by Gary Dickelman, DCW staff
This article originally appeared in the May 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 2).
While it is customary to celebrate anniversaries in multiples of five and 10 years, 61 is as respectable an anniversary as any to remember “The Big Green Band,” St. Vincent’s Cadets, the “Corps of the 1950s.” It was that many years ago that the “Big Green Band” from Bayonne, NJ, traveled to Boston, MA, to earn the first of many national titles.
The year was 1946 and this was the first junior VFW competition for that national title following a two-year hiatus for the competition because of World War II. “The Vinnies” would continue a brilliant record, winning nine VFW National and two American Legion National titles during the next decade.
The glory years included two “round-robin” years when the corps won VFW and American Legion Nationals and both New Jersey State VFW and American Legion titles — during an era when Jersey dominated the drum corps world.
St. Vincent’s Cadets started out in 1941 as St. Vincent Boy Scout Troop 25, under the leadership of Father Edward F. Wojtycha. By 1942, the corps had grown to 48 members.
In October 1942, the corps marched in the Pulaski Day Parade in New York City. Over the next few years, St. Vincent’s Cadets would earn New York and New Jersey state titles and, in 1946, the corps prepared for the VFW Nationals.
The summer of 1946 was the year Sgt. Michael H. Petrone — well-known to many as Mickey Petrone — assumed the drill instructor position. His marching and maneuvering innovations, Jim Donnelly’s music, Vinnie Cerbone’s percussion and, ultimately, the tenacity of the corps, earned the organization its first VFW National Championship in September 1946. In five years of operations, the corps had won 15 trophies, including three New Jersey State championships and the coveted national VFW title.
During 1947 the corps strengthened its resolve as a national contender with another VFW win. As the years progressed, the corps further matured and sealed its reputation as the dominant force in junior drum corps. The era 1949 to 1953 and 1955 to 1956 were all national championship years.
From 1955 through 1957, the corps placed first in over 90% of the contests it entered, ultimately sealing its fate as “The Corps of the 1950s.” They earned a total of 11 national titles and 18 New Jersey State championships in their brilliant history.
The competitive landscape of the era included Holy Name Cadets (aka Garfield Cadets, Cadets of Bergen County, The Cadets), St. Joseph’s Cadets of Newark,NJ, Audubon Bon Bons from Audubon, NJ, Blessed Sacrament Golden Knights from Newark, NJ, Bracken Cavaliers from Bristol, PA, Little Flower from Baltimore, MD, the Chicago Cavaliers and Osmond Cadets from Philadelphia.
Clearly the top five or six corps in the nation were from New Jersey during this time, with challenges arising from the Midwest toward the end of this era, most notably from the Chicago Cavaliers.
St. Vinnies introduced drum corps innovation that, arguably, helped to define the competitive agenda of the era. The legendary Jim Donnelly, through the use of crooks, pistons, rotors, adding the middle voice via the French horn bugle and the unique obligato sound to the upper voices, brought drum corps to a new level of musical interest. The corps enjoyed all of Donnelly’s passion and energy.
For example, today we are reminded of many brilliant moments in drum corps history by the stage show “BLAST!”
Many are perhaps too young to realize that the opening number, Bolero, was first introduced to the field by Jim Donnelly and the St. Vincent’s Cadets.
Equally innovative, Petrone’s drills brought drum corps “M&M” to new heights, with “The Vinnies” always setting the bar.
It should be noted, however, that the spirit of the day was around the neighborhood, the parish and kids — a point of view that Petrone held throughout his long and dedicated career as a public school teacher and drum corps instructor.
The historical record of St. Vincent’s Cadets is well-documented in a number of sources, most notably in Rev. Gerald A. Marchand’s “All For One and One For All” book. Father “Bud” was a marching member of the corps in 1946 and experienced the joy and excitement of the corps’ first VFW national title.
Equally important — and true for so many drum corps alumni of the era — the drum corps experience shaped and inspired his life’s journey. In the preface to “All For One,” Father Bud begins by quoting a 1971 Drum Corps News article citing St. Vincent Cadets as “. . . the very greatest drum corps in our entire history.”
But he quickly moves on to quote Mickey Petrone: “. . . St Vincent’s was . . . a real parish corps — a neighborhood corps . . . [that] every youngster in Bayonne wanted to join,” and Father Wojtycha: “The discipline and training . . . builds strong members of the community.”
St. Vincent Cadets embodied the pride in God and country inherent in the activity of military field music, but transformed in a unique way. It was a community of respected mentors and apprentices, friendships, brother- and sisterhood, togetherness, loyalty, competition and good, safe fun.
It was a place where ethics were taught, lived and breathed. And it was an outstanding medium for adults who carried a sense of responsibility toward youth to communicate with them, and for youth to communicate with and emulate the best of the adult world.
St. Vincent’s provided opportunity and prepared hundreds of young adults to successfully meet the challenges of life.
Perusing “All For One,” I found quotes and remembrances from corps members and affiliates from the 21-year period of its existence, through 1961. Is it the brilliant championship record that we find most frequently in those remarks? Hardly.
It is the bus rides, the practices in 100-degree heat in Texas, the inaugural parades in Washington, D.C. for Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy; Father Wojtycha teaching you to drive in his beat-up Plymouth; the day-old buns served in the corps room after practice; the converted vegetable truck that was transformed to become the corps truck; flag-raising ceremonies for “Gold Star Mothers”; and marching in Bayonne town parades to the cheers of the hometown crowd.
My first year in drum corps was 1962, the year the drum corps world would mourn the disappearance of St. Vincent Cadets. While the competitive buzz at the national level was all about Blessed Sacrament Golden Knights, Garfield Cadets, St. Lucy’s Cadets, Chicago Cavaliers and others in the ensuing years, I clearly remember frequent reference to “The Vinnies” — with reverence and deference.
In 1982, St. Vincent’s Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps was inducted into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame and bestowed with the honor of “Corps of the 1950s.” Much had changed in drum corps between 1961 and 1982, including the disappearance of other powerhouses like Blessed Sacrament, St. Kevin’s Emerald Knigts and the Chicago Royal Airs.
New champions had emerged: Blue Devils, Santa Clara Vanguard and Anaheim Kingsmen. Drum Corps International had supplanted the VFW and American Legion as the focus of national and world competition.
Bugles now had two vertical pistons and the standard military-style drum line was augmented with a sideline pit of tympani, traps, vibes, marimba and chimes.
Field competition looked more like stage shows, with “drills” that resembled half-time band shows, with their swirling, asymmetric patterns, backward-and-sideways movement and dance. Nonetheless, 1982 was a time for the drum corps world to acknowledge its heritage and the legacy of the great St. Vincent’s Cadets.
In 1983, I attended the first reunion of the corps I marched with during the 1960s, the Blessed Sacrament Golden Knights, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the corps’ disappearance. As I checked into the banquet hall, I noticed a few older gentlemen standing nearby with nametags that included, in parentheses, “St. Vinnies.”
I recall feeling a sense of pride and awe: pride in the fact that my corps belonged to the same rich tradition as the legendary “Big Green Band” — to the extent that these former competitors would join us as brothers at our banquet; and awe at being in the presence of those who had come before us to set the mark for an era.
It was also Father Wojtycha and St. Vincent’s Cadets who had sponsored the National Dream Contest, with its 25,000 spectators witnessing the finest in junior and senior drum corps competition for a period of 34 years. Champions, innovation, pride, excellence — and names like Donnelly, Petrone, Wojtycha, Cerbone, Cardaneo, Verenault, Hartman, Foran and Dolan — are etched in the memories of the drum corps world through those who were blessed with the opportunity to participate.
Many former members of the St. Vincent’s Cadets continue to participate in drum corps to the present day. They have seen drum corps transition from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s to that of the modern era.
As drum corps innovators themselves, most St. Vincent’s Cadets acknowledge the positive advances in musicianship and professionalism that have found their way into the activity.
On the other hand, the spirit of community in drum corps that took responsibility and created opportunities for neighborhood kids without means to learn to play, march and compete has in many ways disappeared.
Indeed, the world has changed, but not so much that the values and ethics inherent in the patriotism of military field music should not to be revered and imparted on generations to come.
Indeed, there is much more than nostalgia in the words of Father Wojtycha and his many protégés with regard to the role that St. Vincent’s Cadets played in building character and the example it set for the drum corps world.
To all members of “The Big Green Band,” we salute you on this, the 61st anniversary year of your first national championship. We recall and appreciate fondly “the green and white . . . keeping its music in key . . . [and] counter-marching right about.” But most of all, we salute “The Corps of the 1950s” that will forever in our hearts “keep marching along.”
For more information, please contact St. Vincent’s Cadets Alumni Association, P.O. Box 3102, Point Pleasant, NJ 08742-3102.
You can also visit www.bayonnenj.org/more.htm for further information on the history of the corps, including photos and recordings.