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South Greensburg bugler still playing 'Taps,' but few others continue tradition

| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 12:27 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Bugler John Massari, with the VFW Post 33 Honor Guard, plays “Taps” during a funeral service on Thursday Dec. 5, 2013, for World War II veteran James Bartley at Greensburg Catholic Cemetery in Hempfield.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Bugler John Massari, with the VFW Post 33 Honor Guard, salutes as the casket of WWII veteran James Bartley arrives at Greensburg Catholic Cemetery in Hempfield on December 5, 2013.

John Massari started playing “Taps” at military funerals when he was 15.

“They used to get me out of school,” said Massari, 74, of South Greensburg, who is one of the few buglers still playing live at veterans' funerals.

A shortage of buglers has resulted in the use of digital recordings of the song, the final salute to veterans since the Civil War.

“These people deserve that honor. Who is going to do it if we don't?” said Massari, who has played at more than 900 military funerals during the past 10 years. He started playing “Taps” 59 years ago for veterans of the Spanish-American War.

As World War II veterans and others pause on Saturday to remember the day 72 years ago that catapulted a generation into war, those available to play their final salute are in short supply.

It was just before 8 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, sinking or badly damaging 21 ships and destroying or damaging nearly 350 aircraft. American deaths numbered 2,403, including 68 civilians. More than 1,100 military personnel and civilians were wounded.

Before the war ended in 1945, millions of American soldiers fought on the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa and in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Today, the military is struggling to keep up with the funerals of those veterans, who are in their 80s and 90s, and has begun asking civilians in some parts of the country to volunteer as honor guards.

Families of honorably discharged veterans are entitled to a two-person uniformed funeral honor guard, the folding and presentation of the U.S. flag and a rendition of “Taps.”

Military funerals are often handled by service organizations but they, too, are turning to digital versions of “Taps” to fill the bugler void.

About 600 World War II veterans die each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. In Pennsylvania, more than 8,000 died in the last year.

Those numbers will strain the demand on buglers even more.

“It's pretty much standard practice to have the electronic (version) ... There's not a whole lot of buglers available,” said Ron Hestdalen, director of the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies, Bridgeville, where 25 to 30 military funeral services are held each week.

Munhall funeral director Michael Perovich can't remember the last time he heard “Taps” played live at a funeral.

“I haven't heard a real bugler in years,” he said.

The honor guard at VFW Post 33 in Greensburg, of which Massari is secretary/treasurer, does two to three military funerals a week, more than 100 a year.

“The voice of the bugle really makes that service ... these guys are dedicated, rain or shine,” said Post 33 Commander Cliff Smith, 67, of Greensburg.

At least 13 people normally participate in the graveside ceremony that includes a 21-gun salute, folding the flag that holds three spent shells from the gun salute and the playing of “Taps.”

“We have a pretty dedicated group,” Massari said.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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