Times Past

SLO swing band leader studied at former German concentration camp while in the Army

Jack Pierce, in glasses, stands outside the 7701 st U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) Band School barracks at Dachau, Germany, in 1951.
Jack Pierce, in glasses, stands outside the 7701 st U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) Band School barracks at Dachau, Germany, in 1951.

Jack Pierce’s JP’s Swing Band brought the “big band” sound to the stage of the Madonna Inn for the last time a week ago, but the band will continue under new ownership while Jack will do smaller gigs.

Jack’s musical career began when his father lent him $50 to join the musician’s union at the age of 13. San Luis Obispo had a lively music scene during the mid-1940s. The tens of thousands of young men training at camps San Luis Obispo, Roberts, and Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base) flocked to clubs here and in Pismo Beach, seeking the music that Benny Goodman, the Mills Brothers, Harry James, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band had popularized.

Much of this music was based on America’s unique confluence of strains from the black and Eastern European Jewish experience. Jack felt fortunate to be able to access recordings of black musicians at Brown’s Music on Higuera Street. Most music vendors in white America didn’t carry the black labels, but Brown’s did.

Barely past his 13th birthday, Jack was a successful musician playing with local bands. During summers, he played with bands throughout the Midwest. Following his midyear graduation at San Luis High in 1949, Jack worked his way across America and then across the Atlantic, playing in the band aboard a steamer. He headed for Bavaria, where he entered the Munich State Opera’s conservatory.

The Korean War broke out in June 1950. Jack returned to fulfill his military obligation. He auditioned for the U.S. Army band and was given an assignment to the 7th Armored Division Band at Camp Roberts.

Then, in August 1951, by a fortunate coincidence, the Army sent Jack back to Munich.

“My assignment was at the 7701st U.S. Army Europe Band School. The school was at the former Dachau concentration camp. The faculty consisted of a few soldiers and the Munich State Opera orchestra. There were a few of us who were both staff and students; I was teaching and taking classes and lessons. It was amazing to be with the people I had studied with just a few months before.

“They housed the school in the S.S. barracks at Dachau, near Munich. As we arrived in trucks from Munich, one of the first things we saw was the metal arch over the road and the railroad track that said, in German, ‘Work Will Make You Free.’ The barracks’ stucco and masonry, dusty red in color. There were nicks in the walls from small weapons fire.

“We were quartered on the second and third floors, with classrooms on the first. The rooms were small — large enough for two men to be housed in comfort. There were two closets in each room so that each occupant had space. Along the walls of the halls there were rifle racks, now empty. There were latrines and shower rooms on each floor. There were hot water pipes that ran to the sinks, but the showers were cold water.

“If a person wanted a hot shower, he had to go down to the second basement. Dressing rooms were adjoining large shower rooms. None of the showers were piped in at the walls, but all were in the ceiling. Water pressure and heat were difficult to adjust.”

Conditions among the German civilian population outside Dachau were far worse during the cold, foggy winter of 1951-52. Most would have relished a warm shower. The trade of American cigarettes dominated the black-market economy.

“Each of us who were stationed there donated one carton of cigarettes monthly (out of the four we could buy) and that paid for the German cooks who prepared meals under military supervision, and provided the kitchen police details. Each of us also contributed three packs of cigarettes per week, which paid for German civilian workers who cleaned our rooms.”

To be continued.

Dan Krieger is professor of history emeritus at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.