TAPS AT THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
Jari Villanueva, Master Sergeant (retired) USAF BAND
© Copyright 2021 Jari Villanueva TapsBugler.com
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sits majestically on a hill in Arlington National Cemetery overlooking Washington DC. Under the marble sarcophagus lies an Unknown Soldier from World War I. Directly in front, beneath the words “Here Lies In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God”, lie two more Unknown Soldiers, one from World War II, the other from the Korean Conflict. In between lies an empty crypt that held the remains of the Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War who was identified after DNA examination. 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.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded by Soldiers of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) stationed at Fort Myer, adjacent to the Cemetery. Since assuming the task of guarding the Tomb in 1948 these Tomb Guards have kept constant vigil at the Tomb every hour of the day, every day of the year. The Tomb has not been unguarded since 1937. The Old Guard (a name given to the regiment by General Winfield Scott during the Mexican War in 1847) took over the duties of guarding the Tomb as well as providing ceremonial support to the President and Arlington National Cemetery from the 2nd Regiment, 3rd United States Cavalry following World War II.
The 3rd Cavalry Regiment had provided ceremonial support at Arlington since World War I. Those Cavalry Troopers provided the ceremonial unit at the first interment of the Unknown Soldier of World War I. They were also tasked with guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier between 1926 and 1942 when it was felt that a proper military sentinel was appropriate for such an honored place. Indeed, if one looks at photos of soldiers guarding the Tomb during this time, you will note the spurs worn by the Cavalry Troopers.
The bugle call of Taps has had a long association with Arlington National Cemetery. Today it is sounded at the many daily interments at Arlington as well as at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when a wreath is presented in honor of the Unknowns by the many military, veteran, civic, fraternal, school and other organizations that travel to Washington to pay homage. It is also sounded at memorial services and ceremonies held in the cemetery. It is difficult to visit Arlington and not hear the 24 notes of the call sounded by a military bugler from one of the four premier military bands stationed in the national capital region.
Taps originated during the American Civil War, first replacing the regulation call for Extinguish Lights (Lights Out) in 1862, and then later gaining an association with military funerals by the end of the war. The call was usually sounded after the three volleys of rifles were fired. This practice was performed at military funerals following the Civil War and put into regulation in 1891. The first burials at Arlington took place in 1864 but no one knows exactly when Taps was first sounded at a graveside ceremony.
Certainly by the 1870s Taps was part of the military ritual at funerals and gradually became part of memorial services. The first Memorial Day observances at Arlington were held on May 30th, 1868. There is no written record of Taps being sounded as part of that ceremony but as years went on, Taps became an important part of the annual program. There are newspaper accounts of Taps being sounded at this annual event around the turn of the century. The buglers were from the local infantry units, US Marine Band or Cavalry Regiments stationed at Fort Myer.
Taps is the only bugle call that has a dual purpose. It is our National Song of Farewell, designated by Congress, sounded at military funerals and memorial services and it still is used in its original intent-as the lights out call in the evening. Today Taps is sounded (usually played on a recording) on every US military base around the world to close out the evening. The call can be heard at Arlington in the evening at 11 PM as the notes drift over the headstones of military personnel who once went to sleep with the bugle sound in their ears.
Military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery are supported by the bands in Washington DC. Those musical units include The United States Army Band (Pershing’s Own), The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, The United States Marine Band (The President’s Own), The United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps (The Commandant’s Own), The United States Navy Band, and The United States Air Force Band. Coast Guard funerals are musically supported by the Navy Band or contract bugler. (The Coast Guard Band is located in Connecticut)
Bands are used in Full Honor funerals to lead a procession through Arlington that includes a military commander, escort troops, casket bearers, chaplains and a horse drawn caisson. The bands play on the march (with muffled drum cadences) and perform appropriate hymns as the flag-draped casket is moved to the grave and as the flag is being folded following Taps. Taps is sounded by a bandsman who steps out from the formation to render the honor.
For Standard Honors funerals a bugler sounds Taps. Standard Honors (once referred to as Simple Honors) do not include all of the portions of a Full Honors funeral but include the basic elements of a military funeral service- casket bearers, a firing party of rifles, a chaplain and a bugler. As in every ceremony, the call is sounded following the three volleys before the flag is folded and presented to the next of kin.
An important duty for military bands are the ceremonies held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb is the domain of the US Army. Being the senior service, it is charged with the responsibility of guarding the Unknown Soldiers and providing buglers to sound Taps at ceremonies held on the plaza. Buglers are selected from members of The United States Army Band. These buglers sound Taps at the many wreath ceremonies held daily. Usually done in two shifts (morning and afternoon) they report to the Sergeant of the Guard or Relief Commander under the Memorial Amphitheater. The Tomb Guards have an area located in the basement of the Memorial Amphitheater Display Room where they train and prepare for their daily missions. It is here where the bugler will prepare for a ceremony on the plaza. Many buglers bring their band jacket (the US Army Band wears a unique eight-button frock adorned with special insignia and chevrons and a scarlet cap) on a hanger in a plastic travel bag and bring along essentials for the day-a lint brush, polishing cloth for the bugle, and a practice mute for warming up. The Tomb Guard has impeccable standards and the buglers strive to make sure they are presentable to the public when they follow the Sentinel onto the plaza for a wreath ceremony.
The Army Buglers at the Tomb are addressed as “Sergeant B” and are respected by the Tomb Guard for what they bring to the mission in terms of their musical skill. There is a mutual respect and admiration between the Tomb Guards and “Sergeant B”. In addition to sounding Taps, the buglers assist with moving the wreath to be presented at ceremonies.
When a service related ceremony is held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (for example, a wreath laying ceremony by the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force) that branch will provide the ceremonial support. This would include a platoon of military personnel from the respective service and their band. These type of services are considered Full Honors wreath ceremonies. The band will play a national anthem if the presenter represents a foreign nation, followed by the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Once the wreath is presented there is the customary beating of four muffled ruffles on the drum and the sounding of Taps. For this Taps, the bugler comes from the service branch performing the ceremony. As an Air Force Ceremonial Trumpeter, I had the honor of sounding Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on several occasions for a Full Honors wreath ceremony.
It is a duty not taken lightly. Sounding Taps might be interpreted as a pretty easy chore considering the fact it’s a short call. As the late author and collector Roy Hempley wrote, “Taps is a simple tune, but it is not easy to play with the appropriate combination of beauty, emotion and serenity demanded by these occasions. Each bugler develops his or her style within limits defined by military custom and good taste. A not-so-obvious fact, however, is that buglers sometimes must render this solemn symbol of mourning under the most difficult circumstances, which might include hot or cold weather, rain, etc. There is no room for error regardless of the demands.” I have always considered sounding Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as the military musicians equivalent of playing Carnegie Hall. It is the place where the most pressure of performance is placed.
Sounding Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is an honor open only to military musicians and specifically to those members of one of the premier military bands in Washington. But that has not always been the case. At the turn of the 20th Century, funerals at Arlington were supported by Soldiers stationed at Fort Myer, Fort Hunt and the Army War College at Washington Arsenal, now Fort McNair. Fort Myer was the home to Cavalry units that provided ceremonial support in the nation’s capital. The 15th United States Cavalry provided troops for funeral escorts and burials at Arlington around the turn of the century. When the 3rd United States Cavalry Regiment was moved to Fort Myer following World War I, ceremonial duty was assumed by members of the unit including band support from the 3rd Cavalry (Mounted) Band.
The 3rd Cavalry Regiment along with other units provided ceremonial support for the internment of the Unknown Soldier on November 11, 1921. The bugler chosen to sound Taps for the World War I Unknown Soldier was Sergeant Frank Witchey, the Headquarters Trumpeter (Bugler) for the Regiment. Witchey enlisted in the 3rd United States Cavalry Regiment (“Brave Rifles”) on March 30, 1908 at Ft. Clark Texas. He was 16 at the time but the Army allowed the recruitment of young buglers. He served his entire time with the 3rd. He had a reputation for being the best bugler in the regiment and would go on to complete a 30-year career. After sounding Taps for the Unknown Soldier, Witchey became somewhat of a celebrity. He is mentioned in numerous newspapers during the 1920s. 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 at Arlington hundreds of times for funerals and services at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He would go on to sound Taps at the funerals of Presidents Woodrow Wilson (1923), Howard Taft (1930) and other high profile individuals. Witchey was photographed many times during this time sounding Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier along with other buglers in the 3rd Cavalry who supported ceremonies and funerals at Arlington.
The 3rd Cavalry Regiment along with the 12th United States Infantry Regiment (both stationed at Fort Myer) began the mission of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1926 replacing a civilian watchman who had been posted during the day since November 17, 1925. Incredible as it seems, there was no military guard in the early years of the Tomb’s existence due to resistance to provide Soldiers for this duty. During the years the 3rd Cavalry guarded the Tomb, their uniform was marked by the wearing of spurs on their boots. In April 1932, the original Tomb was completed with a large white marble sarcophagus. Originally set as a daylight duty the guard was extended to a 24 hour watch at midnight July 2, 1937. It has remained so ever since.
With the movement of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment from Fort Myer to Fort Benning Georgia in 1942, The United States Army Band began to support funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. A detachment called “The Funeral Band” started to perform at ceremonies in the cemetery. Because of space limitations at the Army War College where The Army Band was housed, the 28 member “Advance Detachment of The Army Band” moved to Fort Myer. This unit provided a band for funerals in Arlington and buglers for ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as for funeral honors in the cemetery.
The Army Band did support Presidential wreath laying ceremonies beginning with President Franklin Roosevelt. On Memorial Day, 1933, President Roosevelt began a formal wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that has continued on to this day. President Roosevelt also traveled there on Armistice Day (November 11) to deliver addresses and lay a wreath.
In 1936, the President was accompanied by General John Pershing and Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson to lay a wreath. Pershing would return many times to visit the Tomb before his death in 1948. At his funeral service the funeral procession stopped on the plaza one last time for the General of The Armies.
Interesting enough, despite the fact ceremonial duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was provided by Soldiers from Fort Myer, there is photographic evidence that suggests that trumpeters from The United States Army Band were called on to sound Taps for ceremonies on the plaza in the 1930s, notably after Franklin Roosevelt took office. Although the 3rd Cavalry Regiment was to remain at Fort Myer until 1942, trumpeters of The Army Band sounded Taps for Presidential wreath ceremonies. The author heard a story from the late collector and bugle historian Jack Carter that Roosevelt was not pleased with a bugler and ordered the Army Band to supply one for ceremonies he attended. This may be apocryphal and the author is looking for any supporting documentation.
When the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment was reactivated in 1948 they assumed ceremonial duties as escort to the President as well as providing soldiers for military funerals at Arlington and establishing the Tomb Guard as we know it today.
The United States Army Band (Pershing’s Own) had been providing buglers for services at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a decision was made to continue the tradition of using valve-less bugles. The bugle has been the traditional signal instrument in the United States Army since the Revolutionary War. It went through several design changes before settling on the one used today. Unfortunately there were no quality instruments to be had during the 1930s and 40s. The M1892 G Field Trumpet was inadequate and trumpeters from the band used the French styled Clairon as an alternative during the 1930s. These large belled bugles are pitched in the key of B-Flat and have a superior sound to the M1892s that are pitched in G. These Clairons came into use during World War I and General Pershing had ordered their use, replacing the smaller M1894 Bugle (known as Trench Bugles) during the 1920s and 30s.
After World War II, members of the United States Army Band approached Vincent Bach, the renown trumpet manufacturer, with the idea of producing special bugles pitched in B-Flat to be used for ceremonies at the Tomb and for funerals in Arlington. Bach had been producing bugles since 1926 but was happy to manufacture a special bugle (referred to as a field trumpet) for the Army.
Correspondence exists between Vincent Bach and Army Band buglers George Mitchell and George Myers in 1950 although Bach may have made a prototype by 1947. Gold plated bugles were to be made for use by the Army Band by the Vincent Bach Corporation and are still in use today for ceremonies at the Tomb.
For more information on the history of “Mr. Bach’s Bugles” please visit:
During the 1920s and early 30s many organizations came to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to pay their respects and lay a wreath. Groups like the American Legion and Boys Scouts brought their own buglers who sounded Taps. Since there were no regulations regarding the sounding of Taps, many buglers were allowed to sound the call at the Tomb.
In 1957 an American Legion bugler made the claim of being the first civilian to sound Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Milton Peters, a World War I veteran from Alliance Ohio sounded the call in a ceremony at the Tomb. In 1996 Dale Sprosty, a Korean War Veteran from Mount Pleasant Michigan, sought to sound Taps at the Tomb. His request came to Arlington through his Congressman, Representative Dave Camp. A compromise was made to sound Taps at the Civil War Unknown Tomb located near the Arlington House (the Custis-Lee Mansion).
By the 1970s no outside performers were allowed to sound Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or military burials in the cemetery. To be sure, there have been rare occasions (extremely rare) when an exception has been made at a military funeral service in Arlington but no civilian bugler is allowed to sound Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier today.
As the number of wreath ceremonies increased in the 1960s and 70s, the Army Band posted a bugler each day at the tomb to sound Taps. These wreath laying ceremonies are held in between the changing of the guard. During the summer months and especially around Memorial Day and Veterans Day, these ceremonies increase in number. Thanks to the internet, many videos are posted online of buglers sounding the 24 notes.
To the general public, hearing Taps sounded on the plaza in front of the Memorial Amphitheater is a memorable and moving experience. Most have little idea of the hard work, years of musical training, and preparation that goes into the one minute of music performed at the Tomb. Sergeant First Class Drew Fremder of the Army Band stated, “Sounding Taps is playing in appreciation of those who have given their last breath in service to our nation and the freedoms we protect. For those who sacrificed more than I ever can in my career. A bugler plays no longer for appreciation, but in appreciation of the ultimate sacrifice. This humbling realization is something I carry with me to this day. It changes how I play; how I perform…..Putting on the uniform to serve my country as a musician is an honor. If this is my purpose as a musician in this world, I am honored to serve in appreciation of true heroes.”
There is a saying that for 60 seconds a bugler has the most important job in the military.
In 2012 and 2013, events were held at Arlington to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Taps and the 50th anniversary of Taps at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. Buglers around the country attended the events held at the Tanner Amphitheater (Old Amphitheater) near the Lee Mansion. At both ceremonies buglers attended a ceremony to honor the Unknown soldier.
In November 2021 ceremonies will mark the centennial of The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A special ceremony “Taps in Honored Glory-The Centennial of Taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” will be held at the Tanner Amphitheater to commemorate and honor the Unknown Soldier and remember the three buglers (Staff Sergeant Frank Witchey in 1921, Sergeant First Class George Myers in 1958, and Sergeant Major Patrick Mastroleo in 1984) who sounded the call at the Unknown Soldier interments as well as all buglers who have sounded the call on the plaza over the past 100 years.
CSM (ret) Daniel Smith and SFC Kevin Paul
Bigler, Philip. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier-A Century of Honor. Quicksburg VA: AppleRidge Publishers, 2019
McCormick , David C. (1971) A History of the United States Army Band to 1946 [PHD Dissertation] Northwestern University
Michael, John. Images of America Fort Myer. Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011
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
Photos of Buglers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier