By Timothy Frank, ANC Historian
As we commemorate the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier centennial, today we highlight one of the individuals who played—literally—a key role in the 1921 funeral ceremony: Army bugler Frank Witchey.
S. Sgt. Frank Witchey sounds Taps at the newly completed Tomb, April 12, 1932. (National Archives)
Staff Sergeant Frank Witchey spent thirty years of his life becoming “[t]he old ‘maestro’ of the trumpet, the daddy of the bugle and No. 1 windjammer of the Third Cavalry” (in the words of a 1935 Army press release). Born on a farm in Iuka, Kansas, on September 11, 1891, Witchey enlisted in the Army in 1908 and reported to the Third Cavalry Regiment, where he was assigned to the band and made a band sergeant in 1917. He and his regiment served on the U.S.-Mexico border until they shipped off to France after the United States entered World War I.
After nearly two years in France, Witchey returned to the United States and received an assignment with Headquarters Troop, Third Cavalry, based at Ft. Myer, Virginia, near Arlington National Cemetery. There, Witchey began serving as sergeant bugler of the regiment, a post he held until 1938. His position afforded him the honor of sounding Taps at many notable ceremonies and funerals. The first such ceremony in a list documented by then-Colonel Jonathan M. Wainwright, Commander, 3d Cavalry regiment, was the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Precisely at noon on November 11, 1921, Witchey sounded the trumpet call to “attention” three times, followed by two minutes of silence observed nationwide. The funeral of the Unknown Soldier, over which President Warren G. Harding presided, was broadcast via telephone lines from Arlington’s Memorial Amphitheater to Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, enabling thousands of people to hear it. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Witchey stepped forward and sounded Taps, which was followed by a 21-gun salute.
The following day, Witchey purchased his bugle from the Army for $2.50. On it, he began to engrave the names of important events at which he had sounded Taps, starting with the burial of the Unknown Soldier. The New York Times later called Witchey’s instrument “the most famous bugle in the United States Army.”
Over nearly two decades of service, Witchey sounded Taps at the funerals of President Woodrow Wilson (1924), Lt. Gen. Nelson Miles (1925), Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood (1927), and former President William Howard Taft (1930), to name just a few. Sounding Taps for the last time in uniform, he performed his final official act on May 19, 1938, on the drill field of Ft. Myer, in a tribute to the deceased members of the Third Cavalry Regiment on its 92nd birthday. Col. Wainwright wrote him, “Perhaps you, more than any soldier in the Army, are nationally known as a bugler because your sounding Taps at so many important funerals…. But to me, your service has been more valuable in training many, many buglers for the regiment, and thus materially aiding in upholding its esprit and traditions. Good buglers, and lots of them, promote these factors in any military organization.”
Witchey at the Tomb on Armistice Day, November 11, 1929. (Library of Congress)
After 30 years in uniform, Witchey retired as a technical sergeant in June 1938. He would have retired as a master sergeant, but a December 1937 War Department general order reorganized rank structure. This affected Witchey’s retirement rank: instead of retiring with a pension of $135 per month, Witchey received only $94 per month as a technical sergeant. Witchey later described this loss as his only bad break in the Army. Looking back on his career shortly after his retirement, he noted, “I do hate to leave, but retirement of older soldiers helps the younger men who are coming up through the grades. I have always believed in retirement after a man has served 30 years in the Army; to stay on only takes away chances of advancement from younger men.” By retiring when he did, Witchey made way for younger buglers to make their own mark on history.
After his retirement from the Army, Witchey routinely received requests to sound Taps at events and funerals. He served as the national trumpeter for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in 1937-1938. In that role, he sounded Taps when Edward Younger, who had selected the World War I Unknown, placed the VFW wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day in 1938.
Witchey died on September 30, 1945 and was buried among his World War I comrades in Section 18 of Arlington National Cemetery on October 4, 1945. His widow, Margaret, died on July 5, 1973 and was buried with him four days later.
Witchey's bugle is now on view at the Memorial Amphitheater Display Room, as part of our exhibits for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial Commemoration.
Selected Sources Consulted
• Arlington National Cemetery Historical Research Collection. Frank Witchey Scrapbook, Collection of Michael J. Mimna.
• McClallen, Mary Mabel. “Bugler….Soldier….Man!,” Our Army, September 1938.
• Mossman, B.C. and M.W. Stark, The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals, 1921-1969. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1991.
• “Program of the Ceremonies Attending the Burial of the Unknown and Unidentified American Soldier Who Lost His Life during The World War.” Arlington National Cemetery Historical Research Collection, Box 12, and online via HathiTrust.
• “Witchey, Who Sounded Taps For the Unknown Soldier, Retires.” Washington Post, June 5, 1938.