The World War II and Korean War veteran with the warm Alabama drawl is amazed at how difficult the college admission process has become for young people.
When Charlie Tucker, 94, enrolled at Auburn University in 1941, all he had to do was present a receipt of graduation and a transcript from Woodlawn High School and he was accepted into the institution. Better yet, as soon as he and his buddy left the admissions office, a woman approached and offered them jobs — meals included — at her boarding house.
“Just like that, we were all set,” Tucker said.
It was a different time. By no means was it easier.
As a tail gunner on a B-25 in World War II, Tucker flew 17 missions with the 12th Bombardment Group over Burma. The La Cañada Flintridge resident also flew 55 missions in the Korean War, when he served as a navigator on B-26s targeting North Korean supply routes.
Flying proved to be a fine fit for Tucker, who went on to a career as a sales representative for four airlines — and who, in retirement, has continued to fly all over the world to vacation and explore.
PEARL HARBOR ATTACKED
On Dec. 7, 1941, Tucker was lying on the couch at his family’s home in Birmingham, Alabama, listening to music when an announcer broke in to say that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. The 17-year-old understood immediately what that meant for him.
“I knew I was going to be involved,” said Tucker during a recent conversation at his La Cañada Flintridge home, which is decorated throughout with paintings and photographs of airplanes. “I was 17 and I figured it wasn’t going to be a quick war, so I knew I’d be involved somewhere.”
In an attempt to exercise some control over his fate, Tucker visited the local recruiting office to ask if he might volunteer to fly.
“I was registered for the draft; everybody was,” Tucker said. “And I didn’t want to be in the infantry, so I said, ‘If I volunteer, can I make sure I go into the Army Air Corps?’” (At the time, the U.S.’ air force operated as part of the Army’s branch of the military.)
Tucker’s request was granted. After basic training, he was on his way to aerial gunnery school at Fort Myers, Florida, and then B-25 crew training in Columbia, South Carolina. Eventually, pilots, navigators, bombardiers, flight engineers and tail gunners — Tucker’s job — all “crewed up” for a couple months of training together.
And then, after about a year of preparation, they were off.
On Jan. 1, 1945, Tucker and his fellow crew members made the long journey from New York to their base in India, about 300 miles east of Calcutta, he said, where they became part of the 12th Bombardment Group.
From his seat at the back of the plane, where he had a nearly 360-degree view from within his glass capsule, Tucker flew with the group over Burma, now known as Myanmar.
“The primary mission,” Tucker said, “was to support the British 14th Army. They were starting a campaign to recapture Burma from the Japanese.”
Typically, he said, the airmen were dropping bombs from altitudes of 6,000 to 7,000 feet, a height that left crewmen feeling relatively removed from the devastation below.
“You don’t really realize how much damage your bombs are causing,” he said. “You just see a puff of smoke and dust rising up sometimes.”
But the last mission of that war was different. It required the full squadron of 12 B-25s to approach their target at an altitude of only 500 feet — a day Tucker remembers vividly.
“We were going to attack a village that the Japanese army had taken over,” he said. “They’d driven all the locals out, and we were hoping to catch them in that village and wipe them out. This one was different. We had an explosive incendiary bomb and we made one pass over the village — and we totally destroyed it. You could see the village just exploded in flames. You could feel the shockwaves shake the plane.
“But we didn’t get any anti-aircraft fire and we flew that mission successfully.”
As a tail gunner, Tucker’s job — “theoretically,” he said — was to defend the bomber against attacks by enemy planes. “But by the time I got there, we had such superiority that we were never attacked by any planes after I started flying,” Tucker said.
His aircraft suffered damage only once, he said, when it was hit by flak from the ground during a mission.
“It sounded like rain on a tin roof,” Tucker recalled. “We were lucky it did no significant damage. But when we landed at the airport, we were walking around the plane, looking at it, and in the ammunition case next to the navigator bombardier was a big piece of flak. If that storage case hadn’t been there, it would’ve hit him. When he saw that, he turned white as a sheet.”
Tucker said he did experience one distinct moment of terror during World War II — at the close of fighting.
“We’d pulled back into India and started training on a new type of plane, and we were still in that process when they dropped the atomic bomb and the war ended,” Tucker said. “So that night, everybody was feeling good and, believe it or not, up until then I had never had a drink of liquor. I grew up in Alabama and it was sinful to drink.
“But I thought if anything justified sipping a little bit, it was the fact that the war looked like it was going to end.’ And we had this little club there, and I went and had a drink of rum and Coke — and it didn’t take me long until I got sick. So I went outside … and about that same time, a bunch of guys decided to shoot their pistols off to celebrate the end of the war.
“I was going back toward my barracks and I could hear the bullets hit the trees and the sides of the building. I was the most frightened in the whole war right there. I was scared to death I was going to get shot.”
He survived the celebration and, four months later, had the best Christmas of his life when he returned home after being discharged on Dec. 22, 1945.
ANOTHER TOUR OF DUTY
Tucker returned to school, where the $75 a month he received from the GI Bill made for a “tight squeeze,” he said. Needing help covering his expenses, Tucker opted to take advantage of the new Reserve Officers Training Corps offered as a part of the nation’s newly established Air Force.
“We heard the Air Force was going to start an ROTC training program and they gave you $30 a month just to take that course, so I said, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
“I graduated from Auburn, I went back home, got a job as a coffee salesman and life was starting to feel pretty good,” Tucker said. “And then, of course, the Korean War started [in 1950]. And having taken the government’s money for ROTC, I was obligated to serve again.”
Tucker became a navigator on 55 B-26 missions in Korea, nighttime flights that targeted supply routes. Those missions proved relatively smooth for Tucker and his crew, he said, with one exception.
“It was night, and we were flying eastward,” Tucker said, “and all of a sudden, the voice of the gunner came over the intercom. He says, ‘Fighters! Fighters!’ so after a few seconds to collect our thoughts, we started to turn right, and at the same time, one of our Navy ships sitting in a harbor in the enemy’s territory called us and asked, ‘Did a plane just make a pass at you?’ And we said, ‘Yes!’ So from then on, he turned us, he directed us and we evaded the plane.”
Living through those adventures together created close bonds among Tucker and his fellow airmen. Starting in 1958, Tucker saw them annually at reunions of the China, Burma, India Veterans Association, which at one time had 7,000 members, he said.
“I went to every reunion until 2012,” said Tucker, who, according to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, is one of fewer than 560,000 American World War II veterans alive today.
“At one of the meetings we had over 1,000 veterans,” Tucker said. “But this last year, at our local branch of the organization, there was only three of us left, so we decided there’s no point [continuing].”
Tucker’s friend Phil Downs, whom he met when the two were working at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation unit, loves to listen to Tucker’s tales of war, which have driven home how scary war was for those involved.
“He’s amazing,” Downs said. “It was a different world and a different time. We have it really easy. It was ferocious; it really was hell.”
“He’s my hero,” wife Nina Tucker said.
The emotion that Tucker remembers most was the relief he experienced when the fighting ended, and his wartime experiences are never far from his thoughts. He commissioned artist Craig Kodera to re-create the scene of that last, low flight over the Burmese town in World War II.
The striking painting, titled “Box Over Burma,” hangs prominently on Tucker’s mantelpiece, an invitation for visitors to ask a question and learn a little about a time in history when enrolling in college was easy, but life was treacherous.