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Our War: Playing for the troops; Belleville trumpeter boosted morale in WWII

The Nash automobile dealership in Belleville couldn't get any cars to sell in 1942, so the owner's wife started a nightclub -- Verna's Nash Tavern -- and Jack Voland started working.

Voland was a 17-year-old trumpet player working nights in the club filled with smoke, booze and servicemen.

"A fight would break out, and we'd play the national anthem. They'd all stand up and salute. The bartender would grab a couple of them and take them on out," said Voland, 83, of Belleville.

The Nash dealership owner, Al Southworth, got called up by Uncle Sam the next year with Voland, who had turned 18. Goodbye late night swing, hello 4:30 a.m. reveille.

Walking down the hill before dawn in the cold was dreaded duty. Sometimes Voland would get out of playing in the cold by spitting on his trumpet's valves so they would freeze.

"I was a kid and didn't really care," Voland said. "I'm 83 now and see how lucky I was, not getting shot at."

From May 1943 until February 1946, Voland served his country by blowing his horn for the U.S. Army as part of the 101st Cavalry and then the 199th Army Ground Forces Band. He remained stateside, building morale and raising money for the war while stationed in Chicago, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, New Jersey and New York.

"For the Third War Loan Drive they took us to New York City. We lived on Governors Island, so every morning for six weeks I'd wake up to see the Statue of Liberty," Voland said. "We'd be in Times Square every evening in a big tent they called Victory Square in back of the Roxy Theater."

New York was eerie during the war, with street lights dark to keep the enemy from targeting our ships or ports. But in that big circus tent it was bright and hopping as they sold $19 billion in war bonds.

The Army musicians were the pit band in front of the stage, playing for acts broadcast across the nation's radios during September 1943. There were big names on stage, but Voland was too busy dealing with being a Midwestern kid in the big city who needed to hit his notes to really pay attention to who was standing above him.

He met a girl in New York. She drew him back later when he was in Virginia guarding the beaches.

"I'd get to Newport News, take a ferry and hitch rides. They'd all pick you up with your uniform on," he said.

Being an Army musician meant marching band, concert band and big band tunes to boost morale as soldiers came and went from camp. It also meant playing the Army way, "the way you were told," including at Fort Rucker, Ala.

"One day, we were playing for a group going out, and it was drizzling. We were all wearing our rain coats," Voland said. "This warrant officer told us to take the rain coats off because we were out of uniform.

"That's one thing about the Army that always disturbed me. How could you expect anything to be done right when everything was run by idiots?"

The time he felt most like a regular soldier was guarding a stretch of beach between Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Va.

"That was the most cold I felt in my life. It was a wet cold," he said. "You'd roll up your fatigues at night and put them under the blankets by your feet or else the fatigues'd be wet in the morning."

Guards were four hours on, four off through the nights in a bunker with a smoky stove that made it hard to breathe. Chow was peanut butter sandwiches.

The girl in New York didn't last. Voland met someone on his last furlough home to Belleville.

"I don't know why I went to the Catholic USO that night. I danced with a few girls, and then I saw this pretty girl against the wall. I asked her to dance. Then I took her to the other USO so I could show off and play my trumpet for her," Voland said.

He and Mary Alice Gonzalez were married in September 1946 after Voland got out of the Army. They've been married 61 years, have four children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Voland is proud of his service, "doing his part." He is prouder of a son who served four years in the Navy, another who served 20 years in the Air Force and a grandson who served nine years in the Marines.

He came home to repair radios and then televisions, like his father, operating Modern TV. He kept playing trumpet and taught himself trombone, bass and organ as he played with the Jack Voland Trio Plus One.

He only gave up the instruments a few years ago, when his hands began shaking too badly to play. But a jazz station plays softly in his home.

"Music's always been an important part of my life."

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