


With a new decade on the make, 1980 brought the bandsmen to Ellsworth AFB, SD, for the 561st band's annual tour. Several memorable performances were played at remarkable venues, including the amphitheater at Mt Rushmore where there were over 2ooo in attendance. The band performed admirably, and was rewarded with a lengthy ovation by an enthusiastic crowd.
Interestingly, the 561st played a part in the filming of the box office hit "The Right Stuff". The 561st marched in formation on the tarmac and played "The U.S. Air Force ", under the command of then Captain Wulbern.


In 1989, the band was invited to the Air Force Academy ay Lowry AFB, CO for AT. The band also distinguished itself through a joint performance in 1989 with the San Francisco Symphony to open the annual Pops concert series. In April of 1989 at the All Commanders' conference held in Camp San Luis Obispo, the 561st AF Band was officially presented with the Governor's Outstanding Unit Citation for 1988. Later, in June of that year, band members traveled to Hamilton AFB to entertain at an air show with over 45,000 spectators.


The embassies of Greece and Jamaica hosted the 561st for Annual Training in the early nineties. In 1991, the band flew to Athens, Greece, where it performed a 4th of July reception at the residence of the US ambassador to Greece. Over 1600 dignitaries were present, including ambassadors from other embassies, military and clergy from many nations, as well as the former president of Greece. The US ambassador frequented several of the 561st AF band's performances. In 1993, band members traveled to Kingston, Jamaica for their annual training.

Performances included venues such as Devon House National heritage Site, an iconic tourist destination as well as Alpha Boys Home, renowned for both the discipline it instilled in its pupils and the outstanding musical instruction they received.


The band relocated to Moffett Federal Airfield in 1994, representing their new parent unit, the 129th Rescue Wing.


In the summer of 1994, the 561st AF Band submitted audio and video recordings to be considered for the Col. George S Howard Citation of musical Excellence for Military Concert Bands. Having reached millions of listeners and received enthusiastic critical acclaim as the Air National Guard's number one band, in December of that year, the 561st became the sixth AF band, the second guard band, and the first, and so far the only Air National Guard band to receive this prestigious international award with Air Force roots. This also led the band to receive its second Governor's Outstanding Unit award.


In July of 1997, many band members of the 561st augmented the 129th Wing and assisted in the ORI as bus drivers, security guards and the like at Beale AFB, CA. Through their tremendous efforts, these members reflected pride and honor for the 561st AF Band.


In 1998, the unit was designated the Band of the Pacific Coast, and later that year on in November, the 561st celebrated its 50 year anniversary. All past and present band members as available, participated in a memorable concert and festivities, and reminisced over days gone by in the 561st. As a souvenir for the band, as well as a new recruiting and publicity tool, a new CD was recorded which contains the 50th Anniversary Concert music narrated by retired member of the band, CMSgt Arthur "Bud" Hamilton, who also was assigned as the 129th Wing Recruiter during his tenure. This was the first CD of its kind for the band.


After the commander auditions of 1998 to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Lt Col Wulbern, a new commander was chosen on 24 January 1999. Jesse Leyva, a musical conductor from El Cerrito, was to be the band's fourth commander. Also In December of 1999, the name of the unit was changed along with all other ANG bands, and was designated, The Air National Guard Band of the West Coast, leaving the familiar numeric designation to remain only as the band's official military unit designation. SSgt John Martin, a flautist in the ANG Band of the West Coast, designed the unit's first and only official emblem. It was approved and made an official part of the band's history on 13 July 1999.


In 2000, after 22 years as the 561st band commander, Col Gary Wulbern retired, and relinquished command to 2LT Jesse Leyva. The Band of the West Coast was recognized for it's superior performance at the change of command ceremony and subsequent dining out on 20 January 2001 honoring retiring Adjutant General of the Nevada National Guard, General Drennan A. Clark. Each member of the band who participated was awarded with the Nevada State Commendation medal.


In May of 2001, the ceremonial band, a smaller aggregation of the 561st, played for an astounding audience of 10,000 people poised in the bleachers of Pac Bell Park, while performing in marching formation on the field far below. The enthusiastic response was amazing, and along with the band's name in bright lights on the billboard, boosted the ego of all band members.
In July of 2001, the band flew to Hill AFB, and Salt Lake City Utah for their Annual Training. The tour's hallmark performance was played in the pre-twentieth century Assembly Hall in Temple Square, as part of the popular Temple Square Concert series. This performance was greeted by an enthusiastic full house. The tour brought the band into Wyoming as well.


After the unforgettable terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, opportunities to volunteer for augmentee duty as security checkpoint officials at local airports became available. Several band members participated in this program, which allowed them to make their own contribution to the war on terrorism.


The summer encampment of 2002 brought the band to the far reaches of the Nevada desert, from Battle Mountain in eastern Nevada to the California Gold Country. The second week of the tour saw the production of the band's second CD, "Young and Free".


1LT Jesse Leyva left the band in November of 2002. He brought new and refreshing ideas in music, and is currently Director of Bands at Henderson University, AR. With the departure of Lt Leyva, Band Superintendent MSgt Beverly Johnson took over as musical director, until the time came for the next commander auditions to take place. MSgt Johnson, and a small group of other bandsmen from our unit participated in a conglomerate Air Force Marching Band for the Tournament of Roses Parade in January of 2003.


In 2004, commander auditions once again took place after only a few years, and after five candidates competed for the position, one of the band's youngest and talented musicians, trumpeter SRA Vu Nguyen was selected to fill the position of commander. Later that year, Commander Select Nguyen led the band at the 2004 NGAUS conference in Las Vegas, an especially prestigious event due to the presence of such high profile speakers as President George W. Bush and Senator John F. Kerry during an election year. In June of 2005, newly commissioned 2LT Vu Nguyen was officially assigned as the fifth commander of the Air National Guard Band of the West Coast. He was promoted to his current rank of Captain in 2009.


Summer camp in 2008 brought the band back to Utah, and Salt Lake City. Spread across several minivans, members of the 561st embarked on a journey across the Great Salt Desert to reach the billeting office at Hill AFB, UT. The 561st joined with the 23rd Army Band, and together performed a joint concert in the Tabernacle at Temple Square, which turned out to be the highlight of the tour. The joint concert band hosted a full house of well over 6000 guests. Upon the 561st band's return to California, the entire band was tasked to go through a medical processing line to prepare for possible deployment as firefighter crew, to fight the California Fires of 2008. Four members participated, including the unit's Superintendent and First Sergeant, and were involved in training and clean up with the Mariposa and Big Sur Fires.


In the mid 2000's ANG band units began rotating their newly formed rock bands in to the Middle Eastern Theatre to provide morale and welfare services to US and coalition forces serving in Qatar, Kuwait Iraq and Afghanistan. In April of 2009, members of the Band of the West Coast's rock band, Rescue Crew, who first came together as a group in 2005, were sent to Volk Field ANG Base, WI, for several weeks of tactical training in preparation for their upcoming deployment to the Middle East. For deployment purposes, the Rescue Crew was renamed "Sonora" while in Theatre. On 2 July 2009, after a 14 hour flight out of Charleston, SC, members of "Sonora" landed in Al Udeid, Qatar to start a thirty-day deployment. NCOIC of the rock band, MSgt Elizabeth Sanders summed up their combined experiences:


"This has been an experience we will never forget, and one well worth all the aches and pains, heat and lack of sleep. We were able to bring a piece of home to these troops who are stuck in some pretty God-forsaken camps. We gave them a couple of hours of music to allow them to forget about the dirty, dusty, unbearably hot existence they endure day after day, month after month and for many, more than a year. We entertained National Guard units, active duty troops, coalition forces from over 20 countries, embassy personnel and civilian contractors. We played for men who had their comrades die in their arms hours before a show. We arrived in Basrah hours before a rocket attack - spent time in a bunker emerging only to learn that 3 Minnesota National Guard soldiers perished in the attack which hit 500 meters from our position - a sobering reminder of where we were and what was at stake. It's great to be home - I'm proud to have had the opportunity to serve my country and fellow members of the armed services through music. It was an honor to bring music to our troops that part of the world."

While Rescue Crew, a.k.a. "Sonora" was entertaining troops overseas, the members of the Band of the West Coast that remained stateside augmented two of their sister bands, as performance of annual training for 2009. Members opted to either tour with the Band of the West, stationed at Travis AFB, CA, or with the band of the Southwest (562nd AF band) at Channel Islands, CA. The first tour with the Band of the West started with one week of rehearsals at Travis AFB. During this week, several members went back to Moffett Field to serve as a welcome home committee for the Rescue Crew members, weary from a several day journey from Qatar. The second week brought members to Seattle, WA, and covered venues from Northern Oregon to Spokane, WA. The second tour with the Band of the Southwest, performed throughout the Southern California sector.

In July of 2010, the Band of the West Coast traveled to Vandenberg AFB and Oxnard, CA for Annual Training tour. Highlights of the tour were playing for the 4th of July festivities on the Santa Barbara beach, and meeting the Band of the Southwest to begin a week long recording session for a combined concert to be recorded onto a new CD to be entitled, "Flag of Stars". A special guest during the recording session in Oxnard was Col.(Ret) Mike Delaney, former Director of ANG Bands. The recording process, although long and tedious was a valuable and rewarding experience for members of both organizations. The Band of the Southwest AT tour overlapped that of our unit, and while most members of the 561st were released to travel home, several members were augmentees and continued another week of tour with the 562nd band in Southern California.

In September of 2011, the 129th Rescue Wing was in the midst of another ORE. The 561st was asked to provide volunteers to assist the Wing in preparation for the ORE. Several members volunteered for this duty, which meant long hours and some extra days worked during the week. This additional effort did not go unnoticed by Wing and other Squadron personnel. Those participating were complimented on their intelligence and foresight in executing their duties during ORE phase.

On 5 November 2011, Capt. Vu Nguyen notified all band members of the National Guard Bureau decision to decommission six ANG bands. The ANG Band of the West Coast was one of the bands on the list for decommissioning. This was hard news to bear by everyone in the unit. The band's final day is slated for 1 October 2013.

 

People of Note from the ANG Band of the West Coast


Timothy P. O'Brien, a bassoonist and clarinetist with the 561st, enlisted with much coaxing from his Cal State Hayward contemporaries in 1985. After receiving his BA is Music, Airman O'Brien left the band to receive his commission in 1988, and today is Colonel O'Brien, the Wing Commander of the 168th Air Refueling Wing, Alaska ANG, at Eielson AFB, AK.


Colonel Jeffrey Magram, also a former enlisted member of the 561st and a trumpet player, was promoted to his current rank in 2011, and recently assigned to the position of 129th Rescue Wing Vice Wing Commander. Upon hearing of the deactivation of the 561st AF Band, the Colonel requested an immediate meeting with band members to express his disappointment, and to reassure everyone of his commitment to support all members in this time of transition.


Sgt Diane L. Belmessieri, who was a trombonist with the 561st, is now a Lieutenant Colonel assigned as the Chief, Joint Strategy Branch at National Guard Bureau in Washington D.C.


SSgt John Martin, a flautist in the ANG Band of the West Coast, designed the unit's first and only official emblem.

Heraldry of the 561st Air Force Band


Description/Blazon

Or, on a disc per bend sinister of the first and Azure entoured by an annulet Argent the bell end of a trombone in sinister base couped and cojoined with the contrails of three flight symbols, the middle one enhanced bendwise counterchanged of the field, all within a diminished border Blue.

Attached above the disc, a White scroll edged with a narrow Blue border and inscribed "561ST AIR FORCE BAND" in Blue letters.

Attached below the disc, a White scroll edged with a narrow Blue border and inscribed "KEEPING THE SPIRIT ALIVE" in Blue letters.

 

Symbolism
Ultramarine blue and Air Force yellow are the Air Force colors. Blue alludes to the sky, the primary theater of Air Force operations. Yellow refers to the sun and the excellence required of Air Force personnel. The three flight symbols rising and cojoined with a musical instrument symbolize the purpose of the unit. The slide and bell of a trombone, the instrument at the forefront of a military marching band, embodies the pride the squadron personnel have in their mission to sound the military call as an incentive to the courage of the troops.

 

 
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Updated 8 February 2016