MONTPELIER, Vt. — They headed off to war more than 70 years ago with their tubas, clarinets, oboes and drums, but the 31 musicians in the Vermont National Guard also saw combat.
Now, the unit has finally received recognition for its service after surviving the famous sinking of their troopship and participating in some of the most important battles in the Pacific during World War II.
Last week, the Vermont National Guard's 40th Army Band formally received the battle streamers it earned the last time the unit was called to war. The Brattleboro-based band was activated in February 1941, nine months before the United States joined World War II, but when military planners saw that war was coming.
None of the soldier-musicians who survived the October 1942 sinking of the SS President Coolidge were at the Statehouse Wednesday when the combat streamers were attached to the unit's guidon, or military standard flag. The band is now recognized for the Northern Solomon Campaign and the Battle of Lauzon, and was awarded the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation.
"It's meant a lot to the people in the unit," said band member Sgt. Brett Goertemoeller, 32, of Fairfax, a 10-year guard and band veteran who dug out the records used to claim the awards. "Our band has always been big on our history and our heritage."
During World War II, the band's job was to play at military functions as needed, but they were soldiers first and band members second. The records Goertemoeller found showed that the 31 World War II members won two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars and 26 Purple Hearts given to soldiers wounded in battle. He said that as far as he knew, none died during their service.
It's unclear if any of the World War II soldiers are still alive. No one currently in the band has recently been in contact with any older members.
The 40th Army band shipped out to the Pacific in the fall of 1942, more than a year after it was activated. On Oct. 26 of that year, the Vermont soldiers were on board the SS President Coolidge, a luxury liner converted for troop transport duty that was carrying reinforcements to U.S. forces on the Island of Guadalcanal.
It was approaching the island of Espiritu Santo when it hit mines. The ship's captain ordered the ship beached and all but two of the 5,000 people aboard walked to shore. The ship then slid back into deeper water and capsized.
The soldiers lost their equipment, including the band's instruments.
A short time later, a story appeared in the Rutland Herald "asking for lightly used instruments for our boys in the field," Goertemoeller said.
The wreck of the Coolidge, in relatively shallow waters off what is now Vanuatu, is said to be one of the most accessible wrecks to scuba divers from World War II in the Pacific Ocean.
The 40th hasn't been called to war since World War II. But the members of the band, now based in Colchester, still serve one weekend a month and two weeks a year, and they play regular concerts across the state.
Army bands for active duty units have been sent overseas during the nation's wars over the last decade, but the 40th has stayed home. Goertemoeller said he spent a year in Kuwait with the Vermont guard helping provide security to U.S. forces there.
The 40th Army band was formed in 1907. Goertemoeller said he was continuing to research the unit's history to see if Vermont band members served during World War I or any other conflicts. He's also trying to see if it can be linked to the state's military bands from before 1907, perhaps as far back as the Civil War.
"I am going to keep researching all the way back," he said. "If we can prove our connection, our lineage will change again."