Music helped save the day

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Days after the invasion of Normandy, Harvey Hodges climbed down a rope ladder onto Utah Beach.

Private Hodges was part of a replacement contingent that landed in the first few days after D-Day, and he had trained in field artillery, so he could expect to come under heavy German fire in World War II.

His replacement unit had been in Wales on June 6, D-Day, and by mid-June was slated to haul ammunition for the next few weeks.

Then the trombone intervened. He believes it may have saved his life.

Hodges, who's 89 and lives in Champaign with wife Adella, had played the trombone in the band at Ottawa High School, and it turned out one of his colonels thought the replacement depot could use a band.

When a sergeant comes looking for you, Hodges says, it's usually not a good thing. In mid-July, the sergeant asked him "Are you Duane Hodges?"

The Army knew all about Duane Hodges, called Harvey by his high school classmates. They knew he'd played in the school band. He'd tried to enlist in the Navy Seabees, but his vision wasn't good enough, so the Army took him right out of high school and sent him to California for artillery training.

They knew he'd briefly stepped in as bugler during training at Fort Meade, Md., where he wondered if he would be sent to Japan.

The sergeant had him play some scales. Then he asked if Hodges knew how to read music.

Hodges played some music by the "Big Band" favorites of the swing era — Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, the Dorsey brothers.

"You'll do," the sergeant said. And he did.

Hodges played in bands that entertained chow lines when they weren't doing concerts. They followed the 14th Replacement Depot across France, and he earned more than one pass to Paris, for the first time in December 1944.

It turned out that the Army needed everything and anyone. Every man or woman who enlisted or was drafted and went to Europe served in some way, Hodges says, in a plan to, by sheer numbers, break down a German army that was fighting armies on its western and eastern fronts.

"I think Mr. (Dwight) Eisenhower's plan was to simply overwhelm those guys," he says.

That meant Hodges was near battles and was strafed by enemy planes, but says "I was no hero."

He won the Silver Battle Star for serving as a musician in multiple battle zones.

In April 1945, he was transferred to 7th Special Service Platoon. The name means nothing to most people now, but it was famous at the time as "Laughs, Inc."

The groups had everything from magicians to female impersonators besides its singers and instrumentalists, Hodges says.

The soldiers ate it up. "They went out of their way to thank us," he says.

Another member of the group, Joe Geczi, who died in 2003, recalled the wartime danger of performance in a unit history, writing: "In the first two months that we were organized, we played in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. ... We performed during air raids and enemy artillery shelling. Traveling roads at night subjected us to strafing and on Christmas Night, we narrowly escaped death when a determined 'Jerry' pilot decided to end our tour.

"We performed on stages which rattled every 10 minutes from vibrations caused by passing flying bombs."

Hodges continued in the service after the war in Europe ended. He was transferred to a similar unit, "This Ain't The Army," and entertained troops until the end of 1945. He was discharged in January 1946.

Hodges remembers that many of the entertainers he worked with went on to careers after the war. He was at concerts where A-listers like Dinah Shore, later a major TV star, performed.

"Sod" Vacaro became one of the Four Aces, famous for "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing," and Marvin Levy became a famous magician, Hodges recalls.

After studying music at Illinois Wesleyan University on the GI Bill, he had a long career with School Music Service in Champaign. Later, he was in real estate.

In 1956, he took Adella on a honeymoon to New Orleans in a 1955 Ford convertible they still own. They have a daughter, Brenda Rice of Urbana.

Article by The News-Gazette | By Paul Wood

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