The Navy Band was saddened to learn recently of the passing of one of its honorary members, Marie McLean Townsend. Fanfare readers will remember that her service with the band during World War II was the subject of an article by Chief Musician Mike Bayes in our July/August 2008 issue (“Female Pioneers of the Navy Music Program”). At the time of her service, Mrs. Townsend wasn’t a rated musician - she was a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). However, as the first female vocalist to perform with the band, she earned the title of “honorary member.” Mrs. Townsend was a frequent attendee at Navy Band alumni concerts, and was very much considered a member of the band’s “family.” In honor of her service to the nation and the band, we excerpt that article below.
In July 1942, President Roosevelt signed into law the establishment of the WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. One particular WAVE was to become the first female musician assigned to the Navy Band when she served here as a yeoman from 1943- 1949. This is her story…Marie McLean was born in Adams, Mass. She grew up with a love of music and a desire to be an opera star. Marie began her music career early by singing in church and school choirs. She took voice and piano lessons and often gave recitals in her hometown. During one of these recitals, she noticed that people were talking in the audience. Thinking this was “rather odd,” she poured her heart into the music. However, the talking grew louder. As it turned out, word was being passed that the American Navy base at Pearl Harbor had just been bombed, and the United States was at war.
Driven by her patriotism and a “love of the Navy uniform,” Marie eagerly joined the Navy as a WAVE in 1942 and was in the first group to be sent to boot camp at Oklahoma A&M. She described her experiences at boot camp as being “typical of what you would expect.” She most cherishes the memories of the friendships and bonds she formed with the other women. From boot camp she was sent to Washington, D.C., where she worked for Admiral Ernest King in the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). An extremely driven service member, Marie felt there was more that she could do for the war effort. She wanted to help with recruitment. Due to her drive and immense talent, Marie found herself singing on WRC radio every morning on the Bill Herson Morning Show. Her dream of singing was becoming a reality. It was during one of these shows that the leader of the Navy Band, Lieutenant Charles Brendler, who was actively searching for a female vocalist, heard her perform. Consequently, Marie was transferred from ONI to the Navy Band in 1943 where she served as the yeoman/secretary to the leader and as the Navy Band’s only female vocalist.
Marie fondly remembers singing such popular favorites as “The Man I Love” and “Embraceable You” with the dance band led by Chief Musician (and future Navy Band leader) Anthony Mitchell. She performed high profile engagements including President Roosevelt’s birthday banquet in 1945, White House Correspondents dinners held at the Hotel Statler, USO-sponsored events and White House protocol functions. She recalls singing at a Sunday morning religious service at the White House, after which President Truman approached her, shook her hand, and said, “You remind me of my daughter.”
The 1945 airing of the “Navy Hour” broadcasts gave Marie the opportunity to perform with such greats as Rosemary Clooney, Gene Kelly, Robert Taylor, Greer Garson and other famous celebrities. About these performances Marie said, “It was all very exciting for a small town girl with a dream of becoming a singer.” Indeed, Marie was finally living her dream and, as she did, she quietly became the first female musician in the Navy Band.
Chief Musician Mike Bayes is the Navy Band's head archivist.