A Fine Tune in Music and War

Posted on 08. Dec, 2009 by in Uncategorized

By Peggy Truong
Michael Comins carried a violin, not a rifle, when he served in the U.S. Army in Europe in the 1950s.  Comins was one of several hundred soldiers who played in the 7th Army Symphony. As a way to show Europe that Americans were not all about war and gangsters, the Pentagon created this cultural political tool.

Just don’t call it a marching band.

“It was a combination of MASH and ‘Catch-22,’” said Comins, 77, one of three surviving members of the symphony living on the Upper West Side. All three agree that it was not the typical army experience, and they don’t have the same lasting links to the military that many veterans maintain throughout their lives.

Many members of the symphony never took advantage of the GI Bill of Rights. They don’t get medical care from the Veterans Administration and they don’t hang around American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars halls. The only other veterans they mingle with are other surviving 7th Army Symphony members, and the occasional reunions have been more inspired by their shared interest in music than in the military.

The 7th Army Symphony, based in Stuttgart, Germany, operated for 10 years. More than 600 Americans played for European audiences. “The only time we wore uniform was when we were on duty – either rehearsing during the day in Stuttgart or playing concerts on stage,” said Comins.

Arriving at building seven, fourth floor, men in their early 20s traded in their duffle bags – complete with combat clothes and green fatigues – for the instruments they would carry for their assigned terms and beyond. This was the 7th Army Symphony headquarters.

“You took the bag and threw it in the attic and you never saw that stuff until you left for home. We wore what they called Class A uniforms. That’s all we used,” said Comins.

“Five in the morning you’d hear tanks rumbling all over the place. People going out to field exercises for three days. You’d see us sauntering out of the gate, around nine in the morning with our instruments going to rehearsal. People hated us,” said Comins. He no longer plays the violin due to age and the quality of music produced with little practice. Comins is an active member of the American Federation of Music and attends performances at Juilliard and Alice Tully Hall with his wife, Barb.

Like many symphony members, percussion player Joseph Rabich has felt disconnected from veterans’ activities over the years. “I feel a little guilty. I suppose I celebrate Veterans Day but not in a hurrah,” said the 83-year-old.

He was drafted in 1951 by the 28th Infantry Division and had basic training in Pennsylvania. “I didn’t have any disagreements with Koreans. In fact, I didn’t even know any Koreans. I couldn’t have gone out and fought them anyway,” said Rabich, whose brother served in World War II in Okinawa, Japan.

“Thank God we didn’t go into any battles. I don’t know how we would’ve done,” he said.

Fellow symphony member Bob Johnson also knew people in combat. The 72-year-old had friends who fought in Vietnam while he toured with his horn in Europe. “A number of them died, they were run over by tanks and other things,” said Johnson, now the musical director of the New York Philomusica, a chamber music ensemble he founded in 1971.

“I had a life in music, and it included the army. I served with pride and I still have the highest respect for the military,” said Johnson.

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