Sunday, May 16, 2021

Walt Tucker: Pearl Harbor Survivor

Walt Tucker

Walt Tucker

By Val Simon

In 1938 Walt Tucker was 18 years old. A priest told him he should go in the army or end up in jail. The army it was! “I had a buddy who went into the Civilian Conservation Corp and then onto Hawaii. I decided I wanted to go somewhere exotic like Panama. The next day I woke up and had a change of heart, I don’t want to be a hero, Hawaii would be a better choice. I was assigned to Pearl Harbor.”

At the time, Walt says the population of Hawaii was dominated by people of Asian descent. A mixture of Koreans, Filipinos and Japanese had come to work the pineapple plantations or worked in the sugar cane fields.

Walt worked with the army railroad. Parts for locomotives were shipped in and they’d piece them together on the docks. Five 125-ton engines built by General Electric were shipped in just before the attack by the Japanese.

“I was the driver for a Colonel for awhile. We had to keep every inch of his car shiny. The copper tubing, the carburetor, all of it had to be polished. The Inspection Commander would come with a white glove and he’d run his hand over the wheels, under the wheel wells, under the hood. He’d even lift the carpet mats and if his glove came up with a speck of dirt on it, you got KP duty for a week!

Everyday like clockwork a patrol flew around the islands at 7:00 am. They could see a hundred miles out to sea. No ship could get in there. Every airfield was ready for battle. We had strategic points around the islands, probably 200,000 strong between the army, navy, marines and air force. No ship could get in. They didn’t tell us to expect something, but we knew it was coming!

The military issued pay on the first of every month but the first of December came and went. They said the money never arrived. On December 5th, they called all the infantry in, paid them and gave everyone a three day pass to go into town. I didn’t like the city of Honolulu much, so I decided to stay.

All of our aircraft carriers were out at sea, they told us they were out delivering planes. They kept only the minimum. Those of us left on base had arms of course, but the ammo was locked up, so we couldn’t get to it.”

To some, it may seem the attack was forced so the public would accept going into war. Walt would not make such a claim but adds, “we put a lot of effort into alienating the Japanese. We had stopped shipping in the North Pacific from Hawaii to Japan.

I saw the planes coming, one was so close. I saw the pilot stick his head out of the cockpit and sort of smile at me, he had on goggles and a leather hat. He came back again and started shooting down the road. Someone yelled at me to get behind a tree, so I ran behind a tropical palm tree

GE locomotive engine.

GE locomotive engine.

and stood sideways. I could see the bullets hit the ground, right there, no more than five feet from me! It seemed like the attack went on forever. All you can think is, when am I going to get hit? I remember my throat was so dry, I couldn’t take a drink of water afterwards, my throat was so tight.

We had two gas tankers by the PX right in the middle of the barracks. If they hit that, we’d be in trouble. So we hooked them up and took them down to the field, unhooked them and ran like hell for cover. They hit the tank, but nothing happened.

A short time after the bombing, they got anybody and everybody who could saw wood or hammer a nail to build boxes for coffins. They had so many little white boxes. They were put on the civilian railroad and I’d pick them up there and bring them to the parade ground. They had a bulldozer that pushed them into a long trench. They had crosses all in a perfect row, but that isn’t the way it was. They used three locations for burial. Besides the parade grounds they used a crater near the punch bowl outside Honolulu, let alone the burial sites on other islands. They got them buried as quickly as possible. They had hit every airfield so they couldn’t get out and attack the fleet.

There was a lot of heroism that day. I heard about a Navy chaplain who had written a song that day, “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” Then someone wrote a song about the chaplain.

I was in Hawaii for most of my service years. I was part of the Army Port and Services Command Special Services unit. When they put me on the railroad, my outfit went off to Guadalcanal. I stayed. I wanted to become an officer and get back to the states but they turned me down. I said “Colonel, I put an application in six months ago and others are going in before me.” My IQ was better than some. He said, “Well, Sergeant, I have your application in my drawer.” He took it out and said, “here it is!” Then he ripped it in half saying, “you’re not going anywhere.” “They had a job for me and they knew I’d do it.

I had a job alright. I remember once this guy from New York, a commander, came in and said, “I want 5 boxcars loaded today.” I told him he wasn’t on the manifest and he couldn’t be loaded until the next day. He didn’t care about that, he just wanted 5 boxcars. What he would have done is filled those boxcars with infantrymen and it would have been a disaster. The area didn’t have the weapons they needed, it wasn’t clear. He said I was being disrespectful to an officer and he’d have me court-martialed. I said, Sir, please have me court-martialed! We were working 24 hours per day, seven days per week. We never stopped, we never went to bed, and

A moment’s rest.

A moment’s rest.

we slept right on the locomotive whenever we could. The Regimental Commander drove down and he said,” “Sergeant, I understand you had a problem here today”. I said, “no sir, I didn’t have a problem. He had the problem!” The commander told me, “Even if a General comes do the same thing! We’ll back you up 100%.”

“So when I came back to the states I was sent to Wyoming. Was it COLD! Here I am on guard duty at 3:00 am and the temperature was 15 below zero! That was quite a shift from Hawaii! I had wanted to go to New Orleans because it was warmer there.

One day I met a lady who was attending a Meatpackers Association convention. She invited me to a party. Then she invited me to a New Year’s Eve dance at the Officer’s Club. I told her I couldn’t go I wasn’t a commissioned officer and she said as long as we were together I could get in. So I went. I met a Lieutenant there who worked in the discharge company he said ‘by God, you’ve done enough! Come see me at my office next Wednesday!” He said they’d transfer me to the discharge company and “as soon as we get everything in order, we’ll get you discharged and ship you home.” “ Of course, with the Battle of the Bulge they weren’t allowing discharges. Instead they took those of us who had been overseas and positioned us with people who were never there. I landed a prison guard job. There were one hundred guards over this little dinky shed. We carried billie clubs, that was all. Some guards would buy these little inhalers of Benzadrine for twenty-five cents and sell them for $1.00. Prisoners would break them open and drink them with hot water to get high. Most of the prisoners were rapists, thieves or jumped the boat. You know, those who were absent without leave, they didn’t want to fight.

One time I went AWOL. I was supposed to go in at 12:00 at night when they changed shifts, but had been invited to go to a party, so I called the Lieutenant. He said” “NO! You better come back.” “So, I called the base commander. He said, “Sergeant you should comeback.” “I decided to visit my girlfriend in Anderson, Indiana. So the next day I knew I’d be in trouble especially going over the Lieutenant’s head. But they had had a riot that night! The prisoners had burned down the dispensary. They didn’t have arms inside, but they had taken spoons which they’d flattened and sharpened. They were like daggers. I missed the riot but they didn’t miss me. They didn’t take the usual roll call so no one even knew I was gone! I was so lucky.

I’ve always been lucky and I know why I was so lucky! I was meant to go home where I would have eight daughters and seven sons! When I left the military I tried to get a job with the railroad. They wanted to start me as

A young Walt Tucker.

A young Walt Tucker.

a brakeman. I had experience as an engineer in the army so I didn’t want to be a brakeman. I ended up going to work for a company digging ditches instead. The ditches were five feet wide and six feet long, we were a bunch of laborers laying gas lines. Some of us would go to the tavern after work and play shuffleboard, or shoot darts.

One payday, the police came in selling tickets for the policeman’s ball. They asked me if I wanted to go. I said I’d think about it. This woman (who later became my wife) said,” “you’re not going to go to the policeman’s ball because I want you to take me to my sister’s graduation. If you don’t, I’m not going to give you your paycheck.” So, I didn’t go to the ball and it was the best thing I ever did! I guess the other guys were envious. The other guys figured here was the son-in-law to the owner and anything they do he’d find out. Not me, never happened. I took all the dirtiest jobs. I had a rough time as the son-in-law. Eventually I came to be the floorman, then a supervisor and then the Safety Director.

My wife’s father owned the construction company. They had contracts to repair and install equipment. That guy was good to me. He thought I was great and did a good job. I worked very hard for him.

My wife lives with my daughter Janice now. Janice works for John Hopkins University and travels all over the United States. I told her to buy what you need, not what you want. Wants come later in life. My wife is 88 years old now and needs lots of help which I can’t give her. The Veteran’s Association will take care of me when I need that sort of help. They give me disability each month. “

Walt says his disability is due to stress. Even now, he wakes up almost every night having horrible nightmares. He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress syndrome. He relives December 7th every night. When pushed for more information on what the nightmares are about, all Walt would say was, “body parts and stuff I saw there.”

Walt says the most fun he had in the service wasn’t watching the hula dancers although he has photos of them. Walt says his best day was the day he was discharged. Walt is a member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association which meets once a year at Pearl Harbor and gets together throughout the year at other sites connected to the war.

In the morning of December 7th, 1941, ‘a day that will live in infamy’, 2402 men died while another 1282 were injured in an attack on Pearl Harbor by 353 Japanese planes. In an attack that lasted less than two hours, 18 ships were severely damaged or sunk including 8 battleships, three cruisers and three destroyers. The USS Arizona suffered the most casualties, one thousand sailors still remain there. 163 American planes were destroyed and another 102 damaged. Walt thinks the numbers are much higher!buyers

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