The Holland (Mich.) American Legion Band will travel to Europe in early June for a whirlwind tour of concerts to mark the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. Among the storied places they will play include: Sainte-Mère-Église, Carentan, Saint-Lô, the Normandy American Cemetery and several towns in the Netherlands. Such a trip – which they also made in 2009 for the 65th anniversary – is entirely in keeping with the band's history and purpose.
Band director Thom Working explains that "even though we are technically a community band, we were formed by The American Legion in 1920." Willard G. Leenhouts Post 6 of Holland, which received its initial charter in June 1919, formed a musical group that included Legionnaires and community members – a mix that persists to this day, with usually around 85 performers for the big summer concert series. The band also performs year-round at veterans homes and military funerals.
"The veterans are really an important part of the DNA of this band," Working said. "And I think everybody in the band feels that."
About 50 band members will make the trip to Europe, as well as many spouses, unaffiliated community members and Post 6's color guard. Everyone pays their own way and takes time off work, but the band has been hosting fundraising at concerts and in the community for additional travel expenses such as the rental of percussion equipment. The musical lineup will vary by location, but it's all connected to the era – from Glenn Miller to the "Band of Brothers" soundtrack to European resistance anthems.
Before the 65th anniversary, Working came across information for groups wanting to attend and decided to pursue it. An initial itinerary prepared by a travel agency was changed and expanded on the ground by the band, which played at many of the locations that they will be returning to this year. In fact, Working said they were specifically asked to return by many of the cities. And if the Holland band made an impression on Europe, Europe made an impression right back.
"When we performed at the Normandy American Cemetery, there were a couple of times where a large percentage of the band was having trouble playing because they were choking back tears," Working said. "To this day, the French in Normandy are so amazingly grateful to the Americans and the other Allies. To feel that gratitude, even though I wasn't alive at the time, most of them weren't alive at the time, still there's that amazing connection."
The director and many members of the band have, in one sense, been looking forward to returning since they first went. Working said that "on the flight on the way home people said, ‘We've gotta go again.'"
Scott Peirce is commander of Post 6 and in charge of the color guard. The World War II history buff said that when the Normandy trip was first floated in 2009, "the first question out of my mouth was, ‘Is the color guard invited?'" Peirce, an Army veteran, said that on that first trip, "I just felt like I was on hallowed ground many times. Just history coming to life in a way that I hadn't anticipated." He is looking forward to trying to absorb more historical detail on this trip between all the traveling and performances.
Like Working, Peirce was struck by the band's warm reception in Europe. "They haven't forgotten us a bit." His fascination with the time period keeps him in mind that "to read the history of that area, they did participate as much as they could, being unarmed people out in the country more or less. And they helped the Americans, and they still very much appreciate our sacrifice and our efforts to come over there and be part of their celebrations. And we really just feel super welcome when we go there."
Trumpet player Allen Timmerman has been a member of the band since around 1956, when he joined as a high schooler. Only his active duty with the Michigan National Guard interrupted his playing streak. He went on the 2009 trip and remembers, "We played in all the cemeteries there and saw all the crosses, and my partner and I played Taps on all those beaches. It was a tremendous thing to do that." For this year's trip, Timmerman is most looking forward to having his wife – another trumpet player – accompany him for the first time to take it all in. And he's quick to credit Post 6 for the opportunity. "They share resources with us every year to support us. Without that, we probably wouldn't exist today."
Clarinet player Linda Gasper joined the band to go on the 2009 trip as a companion for her mother, a flute player who had attended concerts with Gasper's father before his death and later joined the band herself. Gasper describes that first trip as "incredible. It is hard to put into words all the overwhelming emotions – meeting World War II veterans and D-Day survivors, experiencing the gratitude even 65 years later of the French people." She has been with the band ever since. Like everyone else, she is paying her own way overseas, but "a trip like this is worth every cent."
After the trip, those traveling with the Holland band plan to continue their remembrance. Working is planning a homecoming concert with photos and discussion, as well as talks at area organizations emphasizing "how important it is for people to remember about the World War II veterans because they're fading away very, very quickly." Peirce will "enjoy recounting the experience to people that didn't get to go, and how Americans and veterans in particular are so honored in that area of France." Timmerman, a barber, has "many, many clients that I can tell the story to every day." That remembrance is even local for the band and post. Willard Leenhouts was the first soldier from Holland to die in World War I. As they did in 2009, the band will go to the cemetery in Belleau, France, to visit the gravesite of Post 6's namesake.