Around 100 1950s graduates of the old S. D. Lee High School are expected to attend a six-class reunion in Columbus next weekend. The classes included in the event are those from 1950 to 1955. This is the 60th reunion of the Class of 1952 and the overall chairman of the joint reunion is Jane (Garton) Smith, a member of that class (she is married to Ron Smith, a member of the Class of 1948).
The reunion will begin with a banquet at the Country Club at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, May 4. Saturday night features the annual Lee High Sports Banquet at Walter Cole’s camphouse (on Luxalynn Drive, off Black Creek Road). Victor Lancaster and Ike Savelle are taking reservations for the banquet and it isn’t restricted to the 1950-55 Classes—anyone who ever participated in sports or was a cheerleader at Lee High may attend.
Legendary Army Ranger
(Lee High Class of 1952) Will Sign Copies of New Book at Lee Home
James Tucker graduated from S. D. Lee High School 60 years ago and left for college and the Army, but he is still remembered by many people here. It’s safe to say, in fact, that Tucker has left an impression on people everywhere he ever went. Most locals who remember Tucker know that he went on to have a distinguished Army career, but few know any details. Now Tucker has written a short book about some of his Army experiences that will be particularly interesting to the people who have long known him but that is very interesting in itself, whether the reader ever met Tucker or not (by the way, he is known by almost everyone simply as Tucker, though I remember that the late Columbus attorney Ben Owen, a great admirer of his, always referred to him as James. When I mentioned Ben Owen to Tucker this week he replied with a laugh, “Ben was the first guy I ever felt was more crude than I was.” High praise!). The book is titled An Infantryman’s Stories For His Daughter, the daughter being Charlotte Hardy of Columbus, wife of businessman Mark Hardy. The book was written with input by one of Tucker’s old comrades in arms, Lt. Col. (Ret) John E. Gross—Col. Gross adds some Tucker service “vignettes” (legends) that Tucker himself would have been too modest to include (such as Tucker riding his motorcycle through the officers club bar at the Ranger School).
In a prologue, Tucker explains to Charlotte that he is writing the book because he has realized that she knows very little about his 22-year Army career. He writes: “I realized that I I did not want to leave the earth without passing on to my family something that hints at the essence of whom I was as an Infantry soldier.” Tucker initially thought he would write about three episodes from his service but then decided to expand the book to include an episode from each of his assignments. Gross would add some over-the-top stories about the Ranger camp.
Figuring prominently throughout the book is Tucker’s wife, Lorraine, a Columbus native and 1963 graduate of Lee High. The Tuckers had two children, Charlotte and Carlton. Carlton became a world champion deep-sea sailor but died of a heart attack in 1998 at the age of 38.
In his book, Tucker mentions that he spent his boyhood in Yocona, Mississippi in lean circumstances but he doesn’t say much else about his early years or family. Yocona is in Lafayette County, a few miles southeast of Oxford. Times were tough everywhere in the mid-1930s, when Tucker was born, but they were probably particularly tough in rural Lafayette County—an area that was then becoming better known to the world as Yoknapatawpha County through the books of William Faulkner. There’s some truth in Tucker’s storyline about being the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who married the beautiful belle from one of Columbus’s big houses, but he obviously came from a solid family (and in Columbus he actually lived on Main Street just west of the tracks, apparently in the area where New Home Building Store is now). His parents (Elmer Hampton and Flora May Tucker) sacrificed in little Yocona to send him to the big town of Columbus to live with an aunt an uncle (Clarence and Jane Johnson) and attend Lee High, which for generations was known as one of the finest high schools in the state. He told me that his Uncle Clarence was “a brilliant man” who had served in the artillery in WW II. When Uncle Clarence was called up for the Korean War Tucker’s mother, who taught school in Lafayette County for 40 years, came down from Yocona to look after him during his last year of high school (she died at age 101). He was good at sports, particularly football, where he played fullback. “I think I was captain of the team,” he told me this week. (Last Friday I spoke to the Lions Club about my bike trip to Colorado last summer, and when I finished I mentioned Tucker’s book and asked Lion J. V. Carr, the legendary Lee High coach, if he remembered Tucker. Of course. I asked if Tucker was a good athlete. “He was tough,” replied his old coach. Later I told Tucker that I had talked to Coach Carr about him and he recalled getting a swat from the coach’s paddle “partially on my ass,” probably for talking out of place.)
After graduating from Lee High Tucker enrolled at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. He joked this week, “My mother and father, by working hard, let me go from the worst educational system in the U.S. [Mississippi] to the second-worst [South Carolina].” Then he added, seriously, “They worked hard and saw I got an education. They went beyond the pale to make sure I got an education, and I think so emotionally about it now.” At the Citadel, he did not go out for sports. He says he “studied and shined my shoes and my belt buckle—I found that if they shined nobody gave me a hard time.” He majored in “political science and [girls].” But he didn’t forget about the dazzling Lorraine Kaye back in Columbus, one year younger than him (Lee High Class of 1953). Lorraine was the daughter of WW I fighter pilot hero Lt. Sam Kaye and his second wife, Frances (French), and lived in the Street Home, which was on Main Street where the county administrative office is now located (this was the French family home). After Sam Kaye died Lorraine’s mother married Glover Wilkins, who is considered the father of the Tenn-Tom Waterway. (Lt. Sam Kaye’s had a son, Jack, by his first wife. Jack, who lived at Camellia Place and recently died, became a pilot in the Pacific and a professor of geology at MSU. Lorraine was Jack’s half-sister. Lorraine’s mother and Glover Wilkins had a daughter, Linda, who is Lorraine’s half-sister but was not related to Dr. Jack Kaye. Columbus architect Sam Kaye is a cousin of Jack and Lorraine.) Lorraine was sent to school at the University of Colorado but the 2,000 miles between Boulder and Charleston wasn’t enough to keep her and Tucker apart. Lorraine’s family was not in favor of the match. As Tucker says, “They did not want me.” He recalled this week that Winifred Sanders (late mother of current board of supervisors president Harry Sanders) was the first member of the Kayes’ social circle to welcome him and include him unreservedly in their events. (The Sanders boys still talk about how Lorraine’s mother would come out at dusk and work in the yard by moonlight; Tucker says that Lorraine has always been a night person too.)
Tucker went to Vietnam as a Major in 1967. He writes, “Pure luck placed me with the best battalion commander who ever served in Vietnam”: LTC Richard Cavazos, known as “The Boss.” Tucker began as executive officer for the 750-man-strong battalion and was later made operations officer, who is “responsible for planning every move the battalion makes.” In his book, he discusses the VC ambush at Ong Thanh, on Route 13 in October 1967, that resulted in the deaths of dozens of U.S. soldiers. The LTC commanding 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry had been killed and a replacement summoned. Tucker flew to the scene of the ambush in a helicopter with the replacement LTC. When they landed they saw an officer running toward the sound of the battle—it was Major Don Holleder, a former All-American receiver at West Point. From the air, Holleder had witnessed the entire command being wiped out and saw that the survivors were in a desperate struggle. He was killed before he could reach the surrounded soldiers. Holleder was awarded the Silver Star posthumously but recently, after new information about the incident at Ong Thanh became known, the decoration was upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. This weekend Tucker and his daughter Charlotte will go to Arlington, Va. for the 1st Infantry Division award ceremony. Tucker told me, “Up till the last few years nobody knew what I saw happening when Holleder was running toward his death.” A movie about Holleder is in the works.
Tucker himself received many decorations: Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for valor and two Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, Soldier’s Medal (the Army’s highest peacetime award for heroism) Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal with “V” device for valor and one Oak Leaf Cluster, a Purple Heart and several badges, including of course, the Ranger Tab.
I asked Tucker about the circumstances behind his Silver Star. He demurred at first but finally said, “It was for night combat on Route 13 in Vietnam. A whole bunch of kids were killed and I tried to sort it out.” He added, “The DFC was for operations in combat. In my battalion we fought almost every day, with little or no downtime. In Vietnam it was every day for a combat battalion. It’s impossible not to have all that stuff [medals] if you spent eight months in a combat battalion in Vietnam.”
The reason Tucker left after eight months was that he was seriously wounded while making a helicopter reconnaissance, after spotting what appeared to be a major staging area through a gap in the jungle canopy. This was in early 1967 and what he saw, he later realized, was preparations for the Tet Offensive.
Only a small portion of the book deals with Vietnam, however. Tucker is most remembered in the Army as commander of the Ranger school near Eglin AFB, Florida, now known as Camp Rudder (after WW II Ranger commander Earl Rudder (who, by the way, coached the late Columbus resident and WW II flyer Monk Fowler at a junior college in Texas; after the war Rudder went to Texas A & M and Fowler starred at the University of Tennessee). Tucker commanded the school for two formative years.
After returning from Vietnam Tucker was the youngest LTC in the Army, yet he never made general. In his book, he discusses the disagreement with a new commander that halted his advancement, and he explains the reasons why he acted as he did. He allows himself greater freedom when discussing the similar situation involving an officer and Ranger he had huge respect for, LTC Tony Herbert (his autobiography is Soldier). Tucker writes that Herbert was critical of aspects of the U.S.’s Vietnam policy in his book and “the Army turned against him. Not only did he stand his ground against the Army, but he held up during a blistering interview on CBS’s news magazine show, ‘60 Minutes.’ Tony retired a lieutenant colonel but he should have been a general; he just refused to toe the line.”
Tucker has written a very good and entertaining book—I’ve only touched on a few parts of it here. He said at one time that he was going to sign copies of the book and give them away at the Lee Home. Charlotte and I encouraged him to charge at least a couple of dollars, but I’ll be surprised if he does. I should add that at the tail end of his military career Tucker was stationed near Ft. Walton Beach, where he established a marina called The Boat. He applied the leadership principles he learned in the Army and the business has prospered.