Bagpiper pipes for heritage and freedom

  • Published
  • By Brian Schroeder
  • Tinker Public Affairs
In the early morning of June 6, 1944, thousands of Allied Landing Craft Assault vehicles were deployed to the beaches of Normandy, France, in an effort to retake the country from Nazi Germany. As one craft approached the Sword Beach landing site, the front ramp dropped into the salty waters, and 21-year old English Private Bill Millin waded into the water with his comrades, armed only with a set of bagpipes. Faithfully following his orders, Private Millin marched up and down the beachhead blasting away at the instrument of his native Scottish culture, while his fellow countrymen engaged in battle with their German enemy.

Despite the English War Office forbidding bagpipers on the battlefield because of heavy piper casualties suffered during World War I, Lord Lovat, the 1 Special Service Brigade commander, designated Private Millin as his official piper. His playing was utilized as a tool to deter and intimidate the enemy throughout many other battles during World War II.
Reports from German soldiers after the war stated they did not shoot at Private Millin because they assumed he was mentally unstable, and therefore the ammunition should not be wasted on him.

"They thought it was insane, but it did exactly what pipes do -- it reminded Soldiers in the British army of home and reminded them of why they are fighting," said Master Sgt. Benny Hill, 412th MXLS B-2 crewchief and piper in the Band of the United States Air Force Reserve Pipe Band.

Sergeant Hill has been playing bagpipes for 15 years, and said he attributes his initial interest in the bagpipes to his Scottish heritage.

"It's not like we ate haggis all the time," Sergeant Hill explained. "We weren't a traditional Scottish family in that sense, but I grew up hearing my grandparents telling me we are from the Highlands of Scotland."

Today, military bagpipes are primarily committed to state functions, such as memorials and funerals; yet, Sergeant Hill said the purpose remains the same. He said bagpipes are the only musical instrument labeled "an instrument of war" because of the cultural bonding that comes from the sound being piped out.

"It's a memory of home," he explained. "It reminds you what you are doing and why you are fighting."

Members of the Band of the United States Air Force Reserve Pipe Band, formed in 1961, are from various units from around the Air Force. Sergeant Hill explained there is only one slot available in the Air Force for a bagpiper, which is currently reserved for the pipe major. The job is a secondary duty, such as office computer administrator or training NCO. He said that learning the bagpipes after studying a specific instrument through a bachelor's degree program can be difficult.

"If you have already been to college for four years for oboe or clarinet and you really want to be in a specific music group, the last thing you want is to be handed a set of pipes to learn," he said. "Out of a band of 50 or 60, it's hard to find seven or eight people who want to raise their hand and volunteer."

The former trumpet player said he had just started learning bagpipes when he stumbled upon a photograph of the Air Force Reserve Pipe Band standing with the Thunderbirds in a copy of Airman Magazine. In 1997, he inquired with the band about open positions, and in 2002 he finally received an audition with the pipe band. Sergeant Hill flew to Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., to participate in a two-week performance tour of the surrounding community with the entire Reserve Band.

"What I thought was the audition was actually a meet and greet," Sergeant Hill said. "I had performed with them twice already and they wanted to see how well I performed in front of people and under pressure instead of a one-on-one audition."

Based out of Robins AFB, Ga., the Band of the United States Air Force Reserve Pipe Band is one of three pipe bands in the U.S. military, and perform approximately five times per year. The band has performed at the Air Force Academy, Good Morning America, St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City, Alma Highland Festival & Games, and was the first foreign military unit to march through Red Square in Moscow.

Sergeant Hill said when the band is needed to play at a specific event, the pipers and drummers will be contacted one month in advance, request permission from their chain of command to play at the event, and all available members will ascend upon Robins AFB for three days of 12-hour rehearsals before their performance.

Since 1993, the Pipe Band has been invited to play on the Capital Building steps for a St. Patrick's Day luncheon hosted by the Speaker of the House. This year was a first for the 14-member ensemble. Not only did they pipe President Barack Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen to and from the luncheon, the Pipe Band performed inside the White House.

"For us, this gig was phenomenal," said Sergeant Hill, who has played at eight of the last 10 St. Patrick's Day luncheon performances. "Very few people can say they have played inside the White House, and it was a huge honor to be the only pipe band to have played there."

Sergeant Hill said being in the pipe band has made his career in the Air Force much more interesting, and thanks his supervision for allowing him to participate in the pipe band concerts.

"I've been able to do more and see more than a normal crew chief," he said.
Just like every other military musical group, the Band of the United States Air Force Reserve Pipe Band has a unique performance costume. A kilted uniform with its own pattern, or tartan, which was authorized and approved by the Tartan Society of Edinburgh, Scotland in 1987, makes up the band's distinguishable regalia.

Sergeant Hill does not limit performing his gold-plated bagpipes to the pipe band. He makes trips to local high schools and community events to promote the Air Force and demonstrate the bagpipes. Every Veteran's Day, Sergeant Hill dons his kilt and performs at a local school. As 'Amazing Grace' wails from the bellows of his bagpipes, Sergeant Hill said his goal is to honor those who have fallen in battle and Prisoners of War who will not be coming home.

"I hope playing for the local community has an impact in remembering fallen military members and the cost of what we have today," Sergeant Hill said. "Standing in my kilt, playing my bagpipes lets kids know there are many jobs available in the Air Force. Interacting with the local community lets them know we are not just a big base next door where nobody knows what goes on in there."

Sergeant Hill said his bagpipes have flown everywhere with him, including his six-month tour to Iraq. He said he loves to play and doesn't take it for granted, even while he practices during lunch. Sergeant Hill said he is not looking forward to retirement because he loves playing his bagpipes in the Air Force.

"This is not just a hobby, it's what I get paid to do," Sergeant Hill said.