His name was Joseph Andrew Tucker, and he was my grandpa–my mom’s biological father. We didn’t see him very often growing up, as he had remarried and devoted himself to his new wife’s family. I can’t say that I ever felt particularly close to this grandparent, though he was always kind to me.
Looking back, I came to realize that I did respect him. There seemed to be an aura of purpose and certainty around Grandpa Joe, along with a perpetual cloud of cherry tobacco, curling from his pipe. Yet, other than that youthful impression, I honestly knew very little about Joe.
The following is what I’ve pieced together since his death.
Joe Tucker arrived in Spokane, Washington in 1937. He came west from Arkansas following his five-year-old daughter, (as his ex-wife had settled in the Pacific Northwest). Joe found work with the Great Northern Railroad, because Spokane was, and still is, bisected with busy, screeching rail lines. At about the same time he found work, Joe met and married a local widow, a woman named Velma, who brought three children of her own into the marriage.
In and out of the US Army since initially enlisting in 1929; he was discharged after a second hitch in 1938. However, following the Pearl Harbor attack, and America’s entry into World War Two, Joe realized he’d surely be called back for active duty. Not anxious to leave his young daughter, or his new family, he requested a deferment of some kind, due to his previous service, and current domestic responsibilities. He was promptly denied. And, once again, Joe found himself in uniform.
Part of the XIX Corps, Joe Tucker and his new outfit underwent infantry training in support of an armored division. (When he departed Spokane, his new wife, Velma, switched on a kitchen radio, and didn’t turn it off for the next four years).
After six months at Camp Polk, Louisiana, the entire Corps shipped out for England as part of the buildup for the D-Day invasion. Joe and his company was stationed in the south of England, in Wiltshire, adjacent to Southampton, the primary staging area for Operation Overlord. In a letter to Velma on eve of the June invasion he cautioned her that Your’e going to see a lot of frightening news, but really, it’s not as bad as they say.
On June 6th, the first Allied wave crossed the English Channel, securing a beachhead in Normandy in exchange for thousands of American soldiers. Days later, Joe’s infantry unit, and accompanying tanks, rolled onto those same blood-soaked beaches; members of the XIX Corps bracing for their own European crusade.
For the next five months the XIX slugged their way from Castilly, to St. Lo, battling their way through the storied Siegfried Line, crossing the Meuse River in Holland. However, by mid-December, the slog to Germany came to a violent halt with an unexpected push-back in the Ardennes Forest, later called “The Battle of the Bulge.” During the darkest days of this German counter offensive, Joe and his buddies switched to defensive warfare, retreating back into Belgium.
My grandfather’s utter surprise at this sudden German attack is evidenced by an optimistic Christmas card he mailed to my mother’s elementary school in early December, 1944.
Late one night, Joe found himself on guard duty in the worst of the stalemate. His Sergeant voiced concern that my grandfather might have fallen asleep at his post. “Go check on Tucker, make sure he’s awake,” the Sarge ordered one of Joe’s buddies. But the fellow soldier came to his friend’s defense. “Sir, you can bet Tucker’s eyes are open.” And they were, Joe heard the whole exchange from his post.
Joe Tucker, second from left.
When Hitler’s last gamble failed in early 1945, the XIX Corps turned toward the east, battling their way into the Rhineland. Near Katzenfurt, Germany, an exhausted Joe Tucker, stumbled across an abandoned American tank left by a roadside. Weary, he crawled inside the hatch, falling asleep almost at once. Waking hours later, uncertain of where he was, or the time, Joe bolted awake to the sound of men shouting. He realized at once that the language was German, and that some kind of patrol was approaching his armored sanctuary. Alert, Joe sat up and seized the 50 calibre machine gun mounted on the tank. He opened up on the German patrol, saving his, and probably other GI lives. For this action, Tucker was awarded the Bronze Star.
German resistance began to noticeably give way the deeper into Germany the XIX Corps marched. Reaching the Elbe River, in Southern Germany, the Army encountered the Red Army for the first time. When the German surrender came, and the war officially ended, Joe Tucker received his orders to head home.
Finally back in Spokane by September, 1945, Sergeant Joseph Tucker was formally discharged. His wife, Velma switched off that kitchen radio. Her Joe had come home.
Once again, my grandfather resumed his job as a switchman at the Great Northern Railroad. And despite his earlier reluctance to activate in 1942, Joe Tucker volunteered for duty with the Washington National Guard.
In the years following the war, Grandpa became an active member of the Spokane Democratic Party. Influenced by his deep Arkansas roots, Joe carried New Deal sensibilities to Eastern Washington politics. His tireless work canvassing neighborhoods for local, state, and national candidates, eventually earned notice across the Cascades, in Olympia, and from gubernatorial candidate Albert Rosellini in Seattle.
By the late 1950’s, Joe Tucker’s modest home on Boone Avenue became the center of vital party planning. Velma later remarked on one occasion when Governor Rosellini, Senators Henry Jackson, and Warren Magnusson all conferred among her couch pillows and crocheted afghans consulting with my grandfather on major strategy. Joe was an esteemed asset, working city precincts with the same determination that carried him from Normandy to Germany. And the party counted him a senior operative.
All Joe wanted was a level playing field–that those with power and money would have to follow the rules everyone else did. The powerful could not exploit those who lacked position and privilege. He saw firsthand the power that every day American’s brought to enormous obstacles–he fought along side them in Europe. Joe believed that the rest of us were as worthy as the richest people in the country. His wartime experiences reinforced the curse of tyranny, and the absence of democracy.
You see, Joe Tucker was a foot soldier, nothing more, nothing less. In war, he committed himself to serve his country–an enlisted guy who lugged a rifle for the rest of us. In peace he poured that same devotion to his family, his job, and his wider community. There was work to do for America in all three spheres, and my grandfather never shirked away from doing his bit.
Have a safe and thoughtful Veterans Day.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. http://www.river-of-january.com. Also available on Kindle.
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