After World War I, Amsterdam veterans organizations formed drum and bugle corps. John Donlon, a 1945 local high school graduate, recalled the premier groups between the world wars in his native city were those of the James T. Bergen and John J. Wyszomirski American Legion posts. Most drum corps members were war veterans who learned to march in the Army.
During World War II the number of drum corps patriotically multiplied throughout the region and the organizations attracted younger, teenage members.
Amsterdam’s two Polish neighborhoods, Reid Hill and Park Hill, had separate drum corps. On Park Hill the all-female St. John’s Fife and Drum Corps looked sharp in blue and gold uniforms. The group was originally known as the Seventh Ward Fife and Drum Corps but adopted the name St. John’s to honor the Catholic church that was then central to Park Hill’s Polish community.
On Reid Hill the co-educational Polish National Alliance (P.N.A.) Drum and Bugle Corps took the field wearing maroon and white. Based at the P.N.A. building at Reid and Church streets, many members were parishioners of St. Stanislaus Church.
One of the P.N.A.’s young buglers, Frank Ratka, went on to a career as business manager for symphony orchestras in Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City and Atlanta.
“It was during the war and something that was very patriotic at the time,” said Sylvia Zimolka Stock in a 2004 interview, explaining why she joined the St. John’s corps at age 11. Stock began as a flag bearer and then played drums. Frank Yazum, also interviewed in 2004, joined the P.N.A. corps in 1937 as a bugler.
Stock and Yazum said their groups performed traditional marches plus popular songs set to a martial tempo.
The St. John’s group marched in a Polish-American parade in New York City and played at Fort Smith near Peekskill where Company G of the National Guard from Amsterdam was stationed. Yazum said the P.N.A. corps traveled to New York City also and to Massachusetts.
Another martial music group of the 1940s was the all-female Fort Johnson Fife and Drum Corps, who wore bright red uniforms.
Marge Vertucci Habla was filling in as a flag bearer with the Fort Johnson corps during one Memorial Day parade in the 1940s. Habla and majorette Grace Bender had received conflicting marching orders. Habla took a turn and starting marching toward the Old Fort, with soldiers saluting along the way.
However, the music got fainter and the crowd was beginning to laugh. Behind Habla, Bender had not taken the turn and was leading the instruments in a different direction.
The drum corps competed against each other and out-of-town groups in appearance and performance. Inspections and competitions were held at Amsterdam’s Sanford Field, now Veterans Field on Locust Avenue. One Johnstown unit wore dressy black uniforms. Troy had the Mighty Callahans, who dressed in green.
When V-E Day occurred on May 8, 1945, the Allied victory in Europe, Stock said the St. John’s group “marched through the streets of Amsterdam because everybody was out celebrating.” Yazum did not recall if the P.N.A. corps marched that day, but said, “We just went around kissing all the girls.”
There were eight drum corps marching in Amsterdam’s massive World War II victory parade on September 15, 1945. Half of the groups were from the city and others came from Fort Johnson, Johnstown, Waterford and Syracuse.
An all-female drum corps in Fonda sponsored a competition in 1947. The Fort Johnson drum corps entertained at the opening of the Mohawk Theatre in Amsterdam in 1949.
For many years after the war, drum corps competitions were held in Amsterdam, Fonda, Fort Plain and Johnstown.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected].