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."
"What a way to go into your first combat," recalls Tueller. "Our morale was around our ankles. I shot at everything and hit nothing. I was one of the nine who came back. That's when I grew up. It was not like a John Wayne movie. It was the real world. I knew I was in for some grim lessons."
That night, as the fliers rested at their English base, Tueller played every "homesick tune" he could think of while his comrades cried quietly.
Tueller played his trumpet every evening throughout the war. During the D-Day invasion at Normandy, they were forced to camp out in dark, muddy, rainy conditions with nothing to eat after a day of flying. Supply trucks had been destroyed and the pilots lived off the land for two weeks and slept under the wings of their planes. Tueller played his trumpet into the night.
"Music kept me alive stress-wise," he says. "I never would have survived.
"I got rid of my stresses with music, not drugs." He recalls that he was the only non-drinker in his group of 90 fliers. "They told me I had to drink to be a comrade. I told them, 'I'll die for you, but I won't have a drink for you. Do you feel more secure if I'm your wingman and sober?' "
Tueller never needed his music more than in the aftermath of one mission that is burned indelibly in his mind. They were attacking a convoy of German tanks in France. Just as they were about to release their bombs and open up with machine guns, they noticed bright colors — red, yellow and purple — on top of the tanks. They looked closer and saw women and children riding on the tanks, with German rifles pointed at them.
"They were using civilians as shields with bright clothes so they'd be seen," says Tueller. "They knew an American boy wouldn't shoot, and we didn't. Not one of us fired on them. We were angry. We were ordered back."
They returned to their base, but were ordered to return and take out the tanks. "The French civilians, it was decided, were expendable," says Tueller, bitterly. Tueller and his comrades followed orders and destroyed the tanks. "I live with that image," he says. "I always will. The image of what eight 50-caliber machine guns did to those people."
That night he started to play his trumpet to soothe his harrowed conscience, but his commander told him to put it away. A sniper was hiding nearby with a sonic listening device. A man playing a trumpet would be an easy target.
"I got behind a big apple tree and played anyway," he recalls. "I thought, he's as scared and homesick as I am. I played 'Lili Marlene' — a song made famous by Marlene Dietrich. I wailed that over the apple orchards and the sniper didn't fire."
The next morning, as Tueller was getting ready to take off for another mission, he was approached by several MPs. They had captured several Germans the previous night, they explained, and one of them kept asking who had played the trumpet. Tueller grabbed his trumpet and jumped in the Jeep for the ride to the beach to meet the German. The prisoner was 19 years old and dressed in the disguise of a French peasant. He was the sniper.
"He said that when he heard the music that he burst into tears and couldn't shoot anymore," recalls Tueller. "He said it reminded him of his fiancé and his brothers and sisters and parents. He was no enemy, because of the music. He stuck out his hand, and I shook the hand of the enemy. Two people who were supposed to hate each other were able to shake hands because of music."
If music helped Tueller get through the war, it helped soothe him in his early years, as well. He was the oldest of two children born into a volatile marriage. One of his earliest memories is of shouting and arguing and vulgar language in a smoke-filled room. His father was a bartender and "a drunk," which of course was a bad combination. They lived in a coal-mining town in Superior, Wyo. Jack was 5 years old when his father, in a drunken rage, threw his mother out of the house on a night when the temperature was 40 below. She contracted pneumonia and died. His father left the next day. The boys were adopted by an aunt.
Jack was a self-described "hellion," an unruly boy who blamed himself for his parents' difficulties. Then he discovered an old trumpet in his aunt's basement when he was 8 years old.
"I fell in love with it," he says.
He practiced regularly without any urging from adults. He learned to play by ear. He attended BYU to study music. He joined the concert band and was selected as the trumpet soloist. This was during the big-band era, and they performed on national radio broadcasts and toured the country. They were playing in Yellowstone Park on one occasion when Louis Armstrong, the jazz legend, happened to hear them.
"You sound pretty good for white cats," he said. He advised them, "Always play the melody. If you ad lib, don't stray too far from the basic chords."
One of the other trumpeters in the band was a young woman named Marjorie. After hearing Jack play a solo at the freshman assembly, she said, "You sure have strong lips." It was a great setup line, of course, and Jack didn't pass on it. "Would you like to try 'em?" he asked.
As Jack recalls it, "She nodded yes, and I kissed her."
Their romance was interrupted by other obligations. Money was always tight for Tueller. He worked as a janitor in the gym to pay for school. He cleaned and washed dishes in lieu of paying rent. During his junior year, Jack's trumpet was stolen. He had to borrow money to buy a new one, which left him no money for tuition. In desperation, he signed up for military duty.
He had fallen in love with flying when he was 5 years old. His father had taken him to a dirt airstrip in Rock Springs to see his first airplane — an Army Air Corps mail plane. "I can remember that old ancient plane with its engines sputtering as it came down through the snow clouds and landed on the dirt airstrip," he says. "The pilot got out with his big bear skin coat and ice on his goggles. He handed me his helmet and told me, 'Some day you'll fly.' "
But it wasn't until his trumpet was stolen that he remembered his flying ambitions. At 20, he wasn't old enough to be an officer or pilot, so he enlisted instead. He became a radio operator on a B-25 bomber, and when he came of age a year later he left B-25 duty to attend flying school. He graduated in March of 1942. He called Marjorie in Utah from the flight line at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., early one morning and, without identifying himself, said, "Will you marry me."
"Yes," she said. "Who is this?"
She took the train to the Arizona base, pinned Tueller's flying wings on his uniform and they were married in the Mormon temple in Mesa. They've been married 68 years now and have six children, 26 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren.
"All because of music," says Jack.
Tueller returned to his military obligations immediately after the marriage ceremony and in December 1943 he joined the war in Europe. His group was assigned to take on the German Luftwaffe and destroy ground targets in France — airfields, railroads, trains, trucks, rocket-launching sites and tanks. During the next year, he would destroy seven trains and 47 tanks.
He was part of a flight group that attacked 15,000 Germans in the Black Forest. "Lost three friends there," he says. He engaged in seven dogfights over Europe and claimed two kills. Dogfights then were nothing like today's high-tech, computerized warfare in which pilots engage each other from miles away.
"Nowadays, flying a plane is like Nintendo, but then you were part of the plane; you were flying it," he says. "The dogfights were intense. You were standing on a wing and you see the enemy looking at you. He's wearing a black leather jacket and goggles. You're only 3,000 feet apart. Then you spiral down to the trees' tops, and it's a duel to the death. You can't cheat. You can't talk your way out of it. There's no way out. You can't say you're going to come back tomorrow. It's skill against skill. It's knowing the design and capabilities of your plane and his plane. I knew I could out-dive him. My plane was 12 tons to his two tons. I could dive more effectively and steeper and still be maneuverable at high speeds."
Of the 90 fliers in Tueller's group, he was the only one still flying his original plane at the end of the war, after 140 combat missions. "Didn't even take a hit," he says. "I had guardian angels on both wings." He named his P-47 "Rosanne" — it was painted on the fuselage — after his first child.
He credits his survival at least in part to his flying tactics. His first flying instructor was a crop duster, and under his tutelage Tueller became expert at low-level flying. He carried those lessons into battle.
"Instead of coming up off the target after dropping bombs or firing my guns, I would go down even lower and cut between trees or fly over rivers and highways before pulling up," he explains. "All the flak was going over my head. They couldn't shoot that low with the anti-aircraft guns."
Tueller had at least one close call. He attacked a train and, unknown to him, it contained rockets, which exploded on impact. His wingman broke right and was blown to bits. Tueller broke left and survived, but barely. The percussion of the explosion blew his plane straight into the sky. Tueller was knocked unconscious, bleeding from his eyes and ears. "The explosion was so powerful that it destroyed a French village," he says. The shock wave carried his plane to 15,000 feet. He regained consciousness just as the plane was starting to stall.
In December 1944, Tueller finished his year of war duty and returned to the states. His plane, which seemed so charmed because it never took a hit, had always been coveted by his comrades. After Tueller returned home, the "Rosanne" was given to a young replacement. Three months later he was shot down in Germany.
"My plane did what it was supposed to do — it died a noble death instead of being made into pots and pans," says Tueller.
Tueller lives in a hilltop house high in the foothills of Bountiful. He spends most of his time doting on Marjorie, but when she's resting he will get in his van and drive to a local cemetery or to the Holbrook Trailhead near the Bountiful LDS Temple to play his lonely tunes.
After the war, he returned to Arizona and continued an Air Force career that would last 25 years. He flew a couple of missions in the Korean War before he was recalled to Luke AFB to serve as a squadron commander. Years later he was tapped as wing commander for the 2705th air munitions wing at Hill AFB, overseeing 5,000 people and a $6 billion budget. He retired in 1966 with the rank of colonel and a chestful of medals — the Distinguished Flying Cross, more than 20 air medals, and two Legions of Merit, the nation's highest peacetime award.
He and Marjorie raised six children, all of whom earned college degrees and learned to play an instrument or sing — Rosanne, Carolyn, Sharman, Jeanine, Shayne and Stephen. Two of them work for the military and three of them are teachers.
"I didn't want to talk about the war with my kids when they were growing up," he says. "It was too painful — the suffering of the civilians, smelling the smell of decayed and burnt flesh, the loneliness, combat. The music interested me more. If you can play with your heart, you can communicate with people."
In recent years he has talked about his war experiences openly because he believes it is necessary. "People have got to know why there are thousands of crosses over there," he says. "The kids today don't know how good they have it."
He retired from the Air Force in 1966. Years later, he served as vice president of a company that repaired Russian fighter planes in China for Third World countries "so they would vote with us in the United Nations."
While visiting China, he participated in a test of the repaired aircraft by flying a MiG-21 in a mock dogfight. He was 78 years old and hadn't piloted an airplane in years when he went up against skilled young pilots that day. The young pilots performed various evasive maneuvers thinking Tueller would try to stay on their tails. In a concession to age, he didn't take the bait. He waited until they were done with their acrobatics and then came out of the sun and beat them.20 comments on this story
"I got on their tails, they weren't on mine," he says, laughing. "It's like swimming; you don't forget. But I took my age into account and knew I couldn't match them pulling G-forces through tight turns. I used the sun as a sanctuary, and they couldn't see me." He laughs again. "They couldn't understand how I could outfly them in combat maneuvers at my age."
Tueller officially retired at the age of 78. He lives now with his wife and his memories and the ups and downs of his progeny and, always, his music.
"All I want to do now is hit high C," he says, "and fall into the grave."