More than 60 years later, Sister Mary Leona Didas still gets choked up recalling the death of her brother, Leo, who died in World War II at age 22.
“He was a fighter pilot with the Air Corps. He was shot down in Germany during the Battle of the Bulge,” the Sister of Mercy said. “He was the oldest of the family and the only boy, so it was a big loss.”
Spurred on by these memories, Sister Didas took part in a first-time event on Saturday, May 21, to honor fallen soldiers. “EchoTaps” was a record-setting collection of 857 horn-players stretching 41 miles, from Elmira’s Woodlawn National Cemetery to Bath National Cemetery. The effort was staged by a group of Southern Tier veterans and other volunteers in an effort to honor deceased veterans while also pointing out that there are currently not enough people available to play “Taps” for military funerals. Instead, prerecorded versions of “Taps” are often played.
EchoTaps began in mid-morning and lasted well into the afternoon. In addition to local participants, many came from out of state as well. Musicians stood nearly 100 yards apart each, playing “Taps” in a relay format using bugles, trumpets and other types of horns. They remained in place until “Taps” reached the end of the line; at that point they were transported to the Bath cemetery for the closing ceremony.
Sister Didas and several of her music students from the Holy Family Catholic schools played their horns along Church Street in Elmira, not far from EchoTaps’ starting point. Although each person only played for about a minute, the Holy Family group had to remain standing for nearly two hours as the succession of “Taps” moved westward toward Bath.
“It wasn’t that bad, because we were doing it for a good reason,” said Ryan Hurley, 12, a seventh-grader who was one of three participants from Holy Family Junior High.
Ryan noted that “some people stopped and listened,” while Joe Thurber, 13, also a seventh-grader, said “there was a pretty decent crowd around me — a whole bunch of people across street. They said ‘good job’ and ‘thanks.'” Joe also noted that two veterans removed their hats and put them over their hearts while he played.
Ryan, Joe and seventh-grader Kellen Hoose, 13, all said they took part to honor living and deceased loved ones who logged military service. In each boy’s case, at least one family member had served in either the Korean War or Vietnam War.
Along with the junior-high students, six young people from Holy Family Intermediate School played for EchoTaps: sixth-grader Helen Manning and fifth-graders Kyle Halm, Carrick Palmer, Michael Schenone, Ethan Sheets and Jacob Skinkle. There were also seven student participants from Notre Dame High School: juniors Hal Cutler, Max Murray, Max Wallace and Tristan Whiting; sophomores Matt Cassetta and Maggie Mahr; and freshman Adam Stewart.
According to organizers, EchoTaps apparently realized its goal of setting a new Guinness Book of World Records standard for the longest line of brass instruments to play the same tune. Yet the bigger purpose for this event was to give rightful homage to veterans.
“I thought it was pretty touching and pretty cool that we honored all the people who didn’t get a ‘Taps’ ceremony when they were buried,” Kellen said.
“I kind of felt bad for families who had veterans die and didn’t have ‘Taps,’ but I think it’s good that we came together and honored them all,” Ryan said.
“It’s very powerful that they would all come together and do this,” Joe said of the several hundred people involved on May 21.
As for Sister Didas, her brother was very much on her mind that day.
“I prayed for him, that’s for sure,” she remarked, adding that EchoTaps was a wonderful initiative.
“It was breathtaking. All I can say is, it was magnificent,” Sister Didas said. “I’d do it again.”