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Church musical brings back memories for WWII veteran

SOUTHSIDE, Ala. (BP)–The trumpet blasted and the clarinet crooned. For J.B. Williams, hearing the opening number of Southside Baptist Church’s musical version of “Let Heaven and Nature Swing” brought more than a tap to his foot — it brought a lump to his throat.

The music at the Southside, Ala., church in mid-December transported Williams back 58 years to another audience and another time. He was a 21-year-old soldier in Paris where he and 2,000 other U.S. military awaited a live performance of the Glenn Miller Band.

“The band waited — they were all on stage — and finally it was announced that Captain Miller had been delayed, but that they were going to go ahead and do the concert,” Williams recalled.

With that, the opening number, “Moonlight Serenade,” began. The next morning brought the tragic news that Miller’s plane had disappeared over the English Channel.

“On that day [Dec. 15], there was much talk of the end of World War II,” Williams said. “Our Allied forces were either inside Germany or along the border all the way from Switzerland to southern Holland.”

Many of the men thought that Christmas would bring the war’s end. But it wasn’t to be. What is now known as the Battle of the Bulge began in the dark early morning hours of Dec. 16, 1944.

“We had thought it was shaping up to be a somewhat nice Christmas season, [but it] turned out to be one of the worst ever for us in the European theater and especially for the 80,987 casualties,” Williams said.

The music of the day kept the men’s spirits up, including Williams, who was stationed in London at the time.

“Swing music more or less lets you forget everything,” he said. “When the buzz bombs were falling, there was no way to go to sleep at night — you couldn’t sleep if you heard one — you had to go to sleep the minute you hit the bed or you’d be up all night.”

The men passed their time in London’s Covenant Gardens, where big bands and dancing would take minds off their troubles.

“When I heard the music at Southside Baptist Church, I closed my eyes, and I was there all over again,” Williams said.

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  • Sara Horn