BUGLE HOAX BLOWN, BUT NOT BEFORE CAPTURING HEARTS
Anchorage Daily News
Daily News reporter
On the morning of the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, radio listeners in Homer heard an extraordinary story told by a local man over KBBI, the town’s public radio station. Steve Boyle told how, as a young airman, he was summoned from Vietnam 30 years ago to play taps at JFK’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery. How a lieutenant colonel, frantic with anxiety, threatened to court- martial Boyle and send him to Leavenworth if he made a single mistake.
How the nervous 17-year-old lifted the bugle to his lips and began to play. And how a note the sixth note, “Day is done, Gone the sun . . .” cracked and vaulted into a sour pitch while a silent nation listened. Radio listeners were transfixed as Boyle, a volunteer fireman who had moved to Homer two years earlier, recalled the aftermath of his famous broken note: how the lieutenant colonel ranted until a brigadier general interrupted and motioned Boyle into a limousine.
Inside, a wizened old man told Boyle not to worry his cracked note had reflected the mood of a nation in mourning. The old man asked Boyle his name, then introduced himself as Gen. Omar Bradley, the retired World War II commander.
“It was almost like a dream or a nightmare, I don’t know which,” Boyle said. “It was a very high honor to have been able to say for the world ‘Good- bye.’ I will always carry that memory.” Thirty hours later, Boyle was back in Saigon. It was an extraordinary story.
Except that none of it was true.
Of course, nobody in Homer knew that at the time. KBBI was flooded with phone calls from listeners moved by the tale. Many suggested the station transmit the story to National Public Radio, so it could be broadcast nationally.
“I’ve never done anything that had that kind of response,” said David Webster, the radio reporter who coaxed a reluctant Boyle into the studio to tell his story. “People called to say they were in tears.”
But KBBI couldn’t send the story out to a larger audience. As a condition for doing the interview, Boyle insisted that the story remain in Homer. He said he’d told the story publicly once before, on another JFK anniversary, and had been so upset by the onslaught of media attention that he’d sworn never to go public again. KBBI news director Joe Gallagher agreed. The Homer News sought an interview with the remarkable local man. But Boyle turned them down. He told Homer News editor Mark Turner he was still suffering from his seven years in Vietnam two of them in a prisoner of war camp and the memories of JFK’s burial were too bound up in that whole period for him. The weekly newspaper ran a story summarizing KBBI’s exclusive. Neither the radio or the paper ever questioned the account. “It had such emotion and drama, and such great detail,” said Turner.
“I got caught up in his story and didn’t doubt it for a minute,” Gallagher said. “It was a well-polished story. It had surprise, a beginning and an ending, and it left you hanging for a while. . . . Looking back on it, I sure wish we had checked it out. But we missed the cues.”
The first questions about Boyle’s story came up five days after the KBBI report. A National Public Radio newscast, airing in Homer, did its own reminiscence of the JFK burial and the famous broken note. But commentator Scott Simon gave a different name for the bugler: Sgt. Keith Clark, the solo bugler for the U.S. Army Band.
Last month’s Washingtonian magazine also named Clark as the bungling bugler and told how he cracked the note after being temporarily deafened by a 21-gun salute. Apocryphal stories soon circulated, the magazine said, about a deliberately broken note in a version known as French Taps, “in which the bugler purposely cracks a note to evoke an emotional release, a slight loss of control caused by a broken heart.”
A call to Shari Lawrence, media relations officer with the Army Personnel Command in Virginia, confirmed that Clark was the bugler at Arlington. The military also had no record of a Steve Boyle as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
KBBI started trying to get back in touch with Boyle. But Boyle, long unemployed in Homer, had finally gotten a job as a state occupational safety and health inspector. He was in Anchorage all month for training. Messages left with his family in Homer got no response. Webster and Gallagher went back over the story again, sifting for clues.
Why would the military pick a 17-year-old kid, a former second trumpet from the Air Force Band, for such an important occasion? Boyle had told Webster that it had something to do with his unusual ability to play taps without vibrato, as well as an old connection between Boyle’s father and a general involved in planning the burial. That explanation convinced Webster, but it hadn’t been part of the story that was aired. The odds on a new recruit having been in Vietnam in 1963 were pretty long. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination, the Air Force had about 5,000 people in Vietnam, generally more senior advisers, according to archivist Jim Kitchens with the Air Force Historical Research Agency. The big American troop buildup in Vietnam didn’t begin until August 1965.
More than anything else, Boyle’s reluctance to talk had made his story seem believable. A few buddies at the fire station were the first to hear Boyle’s tale. They had spread the word. He’d been forced to tell the story again and again. Eventually the radio station came looking for him. Affirmation by his wife and three grown children added credibility. Webster said Boyle’s son, who was proud of his father’s role at Arlington, seemed the one who convinced the senior Boyle to do the interview. The Boyle family had moved to Homer in 1991 from California. Boyle had mostly been unemployed since, but put in a lot of time at the fire station, drawing on experience fighting wildfires in the Lower 48, according to Homer fire officials.
“He’s been very effective and volunteered a great deal of his time to the community,” said fire chief Robert Purcell.
At their Homer apartment, Laura Boyle was surprised by the calls and visits from reporters trying to reach her husband. She said she’d been hearing the story about the JFK burial for 23 years, as long as she’d known her husband. Asked about his POW status, she said he might not be listed officially because he had escaped. She said much of what he did in Vietnam had been classified.
Finally last Friday, nearly a month after the JFK anniversary and still unable to reach Boyle for a comment, Webster announced on a newscast that KBBI had been the victim of a hoax. The Homer News is planning its own follow-up story.
“In hindsight, we just did not do our job of checking out the story,” said Homer News Editor Turner.
On Saturday, Boyle returned a message from the Daily News. He said he had made the whole story up.
“In my attempt to be somebody, after being a nobody my whole life, I fabricated the whole thing,” Boyle said. “It was just an incredibly stupid and embarrassing thing to do. I’m sorry and I hope I haven’t caused anyone any problems.”
He said he had called his family the night before to tell them that the story about JFK’s burial wasn’t true. He said he’d never been to Vietnam. “I played in the 504th Air Force Band in Colorado Springs and that was it.” Boyle said he hoped to hold onto his new job in the face of questions about his credibility. “I’d like to have a future with OSHA. But it’s in the director’s hands now,” he said. Boyle is on probation and no decision has been made yet about his job, said Dennis Smythe, Boyles’ state supervisor. “I’ve never been one to run from anything,” Boyle said. “Now I have to pick up the pieces and go on. I realize I made a mistake. I created the monster and now I have to go face it.”
Copyright (c) 1993, Anchorage Daily News