©Copyright 2021 Jari Villanueva TapsBugler
All Rights Reserved
FRANK WITCHEY, BUGLER
The first bugler to sound Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
On November 11, 1921, an Army bugler sounded the call of Taps on the plaza of the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, bringing to a close the ceremonies for the burial of the Unknown Soldier of World War I. The interment of an Unknown Soldier from the “Great War” was an idea started after the interments of Unknowns in Great Britain and France in November, 1920.
After World War I ended, Great Britain and France each repatriated and buried one Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day, November 11, 1920. Great Britain buried its Unknown Warrior inside Westminster Abbey in London, and France buried its Unknown Soldier at the base of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
These Unknowns would stand in for other British and French service members whose remains could not be identified. The large and impressive ceremonies for the French and British Unknowns led to a desire to honor an American Soldier in the same way.
On December 21, 1920, Representative Hamilton Fish III of New York introduced H. J. Resolution 426 (Public Resolution 67) in the 66th Congress, which provided for the return to the United States the remains of an unknown American Soldier killed in France during World War I and for interment of his remains in a tomb to be built outside the newly constructed Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
In spite of delays brought on by the suggestions of alternative locations for the burial spot, concerns about not being able to find an unknown, and the change in administrations, Congress approved the resolution on March 4, 1921. In the last hours of his presidency, Woodrow Wilson signed House Resolution 67 into law.
On November 11, 1921 the Unknown Soldier from World War I was interred at Arlington National Cemetery with great ceremony. Here is a video of the Unknown Soldier’s journey from France to Arlington National Cemetery.
The bugler chosen to sound Taps at the ceremony was Sergeant Frank Witchey, Headquarters Bugler, 3rd United States Cavalry Regiment. Witchey was born in Iuka, Kansas (some records say Kansas City Kansas, and some, Kansas City, Missouri) on September 11, 1891. Witchey’s father, John (December 27, 1857-December 19, 1939) was a native of Switzerland who first settled in Mahanoy City, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania about 1885 and moved to Kansas where three of his children were born, including his son Frank. Frank’s mother was Dehlia Bridget Ryan Witchey (September 1, 1861-April 20, 1915). The family returned to Mahanoy City around 1896. 1900 census records lists the family living at 424 West South Alley in Mahanoy City. There are five children listed including the third child, Benjamin F. , a son. It may be Frank was originally named Benjamin Franklin. Ancestry.com lists Benjamin Franklin Witchey as being born in Chetopa, Kansas on September 11, 1891. Hopefully a birth certificate or family Bible might clear it up. Witchey started playing bugles and trumpets when he was nine years old.
Witchey was tall, standing at 6 feet , 1 inch weighing around 200 pounds. He is described as having a ruddy complexion with dark eyes and hair.
Witchey enlisted in the 3rd United States Cavalry Regiment on March 30, 1908 at Fort Slocum, New York. He was 16 at the time but the Army allowed the recruitment of young buglers. The 3rd U.S. Cavalry Regiment was originally formed in 1846 as the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen. The unit served in the Mexican war and in 1861 the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen was re-numbered the 3rd U.S. Cavalry Regiment. The 3rd also served during the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines. The Regiment remained in the United States until December 1905, when it was again ordered to the Philippines for peacetime occupation duty. It remained there until 1908, when it was ordered home and stationed in Texas.
From Fort Slocum, Witchey was sent to Fort Clark, Texas. He was assigned as a cornet player in the 3rd Cavalry (Mounted ) Band. The following nine years were spent in garrison and patrolling the Mexican border. During World War I the 3rd served in France and was charged with the purchase of horses, mules and forage, the care, conditioning, and training of remounts before issue, and the distribution and issue of remounts to the American Expeditionary Force. One of the squadrons saw action during the war. Witchey was in France serving 23 months overseas. He was at Chateau Thierry where he was slightly wounded. He was stationed at Bourbonne-les-Bains located about 200 miles east of Paris. Witchey continued to play the cornet and was the band bugler and promoted to Band Sergeant on December 21, 1917.
After the war, the 2nd squadron of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment was stationed at Fort Myer Virginia. Because of its proximity to Washington and Arlington National Cemetery, the Regiment was frequently called upon to furnish honor guards and escorts for ceremonies and funeral escorts for distinguished civilian officials and military personnel. It became known as the “President’s Own” because of these duties. Until 1941 the Regiment provided the Honor Guard detail at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Witchey was named the Regimental Bugler (he was assigned to Headquarters Troop) in August , 1919 and sounded calls on the post along with funeral duties in Arlington.
During his time at Fort Myer, Witchey became friends with General (then LTC) Jonathan Wainwright when Wainwright was first assigned to the 3rd Cavalry. Mrs. Margaret Witchey recalled that Wainwright had given her husband a white (gray) horse which he rode in many parades on Pennsylvania Ave.
On July 20, 1920 Witchey married Margaret Murphy of Mahanoy City. The marriage took place at the chapel at Fort Myer. She had been employed by the Federal government. They were to have four children (Francis, Francis Michael, Margaret, and Donald). Francis died in infancy. Francis Michael and Donald served in the military (Air Force and Navy) and Margaret married an Army Lt Colonel. All are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
FRANK WITHEY AND THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
Sgt. Witchey sounded Taps at the interment of the Unknown Soldier on November 11, 1921, with President Harding presiding. Although I cannot find documentation to the effect, it was reported Witchey was picked by General Pershing to sound Taps for the ceremony.
During the ceremony, Witchey sounded the call Attention three times starting an observance of two minutes of silence. To conclude the ceremony, he sounded Taps.
A unique aspect of the ceremony was the use of the new louder speakers installed at the Memorial Amphitheater which enabled the voice of President Harding and others plus the sound of Witchey’s bugle to be heard by the thousands attending the burial service. Also, radio carried the ceremony across the country marking the first time the President’s voice reached multitudes in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
Witchey was to go on to sound Taps for the funerals of President Woodrow Wilson, President Howard Taft, Lt. General Nelson A. Miles, Lt. General S. B. M. Young, Major General Leonard Wood and Colonel William Jennings Bryan. He also sounded Taps for Calvin Coolidge Jr., the son of President Calvin Coolidge, who passed away from blood poisoning at the age of 16. In some newspaper articles it is stated Witchey was the bugler who sounded Taps for President Harding who died suddenly in 1923, although I cannot find additional information from official records as to who sounded Taps for Harding. The 3rd US Cavalry did support the funeral with an escort from Union Station to the White House and then to the US Capitol.
After sounding Taps for the Unknown Soldier, Witchey became somewhat of a celebrity. He is mentioned in numerous newspapers during the 1920s and 30s. Many articles refer to him as the “most famous bugler” of the War Department. During the 1920s and 30s up to his retirement in 1938, Witchey sounded Taps hundreds of times for funerals in Arlington and at services at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Bugling duty was the mission of the 3rd Cavalry until the United States Army Band (Pershing’s Own), which was formed in 1922, gradually assumed ceremonial duties in Arlington. The 3rd Cavalry Regiment left Fort Myer in 1942 to become a mechanized unit in Georgia. In 1948 the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment was reactivated to assume ceremonial duties in Washington DC. They have guarded the Tomb since.
For many years Witchey sounded Taps for The American War Mothers, an organization founded in 1917 whose members are mothers of children who have served or are serving in the Armed Services during a time of conflict. He would sound the calls for them on Mothers Day, Memorial Day and Armistice Day ceremonies at Arlington and the United States Capitol.
According to records in the Office of the Architect of the U.S. Capitol, the American War Mothers flag was purchased and first flown over the U.S. Capitol, always below the American flag, on Armistice Day, November 11, 1926. The authority for flying that flag over the U.S. Capitol on this occasion and in subsequent years has been granted annually by written permission of the Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Provision for the ceremony was further recognized when the flagpole on the east front, after the extension of 1960, was installed with two halyards.
Traditionally the flag has been raised at 11 minutes after 11 a.m. by a detail from the Capitol Police. The flag flies until sundown, although originally it flew only for three hours. A bugler selected from one of the armed services sounds Taps.
Interesting enough, the author did this ceremony twice in the late 1980s as a member of the USAF Band.
The 3rd Cavalry made uniforms to commemorate their service during the 1840s. Witchey had a musician’s uniform made with a red sash and saber. The uniform has the musician’s braid (called a birdcage) on the front and the inverted chevrons indicating his rank. It is interesting to note the U.S. Army Band (Pershing’s Own) would adopt the inverted rank on their re-designed tunics in the 1970s.
There are many photographs of Witchey taken between 1921 and 1938. He was asked to perform for many ceremonies at the Tomb as well as at ceremonies around Washington and even up in Baltimore. He is featured in an ad for a “Keystone State” Parade Bugle (Legion or Legionnaire bugle).
In 1932 Witchey sounded Taps for William Hushka who was an immigrant from Lithuania who, when the U.S. entered World War I, sold his butcher shop in St. Louis and enlisted at the age of 22 as a private in the 41st Infantry. In the summer of 1932 Hushka, along with thousands of WWI veterans, came to Washington, DC. The so-called “Bonus Army” was comprised of veterans seeking an early distribution of the bonus that was promised to them by the government to help alleviate the impact of the Great Depression. Unfortunately, tensions escalated and the army was called out to quell the disturbances.
Hushka and Eric Carlson, a veteran from Oakland, California who fought in the trenches of France, were shot and killed by a policeman.
In May 1937, Frank Witchey was promoted to the rank of Technical Sergeant. The promotion is signed by the commander of the 3rd Cavalry, Colonel onathan Wainwright. Although his promotion was one year before his retirement, he was still referred to as a Staff Sergeant in many newspaper articles.
One of his comrades in the 3rd Cavalry said at the time of Witchey’s retirement that he was at his best in blowing Taps. “Not many people were dry-eyed when he got through,” said the soldier. Another trooper remembered, “He could sound Boots and Saddles in such a way as to send even the greenest recruits off at a dead run.”
On his retirement, the orders of the day included a supplement of Colonel Jonathan Wainwright, Commander of the 3rd Cavalry:
“Sergeant Witchey has proved himself a soldier typical of the finest traditions of the service. Throughout his thirty years, all in this regiment, his career has been marked by his unselfish devotion to duty. His capability and his loyalty to the regiment and his superior officers are beyond question. His record of service is one of which to be proud, and has been marked by commendations not only from his superiors but by many patriotic organizations throughout the United States. The Regimental Commander desires to extend to sergeant Witchey on his well-earned retirement the best wishes of the officers and enlisted men of the regiment.”
By order of Colonel of (Jonathan) Wainwright
T.Q. Donaldson, Jr., Captain, 3rd Cavalry
Witchey was given a full review on his retirement. The new Chief of Cavalry, General John Knowles Herr said Witchey looked too young to retire. Witchey would have retired with a Mater Sergeant’s pension of $135 per month but a new War Department order in December 1937 effected his retirement rank making him retire at Technical Sergeant rank with a pension of $94 a month. Witchey said the loss of the pension was the only bad break he got.
Colonel Wainwright also signed a personal photograph to Sergeant Witchey calling him a friend. Jonathan Wainwright would go on to command Allied forces in the Philippines at the time Japan surrendered to the United States, during World War II. He would spend 3 years as a POW. Wainwright was a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his courageous leadership during the fall of the Philippines.
On June 30, 1938 Witchey appeared on the Rudy Vallee national radio show. Vallee asked him about his career in the Army and of his time during WWI in France. He then asked Witchey to run through the day’s routine of bugle calls beginning with First Call, Reveille, Mess, Assembly, Charge and Taps.
In 1938 Witchey was named as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) National Trumpeter.
After his retirement from the Army, the Witchey’s stayed in the Arlington VA area. He worked as a guard at the US State Department. In September 1945 Witchey entered Walter Reed Hospital for a check-up and passed away from heart disease on September 30, 1945. On October 4, 1945 Witchey was buried with military honors in Section 18 of Arlington National Cemetery. Tech. Sgt. John Tunney a 25 year-old from San Francisco sounded Taps. As reported in a newspaper, family and friends attended the service.
THE BUGLE USED BY FRANK WITCHEY
The bugle used by Sergeant Witchey was the one originally issued to him by the Army. It is a M1892 field trumpet in G. It was made by Reiffel & Husted of Chicago and is marked USQMC (US Quartermaster Corps) on the bell along with the manufacturer’s name R&H Chicago. Reiffel & Husted was a silversmith business started by Phillip Reiffel and John Husted. Between 1917 and 1918 they produced bugles for the army under contract for use during World War I. Reiffel & Husted manufactured the M1892 G field trumpet and the M1894 Bb bugle which are marked “R&H Chicago”
The day after he sounded Taps for the Unknown Soldier on November 11, 1921, he purchased the bugle from the Quartermaster for $2.50. He had the instrument gold-plated and had the following engraved on the bell:
“Taps sounded over the body of Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, November 11, 1921 by Staff Sergeant Frank Witchey, of Headquarters Troop. Third U.S. Cavalry. Fort Myer, VA. Heard through amplifier at New York and San Francisco.”
He was to add two other important ceremonies at which it was used:
General Nelson A. Miles
May 19th 1925
Arlington National Cemetery
William Jennings Bryan
July 31st, 1925
Arlington National Cemetery
In 1927 a collector offered $1,500 for the bugle but he refused to sell.
THE TABARD USED AT WWI UNKNOWN BURIAL
A tabard (also known as a bugle banner) is a piece of silk that is connected to a bugle with a cord. Tabards were authorized by War Department Circular No. 181 on July 12, 1921. The tabard was described as a rectangular banner of silk or cloth hanging from the crook of a bugle or trumpet. The design and size of the tabard depended upon whether the regiment was authorized a coat of Arms or badge. Sergeant Witchey used several tabards over the course of his career at Arlington. The tabard above is the one he used at the burial of the Unknown Soldier on November 11, 1921.
After Witchey’s death the bugle went missing. In the 1961 the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, now stationed at Fort George G. Meade near Washington DC, began searching for the bugle which they wanted for inclusion in their museum. Articles appeared in the Baltimore Sun along with other publications in an attempt to locate the bugle.
In the late summer of the 1961 they located the bugle in the possession of Mr. Melvin White, a tax consultant in Alexandria, VA who said Witchey had sold him the bugle. Mrs. Witchey had said the bugle was given away years before. The bugle was presented to Colonel Donald H. Cowles, the commander of the 3rd Armored Regiment and placed in the museum.
It has been in the regimental museum since.
The bugle that was used to sound Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on November 11, 1921 is currently on display at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. It will be there for several months starting November 2021
OTHER WITCHEY BUGLES
The author had the opportunity to visit Mr. Michael Mimna, Grandson of Frank Witchey and receive some photos and artifacts.
Two bugles were handed down from the family. The first is the M1894 B flat bugle commonly called a Trench Bugle. This is an unmarked model that is of pre-WWI manufacturer. It may of been a bugle used by Witchey during his early years.
The second on is a M1894 trumpet (bugle) in G. This bugle is commonly called a “Boy Scout Bugle” and has been the model used well over 120 years. The bugle is brass and is marked CONN U.S.Q.M.C. (United States Quartermaster Corps). The mouthpiece is a 1920s era Vincent Bach trumpet mouthpiece. Bugles made by Conn (C.G. Conn manufactured musical instruments starting in 1876) had a cornet receiver and this bugle looks to have had some work done on it to enable a trumpet mouthpiece to fit. There are photos of Witchey using another bugle besides the famous gold-plated one and the author believes this was his secondary bugle. Since it comes directly from the family there is no doubt in our mind this is a bugle used by Frank Witchey.
Other items include a whistle, a leather cartridge box, American Legion pins and tie, his Elgin watch, boots worn by Witchey, and four large scrapbooks of newspaper articles, letters and programs from various events.
TAPS AT THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
Staff Sergeant Frank Witchey began a one hundred-year tradition of Taps sounded at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. To this day, Taps is heard at the Tomb performed by buglers from the premier bands in Washington DC. I was honored to perform this task on a few occasions. Of my time with the United States Air Force Band, these were the most memorable and honored duty I was tasked with.
To read more about Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the duties of the Army Buglers who sound the call each day, read:
In 1958, the Unknown Soldier of World War I was joined by the Unknowns from World War II and the Korean Conflict. They were buried on the plaza on Memorial Day, 1958. Sergeant First Class George Myers of the US Army Band (Pershing’s Own) sounded Taps. On May 30, 1984 an Unknown from the Vietnam War was buried on the plaza. The bugler who sounded Taps was Sergeant Major Patrick Mastroleo of the US Army Band. Both Myers and Mastroleo are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 34 near the grave of General John “Black Jack” Pershing.
The Vietnam Unknown was later identified as Air Force Lieutenant Richard Blassie and reburied at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri. My connection to this is my arrangement of “Goin’ Home” that was played by the US Army Band as the casket was moved from the Tomb to a waiting hearse during the dis-interment ceremony in May, 1998.
The crypt is now marked with the words “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen 1958-1975” as a reminder of the commitment of the Armed Forces to the fullest possible accounting of missing service members.
On November 7, 2021 Taps For Veterans will honor the centennial of the Unknown Soldier and commemorate the sounding of Taps at the Tomb for 100 years. At a special ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery we will remember the lives of Frank Witchey, George Myers, and Patrick Mastroleo as well as all the buglers who sounded the call over the past century.
My sincere thanks to the family of Frank Witchey especially Mr. Michael Mimna, Mr. Steve Witchey and Susan Witchey.
Jari Villanueva is considered the country’s foremost authority on U.S. military bugle calls, especially the call of Taps. He retired from the United States Air Force after serving 23 years as a bugler at Arlington National Cemetery. He was responsible for moving the bugle used at President Kennedy’s funeral from the Smithsonian Institute to Arlington, was behind the 150th anniversary ceremonies of Taps in 2012, instrumental in having Taps designated as the National Song of Remembrance, and is currently involved with Taps For Veterans, an organization that helps provide live buglers for military funerals. Villanueva is the author of “Twenty-Four Notes That Tap Deep Emotions: The Story of America’s Most Famous Bugle Call” and is featured on the CD “Day is Done: Music Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of Taps.” He retired after serving nine years as the Director of the Maryland National Guard Honor Guard and lives in Catonsville. Maryland. His website is www.TapsBugler.com