Strings, Squirrels, and Sharpshooting: Sergeant Frank A. “Hike” Tucker

It was a modest thing, Hike’s homemade violin, just a few bits of scrounged wire strung to a cigar box in the vague shape of a Stradivarius, but he loved it just the same. The boy would saw away, tunelessly at first, after school and after chores, fingers searching for a melody. In 1924, when he was ten, he picked countless rows of cotton on neighboring farms. The money he earned went to his mother, then to Sears Roebuck, and one day a real violin arrived in the mail – a dream come true. Hike played for anyone who would listen. Enthusiasm begat talent, and by the time he finished eighth grade it was reckoned that Hike Tucker “could play almost anything with strings.”[1]

The dream of playing professionally ended along with Hike’s formal education in 1929. He still loved his violin; every now and then he’d take it to town to play for the other young people of Choctaw County, Oklahoma who came to Hugo on a Friday or Saturday night to mingle, dance, and forget about chores for a while. The needs of family and farm came first. When the Works Progress Administration offered a wage of $40 per week, Hike learned the trade of a stonemason. He shaped stones, built walls and buildings, and his musician’s hands grew rough and callused. He married in 1933, and was a father by 1934. Young Wayne Tucker became the most important thing in Hike’s life; when the marriage soon soured, Hike filed for divorce and custody of the little boy. Both were granted in December 1936.[2]

Early the next year, Hike quit the WPA and applied for a job with the Babcock Brothers Auto Supply. He started as a clerk at the Hugo branch, and quickly worked his way up to a “super salesman.” Hike was “a high-pressure boy, with a reputation for getting results,” and he was soon traveling the district selling auto parts to the drivers of Choctaw County.[3] Babcock’s encouraged its sales force with contests; Hike won a .22-caliber rifle and, in the mornings before work, would trek out to the woods to shoot at squirrels. He became an avid small-game hunter, and every morning his marksmanship improved. Hunting was a pleasant pastime for the present – but the future grew more ominous with every warlike news report from overseas, and in October of 1940, Hike registered for Selective Service.

The year that followed passed in much the same vein. Hike hunted squirrels, sold parts, and raised Wayne, now six years old. Wayne spent part of every year with his mother, so Hike packed the boy off for his three-month stay and accompanied his own mother and sister on a visit to family in Tennessee during the summer  of 1941. The Christmas decorations were likely going up at Babcock Brothers when the 7 December attacks put Pearl Harbor on the map and changed the trajectory of Hike’s life forever. The violin and .22 were stored away. Wayne took his belongings to stay with his mother for the duration. And Frank Allen “Hike” Tucker, the hot-shot salesman from Hugo, enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on 3 January 1942.

Private Tucker approached boot camp with his customary dedication – so much so that he was promoted to Private First Class immediately after completing his training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. His first assignment was guard duty with a detachment at the Naval Ammunition Depot in Hawthorne, Nevada – the largest ordnance storage facility in the country. Once a fading mining town with a few hundred residents, Hawthorne was now home to thousands of munitions workers and servicemen.[4] The Marines were there to patrol the base, not the town; still, many of the guards themselves were written up for disciplinary infractions. Not so Frank Tucker, who impressed his commanding officer with his attention to duty, cooperation, and loyalty. Within a few months, Tucker was promoted to corporal, then to sergeant. Each advance increased the allotment he arranged to send to his ex-wife, Bertha Reagan, for Wayne’s welfare.

By now, Tucker was ready to re-marry, too. He knew Wilma Aileen Crews from Hugo; she was twenty-seven, a farmer’s daughter, and member of the Choctaw Nation. Aileen traveled up to Hawthorne, where she and Frank were married in a small ceremony on 12 November 1942.

 

Sergeant Tucker remained at Hawthorne for another four months; he continued to receive excellent performance marks, and was being considered for promotion when transfer orders arrived in early April. Tucker would proceed to Camp Joseph H. Pendleton in Oceanside, California, and report to the barracks of a brand new regiment: the 24th Marines. He was sent down the line: from regiment to the First Battalion; from Battalion to Company A; from Company to the weapons platoon commanded by a fresh-faced second lieutenant named Philip E. Wood, Jr.

Machine gunners of A/1/24 at Camp Pendleton, 1943. Sergeant Frank Tucker is at far left in the first row.

The platoon was comprised of mortar and machine gun squads; Sergeant Tucker was named leader of the machine gun section. His charges were mostly teenagers in their first few months of service; a few of the NCOs had some overseas service, but few were combat veterans. It would take the balance of the year to bring the entire 4th Marine Division into fighting shape. Tucker weathered the conditioning hikes, the amphibious landing exercises alongside, or in front of, his men. Before long, he was a well-established part of the company.

“Sgt. Tucker–section leader machine guns. A lot of the boys’ nicknames are strictly masculine, but you can guess his. ‘Taxi’ Wanagaitis sitting on one of our three light machine guns. Light? 62 pounds is plenty, even without ammo.”

On 13 January 1944, the transport ship USS DuPage fired up her boilers, cast off her moorings, and steamed out of San Diego for open sea. She was loaded to the rails with the First Battalion, 24th Marines and their attached support troops – more than a thousand men. Some of these gathered at the stern to watch the California coast recede over the horizon. They argued and speculated over their destination, then meandered over to the chow line. Somewhere in the mass of sweating humanity, Frank Tucker quietly celebrated his thirtieth birthday.

Days aboard the DuPage were spent doing calisthenics, attending lectures, test-firing and cleaning weapons, ship spotting, waiting in the chow line, betting on whether or not this was The Real Thing. Nights, however, were for the men to enjoy, and the musically inclined would put on impromptu shows for their buddies. Many could sing, and some could even sing well; one man lugged along an accordion. There is no indication that “Hike” Tucker brought his violin into the service, but he must have missed it more than ever on the long voyage into war.

 

The correspondents descended on Company A as soon as the battle was over, thicker than the flies gathering on nearby corpses. Word traveled fast on the tiny twin islands of Roi and Namur, and the news-hungry reporters roamed the fighting holes and craters collecting their stories. They wanted to know about PFC Steve Hopkins, whose father advised the President, and Company A told tales of how “Hoppy” ran back and forth carrying ammunition until a bullet took his life – careful, always, to omit any suspicions that the bullet was American and not Japanese. They wanted to know about “the Daring Dozen,” and Company A told tales of twelve men who routed seventy-five Japanese, then fought them all night until the rest of the men could catch up. And they wanted to know about the “Okie Sergeant” who had killed so many Japanese – some said thirty, some said fifty – with single shots to the head while emerging unscathed.[5]

Hike Tucker was a popular man that morning. With the self-effacing charm of a small-town salesman, he told about leaving platoon headquarters to “do more good” on the front line. He attached himself to an assault platoon, attacked a pillbox with a stranger named Robbins, and was swept up in the rush of the “Daring Dozen.” He and Robbins were so close on the Japanese heels that when their adversaries jumped into a trench and started shooting back, the two Marines simply leaped over the ditch and kept on running for cover. From a vantage point behind a palm tree, they sniped away all night. Robbins was wounded; Tucker had holes in his helmet, field glasses, and canteen, “but not my skin… near misses… guess I was lucky.”[6] Grinning, he showed them the palm tree – stripped of bark by bullets – and the Japanese rifle and watch he planned to send home to Aileen. It was all luck, said Tucker, luck and squirrel hunting. He was perfectly, even heroically, laconic.

I have quite a few Japs to my credit, I guess. They just wouldn’t take cover and I probably killed more than 30. The boys in the trenches were tossing grenades to me, and I stood up and yelled like murder and just kept throwing them.[7]

 The correspondents took down his name and home address, and departed. Each would fill in the story with his own details, real or imagined, to make gripping reading for the folks at home. Within two weeks the story of Sergeant Frank Tucker, The Salesman And Violinist Who Became A War Hero was running in newspapers across the country.

 

A small sampling of the “Joe Blow” stories written about Frank Tucker following the battle of Namur.

First Lieutenant Philip E. Wood, Jr. took a break from his paperwork to write a letter home.

Nothing special been happening the last few days. I’ve been working on recommendations for awards – Silver Star, etc. They’re tough to write and hard to get the facts on, but it’s pretty interesting. Two of the men in my platoon – Sergeant Tucker and Corporal [Arthur B.] Ervin – are up for the Navy Cross. For a long time we were considering Tucker for the Congressional – the highest the country has to offer. You may have read some of the stories about him and the “Daring Dozen” – A Company boys. They are flamboyant in spots, but on the whole they don’t do him justice.[8]

In truth, Sergeant Tucker was no longer one of Wood’s men. The Weapons Platoon was no more, a victim not of combat but of administrative reshuffling that deemed the concept inefficient. Not long after arriving at Camp Maui – the 4th Marine Division’s overseas home – Tucker was detached from his duties as a machine gun section leader and reassigned. A leadership shuffle in the First Platoon created a vacancy; Tucker was appointed as acting platoon sergeant to the new leader, Second Lieutenant Paul J. Rossi of Bayonne, New Jersey. Rossi welcomed the help: a former mess officer, he had precious little experience as a leader of men, and had never been in combat. Having the company’s most famous NCO along to help was a major morale builder for the men of First Platoon.

On 26 April 1944, the entire 4th Marine Division turned out for a parade and to award medals and citations earned in the recent battle of Roi-Namur. Admiral Nimitz was present for the occasion; he made a short speech which Wood judged “very moving – set just exactly the right note,” then proceeded slowly down a row of men drawn up at attention. An aide followed with a small mountain of medals. The august Admiral paused at each man as a terse description of inexplicable bravery was read to the assembly.

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Sergeant Frank A. Tucker, United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty while serving with Company A, First Battalion, Twenty-Fourth Marines, FOURTH Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces during the invasion of Namur Island, Kwajalein Atoll, on 1 February 1944. When the Forward Echelon of his company was pinned down by the cross fire of enemy machine guns, Sergeant Tucker fearlessly exposed himself to the withering hail which continued to cause heavy casualties among his comrades and, calmly opening fire with his rifle, directed a deadly fusillade against the enemy, killing numerous Japanese. Concerned only for the safety of his comrades, he remained steadfast in his dangerously vulnerable position until the wounded were pulled into nearby shell holes and an adequate defense had been established. By his great personal valor and unwavering devotion to duty throughout this critical engagement, Sergeant Tucker saved the lives of many of his comrades and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

The admiral’s hand reached out, pinning the blue and white ribbon to Sergeant Tucker’s blouse. There was a handshake, a salute, and the barest of smiles before Nimitz moved on. It was a heady moment for all. “There are about 65 companies in the Division, and A Company got 3 out of the 4 awards made to enlisted men!” crowed Lieutenant Wood. “And to top it all, two of those men were in my platoon! Ervin and Tucker. I felt pretty damned proud…. It was a pretty drunken night last night.”[9]

 All too soon, they were at it again.

Not two weeks after the ceremony, Sergeant Tucker was herding the First Platoon up the gangways of another transport, the USS Calvert. They packed like sardines below decks – the Calvert was packed beyond capacity – and spread out on deck, finding shelter wherever they could. Another long sea voyage lay before them; once again, the destination was unknown; once again, light training and heavy boredom took up most of their days. On the way, they heard about the invasion of Europe, and for the first time in a long while they began to believe that the war might someday end. Then their operations orders were posted, they found they were bound for Saipan, and would be landing in the middle of June.

Sergeant Tucker paced out the path he would take from his rack to his assembly area, then to Davit #3 where an LCVP sat, squat and ugly, waiting to carry him the final distance to Saipan. As the acting platoon sergeant, Tucker had charge of his own boat; he would be responsible for bringing his runner, his corpsman, and the entire Third Squad ashore in one piece. Tucker rehearsed his role and made sure his guide, Corporal Svoboda, knew it too.[10]

The regimental headquarters also sailed aboard the Calvert; there were correspondents among them, and at least one wanted to find how the great Hero of Namur was preparing for another taste of combat. Tucker was only too glad to oblige. “Just before we left the ship, Tucker came down and talked a great deal about the folks at home,” wrote Second Lieutenant Jim G. Lucas. “He showed the picture of his 10-year-old son, who weighs 135 pounds and is all muscle, and said the kid was dead set on becoming a Marine.” Lucas presented Tucker with a handful of newspaper clippings from hometown newspapers, telling the story of his Navy Cross. “‘Don’t know what I’ll do with them,'” (said Tucker), then “stuck them in his pack.”

“They were still there when he died.”

Miami (Oklahoma) Daily News-Record, July 10 1944.

Hike’s second battle was just as short as his first, if not shorter.

He brought his men to Saipan, as he was ordered; he shepherded them through their first exposure to serious artillery fire in the town of Charan Kanoa, and through the first hectic night as shells rained down on men huddled in captured trenches. The next morning, they advanced up a ridge under fire, made an abortive attack on a pillbox, and darkness fell before the wounded could be evacuated. Company A dug in and nervously awaited what the night might bring.

There was no horde of correspondents the following day: there were no conspicuous acts of heroism committed during the awful night of 16-17 June. There were only men fighting to survive, and those stories were a dime a dozen. Still Sergeant Edward F. Ruder thought he had a scoop when word reached headquarters that Frank Tucker had been “found dead in the field.”[11] And a scoop is what he wrote:

Although wounded by mortar fire, and with his machine gun knocked out, Sergeant Tucker and a handful of other Marines, many of whom were wounded and weaponless, fought with knives, shovels, picks, and rifle butts as they chose to die rather than let the enemy encircle their comrades….

When Tucker’s machine gun was put out of action by enemy fire, the Sergeant picked up a small shovel and stood his ground. Four Japanese died under his furious blows.

Finally the former auto parts salesman was overcome. His fighting career, which reached its zenith on Namur Island in the Marshalls last February, ended in Saipan’s Death Valley, a name given to a small depression in the earth where Tucker’s small band was annihilated to the man by hard-fighting Japanese.[12]

Sergeant Tucker’s death certificate, issued by 1/24th Marines.

It was a fitting end for a fighting Marine – and it was also fictitious, an embellishment that sprang from Ruder’s typewriter or the careful statements of Tucker’s buddies, resentful of the reporter’s questions. The bare facts were plain to see: the sergeant’s body had been found at first light. “My God, was he riddled!” exclaimed the Company A skipper, Irving Schechter. “I used to wonder what the people back home thought when they saw the name of someone they knew on a KIA list. Did they think the corpse looked like the one they’d seen in a funeral parlor back home? Because if they did, they were sadly mistaken.”[13]

It would later develop that a Company A machine gun team had, in fact, been overrun and wiped out. Tucker, perhaps forgetting his duties with the First Platoon, decided to make a reconnaissance of the remaining guns and mortars and report his findings to Captain Schechter. “The poor guy had just started to crawl back to his platoon when he caught a full machine gun blast in the stomach,” Schechter told an interviewer in 1982. “Even today I can see him, literally cut in half.”[14]

If Schechter knew the full truth, he was still carefully concealing it nearly four decades later. The enlisted men, however, knew exactly what had happened. “Sgt. Tucker was killed by one of our own men,” remembered PFC Tommy Lynchard. “He failed to remember the password and was cut down by a BARman’s fire after dark as he was coming back…. Our whole company was in shock.”[15]

“Tucker had his own way of doing things,” said another Marine. “He was challenged while checking the guns on the O-1 line. The challenge was always a state and a city – and he wouldn’t give the password. He just said, ‘It’s me, it’s me.'”[16]

As his company saddled up for another day’s advance, Frank Tucker’s body was brought to the brand-new 4th Marine Division Cemetery. His was the seventy-seventh grave of a cemetery that would grow into the thousands – and include his former platoon leader, Philip E. Wood, Jr.

Telegrams were sent to Hugo, Oklahoma, where Aline Tucker (Hike’s mother) and Aileen Tucker (Hike’s wife) mourned their loss; and to Hayward, California where Mrs. Betha Reagan had to break the news to her son, Wayne Tucker. The boy was heartbroken – “he was so fond of his father,” wrote Bertha – and wrote a letter to President Roosevelt if he might have his father’s medals. This letter so moved one Marine official that he arranged to have duplicate decorations sent specially to Wayne.

Wayne Tucker’s letter to the President.

On 18 June 1948 – four years after his death on Saipan – Frank Allen “Hike” Tucker returned to Hugo for burial in. In 1954, the Hugo American Legion paid him an additional tribute, renaming their post the “Sanders-Tucker Post 59.” Wayne, sadly, did not witness this final honor for his hero father. On 26 July 1953, PFC Wayne Allen Tucker, US Marine Corps, was killed in a traffic accident in Ventura, California. Father and son are buried together in Mount Olivet Cemetery.


 

[1] “Child Who Dreamed Of Playing Violin Wins Navy Cross for Pacific Heroism,” The Daily Oklahoman (28 May 1944).

[2] Frank Allen Tucker, Official Military Personnel File.

[3] “American Heroes,” The Neosho Daily News (14 June 1944).

[4] ” Hawthorne’s population mushroomed after the country entered the war, and the government built a nearby community called Babbitt to house employees. At one point during the war years, Hawthorne and Babbitt supported a population of 13,000.” http://www.onlinenevada.org/articles/hawthorne

[5] The exact total may never be known, however most sources at the time say that Tucker alone accounted for 32 Japanese lives, and Corporal Franklin C. Robbins with seventeen, for a total of 49.

[6] John R. Henry, “Crack-Shot Marines Prove It On Namur,” The Honolulu Advertiser (13 February 1944.)

[7] “So They Say,” The Chillicothe Gazette (18 February 1944).

[8] Philip E. Wood, Jr., letter to Margretta and Gretchen Wood, 13 March 1944. Author’s collection.

[9] Philip E. Wood, Jr., letter to Margretta and Gretchen Wood, 28 April 1944. Author’s collection.

[10] Annex How to Operation Order 2-44, “Boat Assignment Table,” BLT 1-24, 4th Marine Division, 6 June 1944. “Corporal Svoboda” may have been either John R. Svoboda or George F. Svoboda; Tucker knew both of these men from the old weapons platoon.

[11] Ruder was attached to Headquarters & Service Company, 24th Marines.

[12] Mrs. Mason Tucker, “Marine Sergeant Frank Tucker, Killed In Action, Won Navy Cross For Heroism,” The Daily News-Journal (Murfreesboro, TN) 11 September 1944.

[13] Irving Schechter, “The Lawyer Who Went to War,” Semper Fi, Mac, ed. Henry Berry (New York: Harper, 1982).

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Memories of Tommy Lynchard,” recorded in February 1989, unpublished notes in author’s collection.

[16] Interview conducted by the author in 2008. This Marine, a Company A veteran, wishes to remain anonymous.


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