Iowa State University Cyclone Football "Varsity" Marching Band director Steven Smyth said he would never take a band overseas.
"It would be a logistical nightmare," he said.
But a personal invitation by the United States government to perform at the 72nd commemoration of World War II's D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, was too hard to pass up. So on June 2, 168 marching band members, 40 parents and alumni, 14 sousaphones, 14 percussion instruments and dozens of other brass and woodwind instruments, will board two planes to France. They will return June 9.
"We were invited because of the strength of our program," Smyth said. He added that university bands from Ohio State and Texas have participated in past commemorations.
A brief history lesson
D-Day occurred June 6, 1944, when approximately 156,000 American, British and Canadian Allied troops landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of France's Normandy region, a German stronghold. By late August 1944, northern France had been liberated. Historians consider this event the beginning of the war's end.
Each year since, the U.S. military holds a commemoration honoring America's World War II veterans and the soldiers who lost their lives during the battle. Roughly 30,000 to 40,000 people attend the French event annually.
ISU representing the USA
The Cyclone marching band will perform several times during the trip, including memorial services at the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach and the Brittany American Cemetery. The band also will perform twice in the village of St. Mere Eglise -- at the town square and in the D-Day Memorial Parade. A final performance near the Eiffel Tower in Paris will wrap up the week.
The musical selections for these concerts are understandably more solemn than normal. Smyth said the U.S. military chose the songs, which include "Amazing Grace," "America the Beautiful," "The Longest Day March" and "The Star Spangled Banner."
The students will leave their Cyclone uniforms at home, instead donning dark slacks and gray pullovers emblazoned with the American flag and a small Iowa State logo.
"We are representing America as much as Iowa State," Smyth said.
The trip costs $3,400 per student, which covers airfare, hotels and meals. Organized fundraisers, like bean bag tournaments, helped students offset some of those costs. A FundISU campaign this spring raised almost $44,000, which primarily covers transportation costs for the students and their instruments.
The weeklong trip will afford some time to sightsee, especially historical locations. That, Smyth said, was a factor in his decision to pursue this trip.
"I would never have taken a band overseas, but it's not often we can see a really important part of American history," he said. "We've had outreach with veterans [to prepare for the trip], and so a lot of this has been educational. That's been fun."