ROSSMOOR -- Bob Sutherland isn't one to toot his own horn. Or maybe he is, because the 90-year-old trumpeter and World War II veteran will be playing with the Rossmoor Big Band at a July 19 "Operation Swingtime" program at the Lafayette Reservoir.
Sponsored by the Rossmoor, Lafayette, Lamorinda Sunrise, Moraga and Orinda Rotary clubs, the USO Show and picnic will feature the 32-member big band and the all-female Swingin' Blue Stars quartet. Seeking to honor veterans across generations, Americans who have served the country in past wars and military personnel from Camp Parks in Dublin and Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield are invited to wear their uniforms.
"I just want to say 'thank you for serving' to our returning vets," Sutherland said. Although he won't be wearing the uniform he wore from 1942 to 1945 as a radio operator in the Army Air Corps' 316th Fighter Control Squadron, Sutherland will bring memories with him.
Born in March 1924 and raised in Alameda, he's been married 45 years to his second wife, Ann. His life stories sound as if they were from a circus more than from a military mission.
"I graduated from high school and got a job as a shipping clerk and printing press trainee," he recalls. "Three buddies and I didn't want to get drafted into the Navy, so we went on a Saturday afternoon to check out the Army Air Corps."
Sutherland knew his eyesight would keep him on the ground. What he didn't know, was that by agreeing to take a physical, he was enlisting.
"A few hours after I took it, they called. Said we had to go over and listen to a list of names each day. If we didn't show, we'd be charged with desertion. I hadn't even told my folks, my boss. We were shocked."
And four days later, he was on his way to 18 months of radio school in Illinois. Then it was Tomah, Wis., to operate high-frequency radios for fighter pilots. Eventually sent overseas, Sutherland ran water rescue drills on the English Channel before being sent to Germany.
"I wasn't in the Battle of the Bulge, but the Germans were within 10 miles. The Army didn't go up the river, otherwise, they would have run right over me," he said, as he pulled a German officer's P38 pistol out of its original leather holster and explained its operation.
Sutherland picked up the gun, that had dropped on the ground, after an officer and three enlisted men -- holding their rifles overhead, white flags attached -- emerged from nearby woods and surrendered. A Hitler Youth Knife inscribed with "Alle für Deutschland," and a copy of "The Adler," a German newspaper dated 1943 and including a detailed drawing of a Fock Wulf Fw 190 with all parts labeled, are souvenirs.
Happier memories of the war involve music, which has bounced in and out of his life, ever since he learned to play his father's cornet. "It leaked air, so my dad bought me a new one for $23.75. I gave it up after high school."
But he played the trumpet now and then, like shortly before the end of World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died and Sutherland was asked to play Taps. "I practiced the whole day and did fine," he remembers.
And USO Shows were highlights, including seeing Bob Hope in France and a special show featuring actress Janet Blair.
"I was in a hospital, and down because I didn't know anyone in the barracks. They let a group of us into the show, up front where there were no chairs," Sutherland said. "I was lying there, looking up at Janet Blair. She sang 'You'd be So Nice to Come Home To.' I think every man in the place thought she was singing just to him."
After the war, Sutherland got a bachelor's degree in business from UC-Berkeley and spent 30 years in the tank truck industry, mostly in Los Angeles. He joined community bands to get a night out and relieve the stress of his high-pressure job. Moving back to the Bay Area, he played with the Walnut Creek Concert Band, Diablo Symphony Orchestra, Diablo Light Opera Orchestra and formed the Tice Valley Jazz Band.
He says the 30s and 40s music the Rossmoor band plays is the ultimate.
"I think the only reason I'm still alive is because I play the trumpet," he says. "I'm not a hiker and both my parents died in their 50s.
"The pressure of the horn and blowing it keeps the lungs aerobically good. I don't have the genes, so I don't know what else to chalk it up to."
Big Band leader Mo Levich says the show will include the band playing selections from "West Side Story" and a Fred Astaire Medley arrangement by co-director Frank Como.
The Big Band will join the Swingin' Blue Stars for "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and other songs.
Military vehicles will be on display.