Duncan MacLeod: A Voice for the Ages — From Opera to Operation Victory in WWII

September 26, 2010
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Duncan MacLeod, a neighborhood treasure.

Duncan MacLeod, a neighborhood treasure.

The operatic stage and the battlefield.

One stage represents the highest form of artistic expression, the other a theater where man’s basest and most primitive instincts are vented.

Duncan MacLeod is that rare human being who has played on both.

Now 85 and living in La Verne, he was, for lack of a better term, a singing medic in World War II, who carried his litter onto the battlefield to retrieve fallen soldiers amid burned out tanks and the horrible sound of German 88’s whirring and whooshing overhead. He also had a world-class opera voice that belonged in Carnegie Hall where he had once auditioned before the great impresario Sol Hurok, manager of Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Isaac Stern, Arthur Rubenstein, Andres Segovia and other leading performing artists.

A singing prodigy who grew up in Pomona, the son of a minister father and an organ- and piano-playing mother, Duncan began singing hymns at age 3 and was soon the principal soloist for choirs in Pasadena, South Pasadena and Pomona. From age 12 through 16, he concertized through Southern California. Even then, he dreamed of singing as a career.

“Just to know that each morning when I woke up I was going to sing some of the most beautiful music ever written, and that I would probably receive an ovation when I sang for an audience,” Duncan said, “made me feel like I was the conqueror of the world.”

But on Dec. 7, 1941, there was another would-be conqueror. On that day of infamy, Duncan’s new voice coach, Norman Winter, had driven from Hollywood to Pomona to listen to his rising star sing. At age 16, Duncan’s voice had changed from a soprano to a lush baritone, with a four octave range, and his teacher wanted to hear the new sound.

“He was seated at the piano and I was standing nearby in our living room at 207 Palm Place, when one of my brothers appeared in the doorway and exclaimed, ‘The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor!’

“We were very excited and all started talking at once, trying to decide what it all meant,” Duncan recalled. “I didn’t sing anymore that day.”

Exactly two years later, Dec. 7, 1943, Duncan was drafted. The sweet-singing private, however, has his own radio show in Hattiesburg, Miss., while he also learned the art of soldiering. His father had been a medic with a balloon company in World War I, and Duncan also was trained as a medic. Instead of carrying guns, he carried a litter and emergency medical supplies. Rather than learning how to shoot, he learned how to give injections.

On Jan. 10, 1945, his outfit, the 65th Infantry Division, sailed for Le Havre, France, out of New York Harbor. During the voyage, at the request of the ship’s special services officer, he sang show tunes for the troops, accompanied by a banjo and a portable organ. The music helped calm everyone’s nerves amid reports that the troopship ahead of theirs had been sunk by German U-boats. As it happened, he and his fellow soldiers faced an even more titanic foe.

“After several days at sea,” Duncan remembered, “we were slammed with one of the fiercest storms ever to hit the North Atlantic. It was as if we were inside a giant sea monster going through its final death convulsions after being caught in an evil net. I thought all the welds and rivets holding the ship together would be ripped apart. I was petrified and wailed to myself, ‘I don’t want to die. Dear God, let this end.””

God must have been occupied when Duncan issued his plea for deliverance because the storm grew worse.

“To prevent us from being washed overboard, we were locked below decks,” Duncan continued. “I had visions of being entombed at the bottom of the sea. Sickness added to our wretched misery. There wasn’t a soldier that could keep from puking, and it often happened without warning. Because the ship was lurching so violently, we hung onto our bunks for dear life, lest we fall victim to serious falls or be thrown about like a bowling ball hitting ten pins in a bowling alley. No one slept that night, a night that struck terror in us all.”

Duncan’s descriptions are lush and dramatic, but you have to remember his breeding and culture. This is a man who can sing “La Boheme” or “La Traviata” in four different languages.

Duncan was finally garrisoned at “Camp Lucky Strike,” named after a popular cigarette of the day. On his way, he recalled soldiers working on the roadway shouting, “You’ll be sorry.” He quickly found out why.

“Several other names would have the place just as well,” Duncan said. “Camp Mucky Strike, Camp Muck ‘n’ Mire, Camp Goo, Camp Quagmire, Camp Bog, The Mud Sea, The Slog Bog, Camp Slip and Slide, and Camp Mud in Your Pie are a few that come to mind.

“Mud? Deep? It didn’t do any good to put up boundaries or pathways,” Duncan continued. “If you didn’t watch your step, you would disappear altogether. Somehow, chocolate pudding didn’t appeal to me for years after that.”

The camp’s hygiene suffered as well.

“A 20-gallon drum placed outside the entrance served as our toilet at night,” Duncan said. “For acoustic reasons it was called the ‘thunder mug,” and the weather made us go so often, it was in continuous use.”

In such conditions, it’s hard to believe one could conduct a war or have any semblance of a normal life. Duncan tried. Like Walt Disney who sketched in World War I, Duncan kept his duffel bag in the barracks half-stuffed with sheet music.

“Do you think, I didn’t want to sing,” he asked. “I received opera scores while was in combat. When I added those to the music that was already inside the bag, it became very heavy and I almost needed a truck to carry it. Singing was balm for my being. I hate to think of what my life would have been without it.

In 1945, the Germans were in retreat, but the Wehrmacht fought even harder. On March 18, 1945, Duncan’s unit was pinned down by German 88s at Saarlautern, Germany. The area was supposed to have been cleared. So much for army intelligence.

“That first night we went out, we were attacked by German 88s,” Duncan said. “Quite frankly, it became a big hullabaloo. They were supposed to be gone, but they weren’t.”

During the battle, an aid man in his detachment, Frederick Murphy, was wounded in the right shoulder, but refused to withdraw for treatment. Like Duncan, he was trained to provide aid, not receive it. Under heavy machinegun, mortar and artillery fire, the company suffered more and more casualties, while Murphy, who also stepped on a mine which severed one of his feet, pressed on crawling from man to man administering aid. Murphy was finally killed by another mine blast.

Private Murphy

Private Murphy

 “We had to dig our way through the field to get to soldiers who were dead,” Duncan said. “One of those soldiers he reached was Murphy.” Murphy later received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his uncommon valor.

Despite the deprivation and sheer terror of war, Duncan was better for the trials he endured.

“Being in the army was the greatest experience I ever had, except combat, of course. I didn’t enjoy combat,” he said. While at sea, he learned the United States had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, where he was next preparing to deploy. Instead he was headed home.

“When we heard the news, everything changed in a flash,” Duncan recalled. “Feelings of joy, delight, and rapture swept through the ship like bolts of electricity. The soldiers yelled so loud, it swelled like thunder. I felt as if I had won a reprieve from a firing squad.

“’It’s over. Wow. It’s over!’” I kept repeating. “My emotions were uncontrollable and I visualized myself reaching my goal of singing at the Metropolitan Opera, a goal I had set for my life before the war intervened.”

Back in the states, Duncan learned about the American Operatic Lab, a school established in Hollywood by the GI Bill.

“It was better than anything I could have ever dreamed of,” Duncan said.

He started voice lessons there immediately, working on as many as four different operas at a time. “I could attend classes of an opera like ‘Madame Butterfly’, and then go to another room and rehearse ‘Rigoletto,’” he said.

As much as he enjoyed filling rooms and auditoriums with his big powerful voice, he loved listening to others, as well. “I especially enjoyed hearing so many singers, some with great voices,” Duncan said. “I heard them in all stages of development and it was a special thrill when someone sang so well that they electrified everyone, especially when it was unexpected.”

Duncan equally thrilled listeners. He mastered 25 operatic roles and sang with the Los Angeles Opera Guild and Los Angeles Conservatory of Music.  e married in 1951 and in 1952 he was invited to audition before the great Sol Hurok at Carnegie Hall. While there, he won the coveted Blanche Thebom award over more than 2,000 hopefuls.

After hearing him perform, Hurok said, “I’m taking charge of your career. I compliment you on your sensational voice.”

“I danced, jumped up and down and clapped my had all the way out to the car where my wife Elaine was waiting,” Duncan said. “It was Roman candles, sky rockets, twenty-one gun salutes, Mardi Gras, the Fourth of July, VE and VJ day all rolled into one. Elaine exploded with happiness when I told her about the promises Sol Hurok had made.”

Duncan felt like he was on top of the Empire State Building. “That time of my life was absolute magic,” he reflected.

Not even magic lasts forever, however. Show time eventually ends – even it really never had a chance to take off. Like an actor in great demand, he was advised by his handlers not to accept certain roles. Money at the time wasn’t a problem. Elaine’s in-laws were wealthy, so the couple, or so they thought, had the luxury of time on their side.

In 1956, Duncan signed to perform with the Vienna opera (Staatsoper). For the next three years, he learned the seamier, less romantic business side of the art, where the intrigues and machinations occurring behind the curtains can easily equal any on-stage dramatics. Signing a contract doesn’t necessarily entitle a performer to a major role, despite the promises and assurances of producers. His performances and auditions continued to draw rave reviews, but the path to a long and heralded career was like that earlier battlefield he once crossed, filled with minefields.

Duncan also faced new pressures, including his wife’s growing restlessness about the course of his career. He was increasingly being stage-managed when all he wanted was to sing, even if in lesser roles. Eventually, his health suffered. Flu and laryngitis stressed his vocal cords, until his powerful voice had been reduced to a whisper. He had pushed and strained his voice too much. The truth was, in his deteriorating health, he could no longer perform at the heart-stopping ranges that had once been so easy and natural for him. When his Italian doctor informed his employers that he needed more time for his voice would sufficiently recover, the Vienna opera fired him. In 1959, he and Elaine returned to the states.

“It was really hard for me to give up singing,” Duncan conceded. “I would have done things differently if had known then what I know now.”

What he hadn’t known at the time was that he was suffering from the early stages of thyrotoxicosis, a rare thyroid disease that was only diagnosed when a doctor to whom he was giving voice lessons in Encino grew concerned about his teacher’s hoarseness and ordered him to the hospital to be examined.

“I never got back on the stage, Duncan said. “I didn’t get back my voice for several years.”

In the next half-century (yes, his life has been that full), he divorced and remarried to a wonderful woman named Eydie, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is a church organist like his mother. They have performed together many times. Her birthday is on Nov. 4, Election Day, a subject (politics) that he follows closely.

“How can you help not follow it,” he said wryly.

In his life’s second half, he worked as an inspector for Loud Engineering and Engineering in Ontario and as a financial representative for A.L. Williams Financial Services in Glendora. He also loved repairing and reconditioning old furniture, christening them as antiques, giving them a new lease on life.

Ah, some of the stories those refurbished pieces could tell, like a certain Duncan MacLeod who has straddled two centuries filling the world with his songs, service and sunny memories.

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