Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Ingrid Briones Wilson
“Fades the light./ And afar,/ Goeth light,/ Cometh night,/ And a star,/ Leadeth all,/ Speedeth all,/ To their rest.” Many Americans would not recognize these words, but they form the military verse which is sung to a most familiar tune – “Taps.” Buglers play this tune to end a soldier’s work day, more importantly, to pay tribute to American soldiers who die for their country.
Today most buglers are part of the military band. On occasion, an actual bugler will blow the cavalry charge for a post ceremony or reenactment of a famous battle. And although recorded tunes on public address systems have replaced buglers for the most part on military bases, a bugler still plays taps for a military funeral. Before the cavalry turned their horses in for tanks and trucks, buglers played a significant role. Our own Fort Bliss was primarily a horse cavalry post from 1912 to 1942. Horses were essential to the cavalry and were treated as such.
Local author Leon C. Metz, in his book Desert Army: Fort Bliss on the Texas Border, says if a horse fell ill, it was sent to the veterinary clinic which included “a pharmacy, operating tables, skilled surgeons, dental experts, anesthesiologist, -- everything, in fact, except pretty nurses.” Horses were never sent to do menial tasks. If a horse got sick or too old, it was shot.
Taking care of as many as 10,000 horses at Fort Bliss must have been daunting, but attempting to keep even 1,000 at attention is just as amazing. And this is why buglers were indispensable to the cavalry. Bugle calls were used in nearly every aspect of the horseman’s life – to mount, to dismount, to charge, to gallop, to signal time to go to the stables or to church and much more. Luciack Truscott, author of The Twilight of the U.S. Cavalry, writes that the bugler ‘ruled our lives with the clear notes which penetrated every corner of the camp.” A bugler had to translate a commander’s orders into music for hundreds to hear and obey. There was no room for mistakes or stage fright.
Buglers used a handbook titled Cavalry Drill Regulations in case they weren’t sure of a regulation or notes for a bugle tune. This handbook lists 102 different bugle tunes and each has a corresponding number. A few of these are: #3 To horse, #5 Assembly, #22 Reveille, #33 Charge, #26 Taps and #31 Attention. Soldiers like El Pasoan W. D Wilson, who was a bugler in the 8th Cavalry Regiment, were vital to the army. Wilson remembers his horse Reveille (named after a bugle tune) and says that horses and their riders shared a special bond. They became dependent on each other, familiar and comforting in unpredictable times.
Wilson entered the military in May 1935 and began bugling eleven months later. In August 1940, he was promoted to “buck-sergeant” (level E-5). He took over the bugling job of previous sergeant, who couldn’t play because he had lost all his teeth. All of the buglers Wilson served with had nicknames like “Sweet Lips,” “Toot Toot,” and “Sour Lip.” Wilson was known as “Not the best, but by far the loudest,” or just “Loud” for short. Wilson says buglers were taught in great detail how to stand and how to hold and play the bugle. A bugler controlled the speed of travel as indicated by his leader. When the cavalry was in the field, bugle calls could only be used by units smaller than a regiment so they would not convey information of value to the enemy.
Buglers were also essential when there was no other way to communicate. If a group of soldiers was too big to hear a voice command or see a hand signal, then the bugle was the only way to communicate. This was true even on a daily basis, for there were no bells, no PA systems, no telephone calls and no radio messages.
The motto of the 8th Cavalry Regiment was “Honor and Courage,” and a bugler’s role carried tremendous responsibilities. In addition to knowledge of the bugle and its calls, a bugler also had duties of a regular soldier. Wilson says, “It was hard blowing a bugle, riding a horse and staying alive at the same time.”
After the cavalry was mechanized, Wilson served in the South Pacific with the 8th Cavalry. The only survivor of four brothers who fought for their country in war, Wilson has many mementos of his days in the cavalry. On his living room wall are three old bugles. One is bent because a horse stepped on it, he recalls. There is a picture of him on his favorite horse Reveille and some others of him and his bugle.
Wilson also has a picture of the Hollywood version of the 8th Cavalry from the Warner Brothers movie “Here Comes the Cavalry.” He played a bugler in the film which premiered at the Plaza Theater in 1941. He “didn’t mind acting the part, but it wasn’t quite like the real thing,” he says.
Wilson said he can still remember how to play almost every song, and when I asked if he would, he flashed a grin that revealed two missing front teeth, and said “Oh no, hon, I can’t anymore. Got my front teeth knocked out.” But sitting up straight in his chair, he cleared his voice. eyes misty, he hummed out familiar marching tune – the same sounds that once clearly rang from his bugle.
“Once a bugler, always a bugler,” Wilson had said earlier, and I now understood his words.