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Playing “Taps” Links Sailor to WWII Shipmate

By Musician 2nd Class Kristen Gale, Trumpet Instrumentalist, U.S. Naval Forces Europe Band

Musician 2nd Class Kristen Gale of the U.S. 6th Fleet Band rehearses “Taps” before the funeral service for Radioman 2nd Class Julius “Henry” Pieper, June 19, 2018, at Normandy American Cemetery.

I’ve often thought about thanking Ms. Fox. She had a startling lack of patience for an elementary art teacher, but it was her irritability that caused an 11-year-old me to want to join the band. I wanted to play the flute, but my dad, rightfully recognizing my motives didn’t stem from a genuine interest in music, decided that having me play his old trumpet in the closet would be a wiser investment. I quickly fell in love, despite it making me dizzy the first few times.

Fast forward nearly 20 years, and I was working as a band director in the same school district in which I had grown up. I enjoyed my students, but my dream of becoming a professional musician lingered. The summer before what would be my last year of teaching, I saw a military band in concert and knew instantly that I had found my calling.

From left, Navy Radioman 2nd Class Julius H.O. Pieper and Radioman 2nd Class Ludwig J. Pieper circa 1940s.

As I began preparing for auditions, “Taps” appeared on many military band tryout lists. Like most musicians, I was overzealous in my preparation, researching the history and composer of each piece in addition learning the music on my trumpet. I discovered that throughout military history, buglers (trumpet players today) have played short tunes, or bugle calls, to signal everything from military movement to almost every aspect of daily life, including when to wake up (“Reveille”), when to eat (“Mess Call”), when to go to sleep (“Taps”) and dozens of events in between. (For more information, visit https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/m/manual-buglers-usnavy.html#ch6.)

“This poignant 24-note melody is our nation’s final salute to our brave veterans and helps provide closure for their friends and families whose lives will never be the same.”

It is unclear exactly when “Taps” first began being used in military funerals. Though widely believed to be untrue, the legend of Captain Ellicombe and his son tugged at my heart. It goes like this, during the Civil War Seven Days Battle, near Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, a Union soldier heard a wounded man crying for help in the “no-mans-land” between the Union and Confederate army. Risking his life, Captain Ellicombe went to get the man and carried him to safety. Upon examination, Ellicombe noticed the man was a Confederate Soldier. As he looked closer, he was shocked further when he noticed the man was his son. As the story is told, the son perished and Ellicombe asked that his son be burred with military honors, but because he fought for the Confederate side, Ellicombe’s wish was not granted. However, he was allowed a bugler and the legend says it was then that the Ellicombe provided the musician with a paper found in his deceased son’s breast pocket that contained what we now know to be Taps.

This perhaps overly-romanticized story opened my eyes and heart to the tragedy of war and the steep personal price of our freedom – paid not only by far too many brave men and women throughout our history, but also by those they have left behind. This poignant 24-note melody is our nation’s final salute to our brave veterans and helps provide closure for their friends and families whose lives will never be the same.

Recently, I had the added honor of participating in the funeral service for Radioman 2nd Class Julius H.O. Pieper. All of our World War II veterans hold a special place in my heart, and to be able to express my gratitude for this once “Unknown” shipmate and his family at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial overlooking Omaha Beach is an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. It is impossible to fathom what RM2c Julius Pieper and his twin brother, RM2c Ludwig J. Pieper, experienced in the moments leading up to their ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Likewise, I cannot imagine what it must have been like for their family over the past 74 years. The not knowing . . . the much-needed closure that must have always seemed out of reach . . .  It is my deepest hope that my performance of “Taps,” as these two brave twins were finally reunited, helped bring even a small level of healing, closure, and pride to their family as well as hope to those whose loved ones are still missing or marked in a field of crosses and stars as “Unknown.”

Learn more about RM2c Ludwig J. Pieper, watch this video.

As a Navy musician, it is my deepest honor to perform “Taps” at military funerals and memorial ceremonies. I believe that it is the most important piece of music that I have ever played or will play. I have been privileged to perform at close to 100 services. Each and every time, I am humbled by the men and woman in whose honor I play – whether they served for one tour or served through retirement, whether they completed their service as a Seaman Recruit or an Admiral. We are all in debt – to each and every one of them. Playing “Taps” is my small contribution.