War Bonds

“She’s the other half of me.”

I would have loved to have included the Tucker’s story in War Bonds but I just met them last week. Stories like theirs are so worth telling.

Colin Mulvany, Spokesman Review photo

During the 1940s and ’50s many lasting love stories began in a roller rink. That’s just what happened to Harold “Tom” Tucker and his bride, Shirley.

“I was a sailor stationed at Farragut,” Tom said. “I got liberty and came into Spokane to roller skate.”

It was spring 1944 and he and other sailors on leave often took a bus to Cook’s Roller Rink (now Pattison’s). Shirley, 17, was a senior at North Central High School. When she skated past, Tom noticed.

“I saw her and I though, WOW! I gotta meet that lady!” he said.

They skated together, but Shirley wasn’t swept off her feet. She shrugged. “He was alright.”

Tom laughed. “She just liked sailors,” he teased.

“Oh stop that!” his wife retorted.

A few weeks later he showed up at Cook’s again and quickly sought her out. This time he asked for her address and phone number. They skated every couples skate together and held hands. “Oh boy! That was fun!” Shirley said.

Her parents weren’t thrilled about her dating a sailor, but they figured the youthful romance would quickly blow over.

It didn’t.

After skating, Tom would walk her home from the bus stop. They’d often pause and sit on a wooden fence that surrounded a sand pit. “That’s where I kissed her for the first time,” said Tom. “The wind came up and blew my hat off. Down it went, into the sand pit. She’s a powerful kisser to blow my hat right off!”

In August, Tom asked her father for Shirley’s hand in marriage. “I was madly in love by then,” she said.

Her father’s response? “Absolutely not! You are both too young.”

Shirley was heartbroken, knowing Tom would soon be sent overseas.

“I cried and cried,” she said. But when Tom shipped out for the South Pacific, she still didn’t have a ring on her finger.

A flurry of letters ensued and when Tom got a 10-day leave he bought her a ring and mailed it to her.

“My folks didn’t say anything that time,” Shirley said. “They could see it was serious.”

Also serious was the trauma that Tom was about to endure. The 19-year-old hospital corpsman was stationed aboard the USS LaGrange and anchored at Buckner Bay near Okinawa.

One night, 13 Japanese twin-engine bombers attacked.

“They hit every ship around us, but didn’t hit us,” said Tom. “We were young. We stood on the fantail and cheered the anti-aircraft fire. We hollered every time they shot down a plane.”

Then on Aug. 13, 1945, two days before the war ended, the LaGrange was attacked by two kamikaze pilots. One plane struck the ship and damaged it before crashing into the water. The other, carrying a bomb, plunged through the ship and the bomb detonated.

“I was in the dental office trying to write a letter to Shirley,” Tom said. “I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I went to the mess hall to watch a movie. Five minutes later, the bomb went right through the dental office. The next morning I found my belongings floating in the water.”

In the following hours, Tom did his best to care for the wounded and dying.

“There was fire on the deck – so many men were badly burned. One guy asked for water. I gave him a sip and held his head while he drank. The back of his head came off in my hand. He died 30 minutes later,” said Tom.

“People really don’t know what these guys went through at 18 and 19,” Shirley said.

The LaGrange suffered the war’s last casualties about a U.S. ship.

The event so shook Tom that he wrote Shirley a letter saying, “Forget about the wedding. We’re not getting married.”

Stunned, Shirley wept bitterly. Her father cautioned her to wait before replying, and she did.

Not long after, another letter arrived apologizing for the earlier missive and asking her to make wedding plans.

On Nov. 11, 1945, while on a 30-day leave, Tom and Shirley were married at Pilgrim Lutheran in Spokane. When his leave was up, Tom returned to duty and the couple spent the first six months of married life apart.

After his discharge in spring 1946, they lived for a time in Spokane before Tom said, “I want to go home.”

Home was Illinois. Initially, Tom had a hard time adjusting to the Pacific Northwest. “I thought I was in prison,” he said. “I couldn’t see because of the big trees and mountains!”

But after a few months in Illinois, he turned to Shirley and said, “Honey, I want to go home.” This time home meant Spokane.

In 1950, Tom joined the Spokane Police Department and was assigned to the motorcycle unit. Shirley gave birth to three children; Douglas in 1947, Ronald in 1949 and Pattie in 1951. She worked for many years at a neighborhood pharmacy.

After 25 years on the force, Tom retired and then took a job as an investigator for the state Department of Revenue. He was also very active in the Masonic Lodge, and in his 60s became an ordained minister, serving for a time as interim pastor of the United Church of Christ in north Spokane.

For 69 years, Tuckers have supported and encouraged each other. “We talk about everything and make all our decisions together,” said Shirley. “He has always been there for me – always.”

Tom looked across the room at the girl he first saw at the roller rink so many years ago and said, “She’s the other half of me.”

Cindy Hval, Spokesman Review, December 11, 2014