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Col. Jack Tueller remembered for service to country, playing trumpet

SHARE Col. Jack Tueller remembered for service to country, playing trumpet

BOUNTIFUL — One of Utah's most well-known World War II veterans, Col. Jack Tueller, died at the age of 95, and was laid to rest on Saturday.

Tueller served as a fighter pilot over the skies of Europe, but he was best known for his trumpet playing and his engaging war stories, even gaining the national spotlight on outlets such as CNN.

Tueller was featured on KSL many times, most recently as a spokesman for the Utah Honor Flight. He was also the focus of a piece on KSL last year, and as a tribute to his extraordinary life, we bring you that story once again:

The power of music has guided Jack Tueller through 95 years of life.

Though Tueller says his lips aren't quite as they used to be, he still loves to belt out a tune on his beloved trumpet — something he's done since he was a small boy.

"I held my mother's hand when she died," said Tueller. "I was 5 years old. I turned to look for my dad, and he left his family. So, I was a lonely little boy; very angry."

Tueller's aunt tried to raise him, but he said he "tore all the shingles off the roof, broke all the dishes in the house. I was the Tasmanian devil. So she went downstairs and found a trumpet."

The power of music tamed that tormented child. He became an award-winning musician, and his skills landed him a job playing at the Lake Hotel at Yellowstone National Park.

"The big-band era," he said. "I played in a 24-piece dance band."

One night, he met one of the world's most famous trumpet players, who delivered some advice that stuck with the young musician.

"During the intermission, here came Louis Armstrong," Tueller recalled. "He was traveling through the park. He came up and said, 'You guys sound pretty good for white cats!' I said, 'What advice do you have for a trumpet player?' (He said,) 'Look at your crowd, and play the music that they made love to, and you'll be able to carry all the money to the bank.'"

The power of music took him to BYU and brought him to the woman who eventually became his wife.

"I came to the band room as a sophomore, and she said 'Did you play that trumpet solo at the freshmen assembly?' I said, 'I sure did.' She said 'Boy, you sure have strong lips!' Being a sophomore, I said, 'Would you like to try them?' Boy, is it fun to kiss another trumpet player," he said.

As the clouds of war grew, Tueller couldn't ignore the storm. He enlisted at Fort Douglas, put down his trumpet and pursued another one of his great passions: the love of flight. He landed in the cockpits of fighter planes, soaring over Europe in an unbelievable 144 combat missions.

He credits his survival to his love of hugging the ground.

"Never got over 10 feet off the ground in attacking ground targets," said Tueller. "Below the trees, they didn't see me coming. I had two 1,000 pound bombs, 10 rockets and eight .50 calibers. And I let it all go. They didn't see me coming, they didn't see where I went. So I didn't ever get hit."

On those missions, deep behind enemy lines, he kept a constant companion.

"The trumpet was in a little canvas bag, attached to my parachute," said Tueller. "I figured if I ever got shot down, and I bailed out, I could play for the guard in the prison and get an extra bar of soap for the shower."

D-Day, the Allied invasion of mainland Europe, Tueller patrolled overhead for Nazi aircraft, but the skies were empty. He flew over the beaches, unable to help for fear of hitting his men.

"We had a ringside seat at 3,000 feet," said Tueller. "I saw men that were so brave, and I never saw anybody turn back. When they got on the beach, I saw them cut down by the German guns. And I saw them try to repel up the cliffs there at Cherbourg. They got a big hook with a rope ladder, and our men would try to climb up that rope, and the Germans were firing down on them. And we couldn't help them."

After the invasion, Tueller faced some of his toughest challenges.

"We had to take on the German Panzer divisions that had come eight hours late because Hitler was the only one that could give permission for them to be released," he said.

When Tueller arrived at the location of the tanks, he couldn't believe his eyes.

"I went down on my tank, and I saw red, yellow, purple. And through my gunsight, I saw a French mother and her three children, dressed in yellow and purple coveralls. That's human shields," said Tueller, getting choked up.

Neither Tueller nor any of the other men in the planes with him could bring themselves to open fire.

"We reported by the radio what we'd seen. To see a French mother cover her children's bodies with hers, none of us fired. Ten minutes later, we were ordered back by the statement, 'Those French civilians are expendable. Get those tanks.' So, I live with that image every day, of what my .50 calibers did to innocent civilians."

The following night, Tueller was flying missions out of a makeshift airfield in northern France. On the ground, German snipers killed 28 Army engineers, and one sniper remained, completely hidden in darkness.

The power of music, Tueller said, saved his life.

"I thought, 'How do I stop him?' And the impression came to me, 'Well, play his love song.' So I played 'Lili Marleen,' made famous in 1938 by Marlene Dietrich. And I played that song, and he didn't fire."

The next morning, Tueller was told a prisoner kept asking who'd played that trumpet. A Jeep drove him to Omaha Beach, where POWs were awaiting transport to England, and he looked the sniper in the eye.

"He was 19 years old, and he was just scared and lonely and crying, and he saw my trumpet, and he knew," said Tueller. "And he said, 'When you played last night, that was the love song that my fiancee and I are going to get married to. And that song reminded me of her.' So he stuck his hand through the barbed wire, and I shook the hand of the enemy. He was no enemy; he was a scared kid like me."

When the war ended, most men went home and started their lives, but not Tueller. He stayed in the military through Korea, through Vietnam, even working at the Pentagon during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

He said it left him with a bad taste in his mouth.

"In Washington, all I faced was power-hungry politicians," said Tueller.

And over the years, he came to believe the country didn't truly appreciate what he and so many others went through.

"(Because) the normal citizen does not having any favorite opinions of the military, the veterans from Vietnam were treated terribly," Tueller said.

When his daughter heard about the Utah Honor Flight — a chance for her dad to see his Memorial in Washington, D.C. — she knew it was just what he needed.

"I saw a lot of older veterans go, and it brought a lot of closure to them," said Janine Mickelson. "I thought often how nice it would be if my dad could have that experience."

She got Tueller on one of those flights this past May. From the moment he landed to cheering crowds in Baltimore, he was at a loss for words.

"People at the airport genuinely expressed their love and respect for these veterans, who as teenagers went out and saved the free world," said Mickelson.

Love and respect were everywhere Tueller looked.

"I told my dad when we were out there, 'It's almost not about you; it's about you passing on this legacy,'" said Mickelson.

Mickelson recollected the lines of children waiting to shake her father's hand.

"When I saw the junior high kids come up and thank him, and the adults with tears in their eyes, that was really touching," she said. "I've wept many tears thinking about my dad — thinking of him as a young man, leaving his home and family and going out and doing something of such significance to the history of the world."

Tueller's opinions of the country he fought to protect changed that day, but there's one thing that didn't change. When he exited the airplane, the case he clutched wasn't an ordinary piece of carry-on luggage. After all, Tueller couldn't fly on a plane without his trumpet.

At the banquet back at the hotel in Baltimore that night, with 95-year-old lips he wished were a bit more steady, Tueller played his trumpet one more time. Not a big-band tune, and not a song by Dietrich; Tueller played taps to remember those who never came home.

He played the trumpet that night, sharing the power of music with his fellow survivors.

Tueller's wife died in 2011, following a battle with Alzheimer's. If you'd like to help send more veterans like Tueller on a free trip to see their memorial in Washington, D.C., visit utahhonorflight.org.