The 156th Infantry Band, a regimental band from Louisiana, brought a New Orleans flair to one of the most influential postwar moments in Europe, when they were selected to provide the musical backdrop for the Potsdam Conference as the “house band” at the Little White House. Much of the band’s energy and their drive for perfection came from the bandleader, Chief Warrant Officer [CWO] Frank Rosato, referred to at age 30 as “old man” by the band he commanded.
Rosato, who grew up in the Irish Channel neighborhood of New Orleans, was born to be on the bandstand. His father, Joseph Rosato, was a music professor at Tulane University and head of the Rosato School of Music. Professor Rosato emigrated from Italy, settled in New Orleans in 1912, where he became a civic music champion and advocate. His son Frank, from a young age, would regularly join him on trumpet during performances.
The 156th Infantry Band’s origins lie in the Louisiana National Guard Band, formed by 28 members of the Louisiana State University band who were in the National Guard. When the National Guard units were federalized after 1940, the band members were given the option to withdraw or go on active duty; some withdrew, leaving only nine original members. They then joined forces with the 108th Cavalry Band in New Orleans, and the new 156th Infantry Band was formed. The band was expected to complete maneuvers and training alongside all other members of the regiment. Band members were not automatically exempt from combat or from other military functions; playing in the band was almost a supplemental duty.
While in training at Camp Blanding in Florida, some members of the 156th band took action that had a direct impact on their war experience by keeping them behind the bandstands and out of the foxholes; they formed a dance band—a smaller, jazzier version of the larger outfit that played reveille and marches. The band’s reputation grew when they were transferred to Camp Bowie in Texas and became the backing band for the many USO performances touring through the area. At one stint of shows, the band supported actress Carole Landis, who would later aid the band in a most advantageous transfer.
When the band received overseas orders, the instruments nearly remained dockside as they were told they wouldn’t be needed, but with luck and persuasion, the load of musical gear made it onto the ship. The band arrived in England on October 1, 1942 and made their home with Headquarters Company, 156th Infantry Regiment in Broadway on Avon, 100 miles northwest of London. With CWO Rosato acting as agent, the dance band stayed busy around their camp and in London.
Within a few months, by January 1943, the 156th Infantry Band was successful in receiving a transfer in its entirety to a new post under Special Service Headquarters, London Base Command. Thereafter, the band’s schedule was packed; they played parades, clubs, Red Cross Clubs, and events in Trafalgar Square. They even played for the Royal Family.
The band was so popular that they became known as the ETO Band. In August 1943, CWO Rosato was granted permission to increase the size of the band to 56 members, a change he had worked hard at for some time. The band doubled in size with new recruits from other US Army bands and was, according to unit chronicler, percussionist Henry Glaviano, “more impressive in sound and experience.” The band was functioning so well and the demand was so great that Rosato was able to form several smaller bands from his larger outfit. With concerts, fundraisers, and dances, the groups all stayed busy six nights of the week, despite persistent air raids.
The jazz musicians held Mardi Gras balls and “Jazz Jamborees,” bringing a New Orleans touch to wartime London. Rosato’s band shared a program with Glenn Miller’s band in 1944 and in February 1945 were on the bill at the Royal Albert Hall with another star, a 12 year old Petula Clark. But their most exciting performances would come after the war.
In July 1945, the band was impatiently waiting for transport home; instead, they received special orders. They were to report to perform July 17 - August 2, 1945 at the Allied summit at Potsdam. Although the band was anxious to get home, they recognized the historic opportunity. CWO Rosato remembered:
“There were hundreds of bands that could have been chosen, but we were selected...For a little boy born and raised in the Irish Channel to be band director at the Potsdam Conference is something not repeated every day. My daddy was breaking his buttons he was so proud.”
The band played for an hour in the afternoon on the verandah of President Truman’s headquarters, the “Little White House,” nearly every day of the conference. The program was curated by CWO Rosato and Truman aide Charlie Ross, with musical selections geared toward the anticipated guests. Truman was friendly with the band.
He occasionally sat at the piano and would play a few notes, but he frequently requested tunes, including his favorite “The Missouri Waltz.” Rosato recalled, “When we played it, he would smile and wave. That was his number.” The band performed during the state dinner on the last evening of the conference, about which Rosato said, “I had never performed under such tense conditions before.”
Although it was an honor to play for the leaders and dignitaries at Potsdam, it was another moment with President Truman that would be more emotional for the members of the 156th Infantry Band. On July 20, as the American flag was raised outside of US Headquarters in Berlin, the band played the National Anthem. Rosato remembered,
“When I directed the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ that day my hair stood straight up. Oh yes. That was a very, very strong feeling. I was very, very satisfied. Proud. Yes, indeed. I felt the heartbeat of everybody in the band. It was a very solemn occasion when that flag went up. I don’t think that we ever played the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ any better.”
View more images from Frank Rosato and the 156th Infantry Band on the Museum's Digital Collections.
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Kimberly Guise holds a BA in German and Judaic Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also studied at the Universität Freiburg in Germany and holds a masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) from Louisiana State University. Kim is fluent in German, reads Yiddish, and specializes in the American prisoner-of-war experience in World War II.