67 years ago this week — the Battle of the Bulge

Portion of an interview with jazz great Dave Brubeck [DB, below].   JW is the interviewer.   Brubeck was in the US Army in 1944 and landed in France 9 weeks after D-Day.  He was made the leader of a front line Army band.  Several of the band members had already been wounded in action.    In December 1944 the Brubeck army band was sent on a road trip – right into the Battle of the Bulge.  And he didn’t know that at the time:

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DB: Colonel Brown didn’t tell me where to go, just to get out of the area and see if we could play for soldiers. I got all the musicians together, and we got on the truck and drove off.

JW: Which direction did you head in?
DB: The wrong one. We went right to the front, unaware that the Battle of the Bulge was about to begin. As we drove along, I saw a bunch of Americans in a clearing. We figured we’d play for them, so we pulled off the road.

JW: Were you using stock arrangements?
DB: I wish. We didn’t have anything. We had to hock cigarettes and soap for instruments. There were 18 guys in this band. We had Duke Marconi and Attilio   M1941_026_001Capra on trumpets. Duke had played lead trumpet for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. That’s one of the hardest trumpet books in the world. You had to play solidly for hours. Attilio was a great player, too. He’s still with us.

JW: Did you play for the soldiers in the field?
DB: As we were unloading our instruments from the truck, a plane flew over. One of the guys in the field Bf11grouasaid, “I think that’s a German plane.” Everyone said, “But we haven’t seen an airplane from the German Air Force for about a month.” The guy said, “No, no, he’s coming back. You’d better get out of here.” By this time it was turning dark. Our driver didn’t know the area at all and didn’t have a map. So we just took off in the truck. We thought the plane would start strafing us.

JW: Where did you wind up?
DB: As we drove down a road, we wound up in traffic with other trucks. It was nightfall. As we drove along, a soldier waved us on with a hooded flashlight, whichCIMG6447_2_lrgproduces just enough light but can’t be seen far. As we passed the soldier, I realized from a glimpse of the helmet that he was German. We had accidentally had joined a German convoy. But in the darkness, no one knew. I told the guy driving our truck, “Go over the hill with the trucks where the guy directing traffic can’t see us, turn around and head back past him as fast as possible.” So we did that.

JW: What happened?
DB: We drove wide open in the opposite direction of those tructs for a few miles.

JW: Back to safety?
DB: Almost. Along the way we were blocked by American soldiers at a checkpoint. When we stopped,Picture 5athey came up to the truck. One of the soldiers had a hand grenade in each hand with the pins pulled. He did this to show that if he were shot, he would take everyone nearby with him.

JW: What did he do?
DB: The soldier leaned on the side of the truck where I was and started asking me questions. No matter what I told him, he wouldn’t believe me, which I thought was strange. Then he said, “Just a few hours ago, many of my friends were killed right here by Germans in an American truck and in American uniforms speaking perfect English.”

JW: What did you think?
DB: That’s when my guys in the back noticed that there were bundles of dynamite tied in the trees above us. These could be detonated with a single shot. I thenDave Brubeck10002realized that the guys at the checkpoint seriously believed we were Germans. The problem was I couldn’t remember the password you had to provide to prove you were really an American. Finally I remembered it and they let us through. [Pictured: Dave Brubeck after crossing the Rhine River into Germany in 1945]

JW: What was the password?
DB: I can’t remember [laughs]. But remembering it that day sure as hell saved my life and the lives of my Dave Brubeck10003 guys.

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Walter Cronkhite interviews Dave in this RealAudio recording from the Library of Congress Veterans’ Project here.

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