Mary went with me to the Beverly Hills Hotel that Saturday night, Dec. 6, 1941. We got home and went right to bed. We had tickets to the football game at the Gilmore Stadium. The game was between the Hollywood Stars and the Los Angeles Bears. As we walked into the stadium we heard the public address announcer keep repeating, “All service personnel report immediately to your unit.”
Pearl Harbor was under attack. All during the game others sitting next to us with radios kept getting news updates about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Many left but some of us stayed and watched the game. There was nothing else we could do. I was due on the ballroom stand for the eight o’clock dinner show and an NBC remote broadcast at nine. Japanese submarines were reported off the California coast, and all non-emergency radio transmissions were canceled including our broadcast as a precaution against the Japanese monitoring the radio signal.
Monday was our day off. The whole nation was in shock and turmoil. I was only 20 years old and had not yet signed up for the draft. No one knew my real age; all thought I was much older. All the guys in my band were married except Rusty my bassist. They all had signed up for the draft, but had not yet been called. Bill Hamilton, my lead alto man, had left the band to join Rudy Vallee’s Coast Guard Band in San Pedro. Millard Lundy had replaced him. We kept our regular Beverly Hills Hotel schedule.
Things in Hollywood were fast getting on a war footing. The Hollywood USO Canteen on Hollywood Boulevard was swamped every night. Soldiers, Marines, and Navy men got to dance with Hollywood stars, starlets and “hope to be” girls. Some local big bands played there every night. I played there with my full band many Tuesday afternoons at about five for a couple of hours as a freebie. Some Sunday afternoons Loretta Young would do a special “charity for children.”
As the war progressed, the hotel cut back to Friday and Saturday nights, and sometimes a Sunday afternoon. I was late for the early broadcast on February 28, 1942, the only one I ever missed. When I walked on the stand one of the band members, Ray Lee, was “pissed.”
“Where in the hell have you been?” he yelled at me.
They all knew it was my birthday but he did not know how old I really was. Without thinking I said, “I had to sign up for the draft.”
Total shock. But I was still the boss.
The hotel had cut back, but there was plenty of work now for bands, and we worked steadily enough so that none of us had to take other jobs. The Army Air Corps base near Lancaster, California, about 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles then known as the Muroc Air Base, was built on the desert sands, flat, hot, and dry. It was later renamed Edwards Air Force Base. The commander, a colonel, came into the hotel several times with the Hollywood crowd and fell in love with our band. He and I struck up a friendship. Several other area air bases, Navy stations, and Marine bases received orders for 28-piece military bands. Soon every base and station in Southern California had a band made up of the best musicians AFM local 47 boasted.
The colonel received authorization for the 356th Army Air Corps band to be stationed at the Muroc Army Air Base. Arrangements were made with officials of the local musicians’ union. Hal Neely was appointed Civilian Air Corps Recruiter to enlist 26 musicians who formed the nucleus of said 356th band. A warrant officer was appointed commanding officer. A technical sergeant and a staff sergeant in the service Air Corps musicians would be transferred along with the warrant officer to the 356th.
I sent the word out. Eight guys from my band would enlist with me. We needed another 18 top-flight musicians from the local area. In my discussions with the colonel he decided we would want at least three dance bands at the base: one at the Officers club, one at the NCO club, and one at the USOA club. The orders for a military band did not list piano. We would need three. So, one pianist was called a drummer, one a clarinetist, and one a trombonist. It would work.
Mary was a secretary at the Douglas Aircraft Company. We lived in a small apartment just off the USC campus. At 10 a.m. November 11, 1942, 26 of us enlisted in the Army Air Corps 356 band. We took our physical examinations. All were declared fit.
A lieutenant said, “Neely, take your men on the bus down to the San Pedro Army Air Corps indoctrination station.”
About seven that night a sergeant said, “Sgt. Neely, take your men to the bus which will take you to the Los Angeles train station where you will board the train for Victorville. You will be met by a truck which will take you to the Muroc Air Base. Welcome to the Army Air Corps and good luck.”
I still remember that moment. It was the first salute I ever made in the Air Corps.
In our new uniforms, with our new duffel bags, we all climbed aboard the bus. It was about a three-hour drive over the mountains through the Mohave Desert to the base. We got there about two o’clock that night. I picked out a cot and sat down. It had been a long day. At seven the next morning, our new tech sergeant (a baritone player) barked, “Up and out, form up and meet your new CO.”
All that bullshit. Then back in the sack. That afternoon a lieutenant in a jeep came to get me. “Sergeant, shape up. The colonel wants to see you.”
I was ushered right into the colonel’s office. I saluted and stood at attention.
“Sergeant, glad you made it. Can you play some dances tomorrow night?”
“No sir, we don’t have our instruments, and I’m sure the guys will want their own. We won’t have any of our arrangements.”
“Are they at home, and when can you get them?”
“In LA, and any time.”
“If you get your horns how many bands could you have for Saturday night?”
With that, the colonel waved a hand at the lieutenant. “Arrange a 24-hour pass and transport to LA for the men Sgt. Neely needs, arrange it with their warrant officer. Have them back on the base by Saturday afternoon.”
Our new boss was no bullshit. Get the job done. Imagine that. In the Army less than 24 hours and got a 30-hour pass. Our warrant officer was regular Army Air Force, a schooled military parade band man, not into dance bands nor were our tech sergeant and staff sergeant. Back at the barracks the lieutenant had a meeting with our warrant officer. I had a meeting with the guys we would use in the three bands. The piano players also wanted to go along. It was arranged. We were on our way within an hour.
We stopped at the first gas station in Lancaster, and all the guys called home.
“We will be there this afternoon. Meet us at Hollywood and Vine.”
Saturday we assembled at Hollywood and Vine. Some of the guys elected to take their own cars back to the base. We got back to Muroc about 3 p.m. I took the band at the officers club. Ray Lee took the NCO band and our little jazz trumpet player took the band at the USO club. That night during a break, the colonel beckoned me over to his table.
“Sergeant, you probably don’t know it, but we have a large base sick bay here. They never get any entertainment. Would it be possible for you to arrange something some Sunday?”
“Yes sir, but what kind of program would you suggest?”
“Oh, something light, something that would fit. Ask your officer.”
I discussed it with our warrant officer. He had no ideas. I thought we could put together a brass choir type ensemble which could do the job. We could get some scores in LA. A problem, however, was that we would need a French horn. We had no such player. But there was a French horn in the store room. My brother Sam had played a French horn in high school, and I had fooled around on it several times. I figured with a little practice I could cut it. We practiced and were ready. Years after the war I would play French horn and valve trombone along with cornet and trumpet with my own band.
Saturday morning was a review. Saturday night dances. On some Sundays we would entertain at the hospital. It went well and was always appreciated. After the hospital concert we could cut out for LA on a pass. On some special Sundays we would play a band concert in some LA park with our warrant officer conducting. Great public relations for the corps. This resulted in a regular three-day pass for the whole band, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, back to the base on Wednesday. A parade Saturday morning, the dances Saturday night. A regular routine. It a was good fun service year.
In September of 1943 a captain came to get me. “The colonel wants to see you, pronto, get into uniform.”
I was ushered in. As usual no bullshit.
“Sergeant, this is going to be a long war. I think you are very intelligent and would make a good Air Corps officer. I would like to see you go to Officers Candidate School in Miami Beach.”
“Yes sir, I would like that.”
“I thought that would be your answer so I have already enrolled you. There is a slight problem, and this is still a classified secret. I am being transferred to Washington as a one-star general. You can have a short leave on the way to Washington if you wish. When can you leave?”
As always no bullshit. I did not call Mary. Caught a ride to LA. Took a cab to our apartment. She was surprised and of course a little apprehensive. It probably meant my going to war, but as always Mary was supportive of what I wanted to do. We talked most of the night. She still had our 1938 four-door Pontiac that was in good shape. It was her idea we call our good Lyons friends, now living close by in LA, Herb and Gertie Beigornberg to see if they would like to ride along to Lyons with us. A fast trip, but with all of us driving we could drive straight through. I would catch a train in Fremont and they would head back to LA. Herb and Gertie were both working but could easily get off. We left two nights later. I was able to get a bunch of gas tickets. The speed limit was 35 mph. Everything went well. Gertie’s family lived in Lyons. Mary and I stayed at her family’s farm.