Doug Robinson: World War II veteran still hitting the high notes

Published: Wednesday, April 14 2010 12:37 a.m. MDT

Former fighter pilot Jack Tueller plays the same trumpet that he carried in the cockpit in World War II.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

BOUNTIFUL — It all begins with the music. Everything. The flying. The fighter pilot career. The dogfights and bombing runs over Europe. The medals. The meeting with Satchmo. College. The big-band gigs. The wife and kids. All of it.

Without the music, none of it happens for Jack Tueller. He doesn't blow up German tanks and trains; he doesn't melt the German sniper's heart; he doesn't win the girl.

They all sprang from Jack Tueller's music — from his trumpet. The trumpet is now 70 years old and still playing sweet music. It has never left his side. It's the same instrument that he carried in the cockpit in the skies over Normandy.

One late morning last December, he sat back in a chair — legs crossed, eyes closed — and played "I'll Be Home for Christmas," in his Bountiful home so sweetly that it brought tears to the eyes of his guest.

Tueller still plays his trumpet at school assemblies, family gatherings and church functions. He had a stereo system installed in his van and sometimes he shows up at the trailhead of a local canyon and plays the trumpet, with the van for accompaniment. Hikers gather and hold an impromptu dance with their partners right there in the parking lot. On other occasions, he shows up at cemeteries and plays his solitary tunes — "How Great Thou Art," "Climb Every Mountain."

"Veterans should not retire," he says. "They should tell everyone who listens or reads what a wonderful life this is, and what a wonderful country this is."

He's 89 now, tiny and spry, but you'd swear he could still climb into the cockpit of his old P-47 and give the Nazis hell if called upon. He received a checkup from his doctor recently. "He told me I have 20 more years left," he says. "That's what he told me and he wasn't laughing."

If you hadn't met Jack Tueller personally, you'd think he was a character only Hollywood could make up. Roll the trailer: He was the product of a violent marriage and an alcoholic father, and his fate turned on a single night when his mother was thrown out of the house into a Wyoming winter. Orphaned at a young age, he discovered music and eventually went to war to pay for a trumpet and to fly.

He carried his trumpet into the air with him, tucked away in a canvas bag that was attached to his parachute. "I figured if I ever got shot down, I could play the German guard his favorite tune," he says.

But it was his fellow pilots who benefited most from Jack's trumpet. His flight group made their first combat mission from their base in England on Christmas Eve 1943.

"We thought it was going to be like a John Wayne movie," recalls Tueller.

When they reached the Cliffs of Dover and the English Channel, a British-accented voice hailed them on their radio frequency. He introduced himself as a German squadron commander in France, and he proceeded to taunt and intimidate the young pilots. To their dismay, he had a dossier on all 16 pilots.

"Welcome to World War II, 404 Flight Group," the German said. "Isn't it too bad you're going to die today." Then he began to recite information about each pilot. When he came to Tueller, he said, "Captain Tueller, you graduated from Evanston, Wyo., and married Marjorie Rogers of Morgan, Utah, and your blood type is AB negative."

The German introduced his squadron as the personal fighter group of Hermann Goering — Hitler's designated successor and commander of the Luftwaffe. When the Americans reached 24,000 feet, the German commander resumed his taunting. "If you put your thumb over the sun," he said, "you will see us. We're 10,000 feet higher than you are and here we come. We are like the Pittsburgh Steelers and you, Captain Tueller, are like the Red Devils at Evanston High."

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