BROOKINGS – Music and the military have long complemented each other. Each branch of the armed forces has its own service song. Attend a Veterans Day ceremony, such as the annual one here in Brookings, and you’re likely to hear it end with veterans in the audience being asked to stand when their service song is played, such as here at the Swiftel Center by our own Brookings High School band. One veteran here who can relate to that is Donald Johnston, himself a composer of military music.
While serving in Korea from June 1952 to July 1953, Sgt. Johnston wrote the music to “The Thunderbird March.” Officially commissioned by Gen. P.D. Ginder, commander, it became “the official march and marching song of the 45th Infantry Division, United States Army.” Pretty heady stuff for a 1951 graduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois), with a bachelor’s degree in music.
Johnston was born in 1929 in Tracy, Minnesota, and raised there. Following high school graduation there, he attended Macalester College in St. Paul before transferring to Northwestern. Next came the draft and the Army.
“I would certainly like to be a musician,” Johnston responded, when asked about his preference for assignment. “Therefore, I was assigned to artillery training and shipped to Korea.” However, his original preference would soon be granted.
Following his arrival in Korea, he “had the good fortune of coming across the first sergeant of the 45th Infantry Division Band.”
Asking if the band needed any trumpets, he was asked if he could play the sousaphone (a brass instrument similar to tuba but refitted and capable of being carried by a marching band member).
“Since bullets were flying, yes, I could play the sousaphone,” Johnston answered. And he was transferred to the band.
One big band, several small ones
The band complement for an army division called for about 45 musicians; the band Johnston was transferred to had about 80. He explained that the band director and conductor, Warrant Officer Frederick J. Boots, “had been collecting musicians whenever they happened to come through the replacement center.”
“The band actually functioned for official parades and decoration ceremonies,” Johnston explained. “When somebody would get a Bronze Star, a Silver Star or award, the band would be there to play. A parade would take place and of course the band would be servicing that. And of course concerts to entertain the troops. I wrote some concert music for the band.”
Additionally, because of the many numbers in the band, smaller combos and specialty groups were possible.
“Since Mr. Boots was taking all the musicians he could, he had collected some of the top jazz performers who had been drafted,” Johnston explained. “So when I got there, I was just pleasantly startled. They had a group called ‘The Thunderbirds.’
“It was a dance-band size unit made up of some of the finest musicians that had been drafted from United States dance bands. It was led by Gene Mullins, who had played trombone in the Gene Krupa band.”
Eventually, as some of the Thunderbirds musicians finished their tours of duty and rotated back to the States, Johnston became director of this breakout band from the division band.
A requiem and a march
Johnston admits to not actually being in combat during his tour in Korea; but he was close enough to see the tracer bullets and hear the sound of combat. However, he had enough of a feel for what the war in Korea was all about for the individual infantrymen who fought it up close and personal and the large strategic role of the 45th Infantry Division. And both roles would find their way into the music that he composed.
In June 1952, he penned a poem he called “A Soldier’s Requiem,” which he dedicated: “To the memory of those men of the 45th Infantry Division who gave their lives for the capture of the Korean hill, ‘Old Baldy,’ in June of 1952.”
Johnston said the poem “can be viewed as the protest of a young soldier who did not appreciate the need for his life to be sacrificed for the good of the corporate state.” It would be 1981, and after several failed attempts, before he was able to set the poem to music.
Later during his tour, he would write again, but this time on a less somber note: “The Thunderbird March,” for which he composed the music and Cpl. Martin Solomon the lyrics.
Additionally, he was director of the breakout band Thunderbirds, which performed the popular music of the day for soldiers returning for short rest periods from battle and provided musical fillers between USO entertainment acts.
In June 1953 and prior to his return to the States, Johnston would receive from General Ginder the Bronze Star medal “for meritorious service” a field promotion from corporal to sergeant.
Continuing a life in music
The Armistice halting the Korean War was signed on July 27, 1953. In August, Johnston left Korea and returned to Fort Collins, Colorado, where he was discharged. He was just short of two years of active duty.
Near Christmas, he married Virginia Mead, a South Dakota girl from Aberdeen.
“South Dakota girls are the best, aren’t they,” he joked, with a smile.
Johnston returned to school and earned a master’s degree at Northwestern. He then taught in a couple of colleges, after which he attended the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester (New York). There he earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree, writing a symphony as his doctoral thesis.
Johnston retired in 1993. A widower, he lives in Brookings with a son and his family.
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]