Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. -- After nearly 11 consecutive hours of traveling by bus from the high desert of Twentynine Palms, Calif., 42 Marines of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Band arrived in San Francisco Oct. 6, as part of the festivities of Fleet Week there for a multitude of successful performances.
The five-day excursion to the scenic and historic Bay Area of California encompassed appearances for visiting and retired military officials, political and foreign dignitaries, business executives, the social elite and aging veterans who helped shape the nation’s history.
Marines spent a good deal of time after they arrived ironing clean, concise creases back into their blue-white dress uniforms and polished brass to a mirror shine after being packed away on the long ride north.
“I look forward to this trip every year,” said Cpl. Karen Stephens, a flute and piccolo player and San Francisco native. “San Francisco is a lot of fun and it’s just a great city to visit anyway. It’s nice for me because I get to see my parents and they can see us perform.”
Downtown San Francisco caught its first glimpse of the Marine musicians as the small jazz party band took to the streets in uniform to enthrall guests as they arrived at the Marines Memorial Club and Hotel, a “living museum” dedicated to the Marine Corps and its history.
The 10-piece jazz ensemble played and sang upbeat songs few could resist to stop on the street and tap their foot to or sing along, with many passersby so enthused they clapped and took photos with the Marines in between songs.
However, that was merely an appetizer for the guests who were attending a lecture by Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, at the upper floors of the Memorial where the complete band was preparing to perform.
Senior officers of sea-going services of the United States as well as Canada were entertained by the MCAGCC Band with the “Star-Spangled Banner;” a medley of service songs; a compilation of themes from the Star Wars movie saga with a unique drum solo; a custom rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In;” and “America the Beautiful” with a vocal solo by Gunnery Sgt. Sean M. Helms, the band’s enlisted conductor.
“This trip was a 110 percent success,” said Helms. “We went there to accomplish specific missions and we didn’t have any bad performances, and this band has a history of not putting on bad performances.”
Fleet Week performances continued Saturday morning as the Marines traveled across quiet wine country of the Napa Valley area to the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, where more than 250 veterans, now senior citizens mainly confined to wheelchairs and motorized scooters, converged to see the band play.
“Playing for those veterans up there is the reason why I reenlisted,” said Sgt. Keith Cavey, piano and bass drum musician. “That is the single most important gig that has affected me personally. We are a very visible part of the Marine Corps but honestly recruiting is not necessarily the most important part of our job. Even more important is that we are reaffirming to the people who have already fought, and to Marines who are still, in what being a Marine is all about.”
“That’s because what really separates us apart from any other armed service is our traditions,” said Cavey. “I’ll never forget the first time that I went up to San Francisco with the band, there was a Marine who had fought in Guadalcanal and lost both of his legs, but he pushed himself up on his wheelchair and still stood at attention while we played the ‘Marine’s Hymn’ which is when I realized that I wanted to make a career out of the Corps.”
The MCAGCC Band did not limit themselves to patriotic tunes and their usual powerhouse lineup, but also included old English sailing songs to commemorate the spirit of Fleet Week. But by the time “America the Beautiful” and service songs ended, not many dry eyes could be found as one looked out over the sea of proud faces from men and women who served the country from World War II through more recent conflicts.
“Playing for the [retirement] home I think is one of most important things that we do because it ties in the old with the new,” said Helms. “That does not allow us to forget our history and tradition that we hold so important as Marines.”
In addition to their musical performance, three noncommissioned officer musicians of the band were reenlisted by Chief Warrant Officer Four Robert C. Jacob, the band officer, in between selections to the cheers and applause of spectators.
Shortly after their performance in Yountville, the band packed up and headed down the road to historic Sonoma, Calif., where the state’s flag was born in the 19th century, and the Marines played for nearly 130 veterans of the Association of Sonoma Marines with a lineup that mirrored the one of earlier that morning. Not only were the notes familiar but also the tears streaming down faces of those who served their country honorably in wars past, which were wiped away by hands wrinkled with age.
“We usually feel that we’ve just done our job when we play, so it’s great when people come and thank us and appreciate us,” said Stephens. “But it’s so powerful when these World War II, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Korea and Vietnam veterans come to thank you with tears in there eyes and you see them stand for their service songs — it’s just incredible.”
The Marines received a period of liberty after their long hours of preparing and playing that day. Not all went their own way, however, as the party band again gathered their instruments to electrify crowds all over the city.
The group performed at famous locations such as Nob Hill, Fisherman’s Wharf and rode the historic cable cars up and down the city streets singing and playing music to the delight of their fellow passengers as well as all within earshot until late into the night.
“This trip is right up there as one of the best of the year for the band because San Francisco is such a great town and even if we are working hard all day, we can always go out and enjoy the city at night and it’s fun,” said Cavey.
As Sunday came around, the band departed for Monster Park at Candlestick Point, the home of the San Francisco 49ers football team. Marching out with platoons of Sailors and Coast Guardsmen on each side down the 50-yard line, thousands of spectators watched the band perform as part of the pre-game show before the home team took on the Indianapolis Colts.
“After doing this for 15 years, that was the largest audience that I have gotten to sing for and have the band perform for at a stadium,” said Helms, who delivered a performance of “America the Beautiful” worthy of the thunderous applause received. “I didn’t think that I get nervous anymore but I guess I do; I had good reason to I suppose.”
“It was incredibly exhilarating for me and I was short of breath the entire time that I was out there — mostly from just shock that so many people were out there looking directly at me,” said Helms, whose image graced the gigantic scoreboard screen for the majority of the song.
After staying to watch a portion of the football game, the band boarded their bus and arrived at historic San Francisco City Hall whose design and ornate architecture resembles that of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Inside its large rotunda was a dinner attended by domestic and foreign military commanders, international dignitaries and various executives as well as their spouses.
To the surprise and delight of many guests, the MCAGCC Band appeared and delivered a booming performance that reverberated throughout the thick walls of the building. With all of their listeners standing as they played the national anthem, a massive American flag was hoisted vertically from behind the band’s position atop the main staircase and towered dozens of feet above the floor.
Though the MCAGCC Band had only intended to perform for the dignitaries gathered in the city hall rotunda, they were shocked to be invited to join those they serenaded just moments earlier for dinner.
“Although we’ve played for officers and dignitaries before, it was very unique that we were actually invited to join them for dinner afterwards,” said Helms. “This was one of the most important dinners that I’ve seen tying the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps together.”
For some of the younger Marines of the band, the anxiety of joining flag officers for dinner quickly passed when they were welcomed warmly to their tables with smiles and handshakes.
“It was strange to be sitting there with all the admirals and other officers during dinner and especially for them to be thanking us for what we do,” said Stephens. “It ended up being a really nice night for everybody.”
The band departed Monday morning and spent the majority of the Columbus Day holiday driving through the heart of California, arriving back aboard the Combat Center just after the sun disappeared behind the desert landscape.
“Trips like this always seem to go on an inevitable cycle, where you go to a new place and everyone thinks, ‘oh wow, look,’ and there is the excitement and rush of being in a new place; then by the end of it we all kind of end up being sick of each other,” said Cavey. “But by the time our next trip rolls around we are all psyched and can’t wait to get going again.”