Skip to main content

Bugling from the heart

News Letter Journal - Staff Photo - Create Article
Former Air Force Senior Airman Tom Bibbey, seen here performing taps during the Memorial Day services, has been playing taps at most memorial events and military funerals for the past quarter-century and has been bugling for more than 70 years and playing taps for the vast majority of that time. Photo by Mark Davis, Powell Tribune.
Mark Davis with the Powell Tribune, via the Wyoming News Exchange

POWELL —- When Tom Bibbey first put a trumpet to his pursed lips 73 years ago, it was impossible for him to know where it would take him and how one song would eventually become to mean to him personally.

For the past quarter of a century, Bibbey has been the face of taps in Powell. On Memorial Day, he played a perfect rendition of the song after a 21-gun salute over Crown Hill Cemetery, where about 600 veterans from as long ago as the Spanish-American War have been laid to rest.

The crowd was small on the beautiful day, but Bibbey doesn’t play for the crowd. He plays in remembrance of those who have fallen.

Taps has evolved into a poignant composition, from originally signaling “lights out” for the night to being played in one form or another at military funerals and for patriotic memorial ceremonies –  sadly “lights out” for those being honored.

Bibbey began playing taps well before he served in the Air Force from 1959 to 1965 as an intelligence officer, serving overseas during much of his four years of active duty.

He said he was forced to take a break while in the military due to his duties in a highly secretive unit.

“We couldn't talk about the job we were doing,” Bibbey said Monday while waiting for the Memorial Day service to begin. “We couldn't even tell our parents where we were.”

During his military training, he was taught to be able to separate himself from his service. It was important then, and those lessons have helped him through the years.

Taps is one of those songs that can pull a tear from hardened warriors, mothers and children at the same time — often on the first three notes.

For Bibbey, he has had to disassociate his memories of lost family and friends to be able to give each note the respect they deserve, he said.

“Over the years I try to disassociate myself from the event and just do the job,” he said.

It’s easier said than done. For years, thoughts of a friend, Ed Lewis, were impossible to set aside while he performed the song. Lewis’ funeral was one of the very first times Bibbey played taps.

As he forms the notes to the emotional song, he also often thinks of his uncle, James Thompson, who died in a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines.

Bataan Death March

Thompson was on the infamous Bataan Death March, when the Japanese military assembled about 78,000 prisoners, including 12,000 U.S. prisoners of war and 66,000 Filipinos. More than 11,000 died on the torturous route.

The POWs were forced to march up the east coast of Bataan to Camp O'Donnell, north of the peninsula, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The men, already desperately weakened by hunger and disease, suffered unspeakably during the march.

Regardless of their condition, POWs who could not continue or keep up with the pace were summarily executed. Even stopping to relieve oneself could bring death, so many chose to continue walking while relieving themselves.

Some of the guards made a sport of hurting or killing the POWs, according to reports. The marchers were beaten with rifle butts, shot or bayoneted without reason.

"Their ferocity grew as we marched ... they were no longer content with mauling stragglers or pricking them with bayonet points. The thrusts were intended to kill,” said one survivor, Capt. William Dyess, 21st Pursuit Squadron commander.

Some enemy soldiers savagely toyed with POWs by dragging them behind trucks with a rope around the neck, according to reports by survivors. Marchers received almost no water or food, further weakening their fragile bodies. Some were killed just because they asked for water, according to reports by those who survived.

Once the POWs reached their destination, groups as large as 115 men were forced into boxcars designed to hold only 30-40 men. Boxcars were so full that the POWs could not sit down.

“This caused more to die of heat exhaustion and suffocation in the cars on the ride from San Fernando to Capas. The POWs then walked 7 more miles to Camp O'Donnell. At the entrance to the camp, the POWs were told to lay out the few possessions they still had; any POW found with any Japanese-made items or money was executed on the spot,” the museum reported.

Thompson survived the death march but then died of malaria in a Japanese prison camp.

Though Bibbey was trained to disassociate himself from his emotions while serving as an intelligence officer, he has difficulty not thinking of his family and friends who served while performing taps, he said.

Though he never met his uncle, thoughts of him are often with Bibbey.

“I often think of him when I play,” he said.

A lifetime of music

Music has always been in Bibbey’s heart, and he has excelled, spending most of his post-military career performing and teaching music, including high school students in Alliance, Nebraska and Newcastle before ascending to Northwest College’s music department.

Bibbey retired from NWC in 2000, joining the Post 26 Veterans Honor Guard immediately after.

Since joining he has played taps for events more than 150 times.

He played twice Monday: once at Crown Hill Cemetery and then again at Post 26 as part of the group Taps Across America.

The organization started the National Moment of Remembrance, an annual event that asks all citizens, wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time, to pause for a duration of one minute in silent tribute to the men and women who have “honorably served in uniform and to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.”

The time 3 p.m. was chosen because it is the time when most Americans are enjoying time off from work for the national holiday. The moment was first proclaimed in May 2000 for Memorial Day that year, and was put into law by the United States Congress in December 2000.

“There are thousands of people all over the country playing taps at the same time,” Bibbey said.

His performances of the highly emotional song Monday were flawless.

Taps was played at two locations in Powell at 3 p.m. with Post 26 Commander Tim Heine simultaneously performing at the Powell High School Memorial.

Bibbey retired from the military with the rank of senior airman. Along with his service to Post 26 and the memories of the fallen, he and his wife, Marianne, also performed with the Civic Orchestra for the past 40 years.

“Tom’s dedication shows how much it means to others to remember those who have fallen,” said Russell Stafford, American Legion Department of Wyoming 2nd vice commander. “He continues to show all of us exactly how it is to be dedicated to our fellow veterans and the community.”

This story was published on May 30, 2024.

--- Online Subscribers: Please click here to log in to read this story and access all content.

Not an Online Subscriber? Click here to subscribe.

Sign up for News Alerts

Subscribe to news updates