“Two” Armies and How Playing the Bass Drum Changed Howard Simms Life by J.J. Lamb
Howard Simms stepped off the train at Ft Knox. It was 1946. He was only 15 years old. Through his resourcefulness, he had managed to join the Army by “recruiting” a man off the street to pretend to be his father and sign the paperwork. Now he was one of a group of new recruits who had traveled together in one train car from California. Eagerly anticipating their future, they got to know one another over the course of their journey. The young men wasted no time disembarking when they arrived. Outside the train, they engaged in nervous conversation. Two busses from Ft. Knox drove up. The first bus had a placard that read simply “White Only”; the 2nd bus’s placard read “Colored.” The young men understood. Conversation ceased. Welcome to an Army divided. Ft. Knox had an invisible, indelible line; Blacks on the north side and Caucasians on the south. In the Army, division was simple, by the color of your skin.
After basic training, Howard shipped off to Japan, he ended up at Camp Gifu under the command of Georgia born and raised Col. Michael Halloran. Howard couldn’t understand how the older soldiers could stand calmly in formation as Col. Halloran addressed them using the most demeaning, insulting term. When he asked, the older soldiers would just say, “Who would listen to us.” Camp Gifu was an all-Black camp, home of the 24th Infantry first organized in 1869. Here Howard encountered Black officers for the first time, Capt. Montgomery and Capt. Carter. At Basic only the 1st Sgt. had been Black. Capt. Carter was with the first group at the landing at Pusan, Korea. He didn’t even get off the beach before being killed. Almost the entire regiment was wiped out and their service immediately called into question. Major General William Kean, commander of the 25th Infantry Division called the unit “untrustworthy and incapable of carrying out missions expected of an infantry regiment.” The 24th Infantry regiment was mass court-martialed for its actions; other white units that did the same things under similar circumstances were not. This is an injustice that in recent years has brought to light. Howard was not on the beach at Pusan. It was an experience at Dunbar Junior High in Tucson long before that would change the course of his life.
Cotton brought “Buddy”, Howard’s childhood nickname, and his family to Arizona from Texas in 1937. FDR had made it illegal for migrant workers from Mexico to do seasonal work in the U.S. The Arizona Cotton Growers Association’s response was to recruit those with experience from Texas, Oklahoma and other cotton growing areas. Buddy was six when his father was recruited from Texas to pick cotton in Continental, near what is now Green Valley. Buddy attended school there through the fifth grade. It was possible to attend middle and high school in Tucson, but fifth grade was generally thought to meet the educational needs of farmworkers’ children like Buddy. When the family later moved to Tucson, he enrolled in Dunbar Junior High.
One day, instruments were brought in and the Dunbar students were told that if they wanted to be in the band they should come in and choose one. Buddy and another young man both had their eyes on a beautiful Baritone Horn. Both reached for the instrument at the same time. They collided, and a short tussle ensued. Professor Maxwell, the director, quickly ended it. The other child made off with the horn. Professor Maxwell gave Buddy a large drumstick and a big bass drum instead. Years later, Howard went back to visit Professor Maxwell, thanked him, and told him the story of how playing the bass drum at Dunbar had saved his life and launched a career in the Army.
Shortly after arriving at Camp Gifu, Howard’s Sergeant, who knew he had some drum experience, told him the Camp’s bass drummer was rotating out and that he should head over to see about joining the band. Howard’s experience was really very limited, but he headed over anyway to see the Director, Master Sgt. Johnson. There were only two black bands in the Army at that time, one at Camp Gifu and one at Ft Dix. Master. Sgt. Johnson asked a few questions, looked at Howard’s size, but didn’t ask him to play. Then said to his clerk, “Go to the HQ personnel, and get his records. I want him in the band.”
Howard was big and strong and could pound that drum, but couldn’t keep a beat! Thank goodness he had a good teacher, Sgt. Hopper. Sgt. Hopper asked him how he had gotten into the band when he couldn’t keep a beat! Howard replied that he could learn, to which Sgt. Hopper replied, “You better learn fast or you will go back to the infantry!” Howard learned quickly. Two of the highlights from his career are shaking General MacArthur’s hand after a big parade in Osaka and three minutes of fame in the ring with the “Brown Bomber”, Heavyweight Champion Joe Lewis who was touring with the USO.
President Truman integrated the armed forces in ’48, but the first Caucasian wasn’t a part of their band until 1951. When interviewed, Howard stated that,“The Army was the best thing that ever happened to me. The only thing that I hated was that I came up at the time when there were two Armies. I couldn’t get into the White Army, I joined the Black Army. It made a man out of me. It teaches responsibility.” Mr. Howard Simms proudly served 23 years as a bandsman in the Army.