By Tony Bamonte and Jack Pearson
Excerpted from their book, “Motorcycle Officers of Eastern Washington”
Above, Harold Tucker poses with Jayne Mansfield for a photo in Spokane in the 1960s. In town on a publicity tour, Jayne asked her bodyguard to find a Santa for a photo. This was easily arranged. Photo courtesy of the Tucker Family Archives.
Harold Tucker was born in Dahinda, Illinois in 1925. Dahinda is a small, unincorporated community in Knox County, Illinois. Harold’s father was a jack-of-all trades and his mother was a housewife. There were four boys and five girls in the family, all raised and attended schools in Knoxville, Illinois.
Following high school, many of his friends were drafted. This was upsetting to him, and rather than wait for his draft number to come up, he went down to the recruiting station and volunteered for the United States Navy.
When Harold joined the Navy he was sent to Farragut Naval Training Center, located on Lake Pend Oreille in Bayview, Idaho for his basic training. The history of Farragut, as a Naval training station, is interesting and needs a short introduction. In 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt allegedly noticed Lake Pend Oreille on a flight to Seattle. At the time, she had inside knowledge that her husband, President Roosevelt, was looking for a location to secure an inland naval training center. Roosevelt quickly made a secret tour of the area, and as a result, in late 1941, the U.S. government purchased over 4,000 acres. This purchase was made from private landowners, Kootenai County commissioners, and a railway company that owned much of the land. Roosevelt felt it was important to establish an inland naval base away from the western coastline, as at the time he feared a Japanese invasion.
Construction of the base began in March 1942. By September, the base had a population of 55,000, making it the largest populated city in Idaho. For the next nine months, over 22,000 men were employed at the site, working 10-hour shifts for 13 of every 14 days. They built mess halls, libraries, movie theaters, living quarters, chapels and other many other buildings. A total of 776 buildings were constructed. Because of the rush to complete buildings and a shortage of seasoned lumber, the majority of the buildings were constructed with green lumber. This was a major construction project for the entire Inland Northwest, which provided a badly needed economic stimulus for the surrounding communities following the Great Depression.
During its 30 months of existence, more than 293,000 sailors received basic training at the camp. The last recruit graduated in March 1945. Farragut was also used as a prisoner of war camp where nearly 900 Germans worked as gardeners and maintenance men.
The Farragut Naval Training Station served as boot camp for Navy recruits. Basic training at Farragut typically meant recruits left home for the first time, came to Farragut and learned basic military skills before heading off to fight in World War II. However, as is always as a condition of any military base, the recruits needed time and places to go for rest and recreation. Special trains, called Liberty Trains, were dedicated to the enlistees stationed at Farragut, making three trips a day to Spokane.
In 1944, Harold was going through boot camp at Farragut Naval Training center. During Harold’s training at Farragut, he and some of his Navy buddies would go to Cook’s Roller Rink (now Pattison’s) whenever they could get a pass. Cook’s had a reputation as a place with a wholesome environment and a good place to meet women.
In the spring of 1944, Harold met his future wife, Shirley, at Cook’s. She was 17 at the time, and a senior at North Central High School.
The relationship continued and grew. It eventually turned into a romance by correspondence after Harold shipped out. Harold’s assignment was as a hospital corpsman aboard the USS LaGrange. His ship was 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 Harold. “We were young. We stood on the fantail and cheered the anti-aircraft fire. We hollered every time they shot down a plane.”
The night before the war ended, on August 13, 1945, 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 three decks below.
At the time the LaGrande was hit, Harold was in the ships dental office trying to write a letter to Shirley. After a few attempts at writing, he kept coming up blank. He finally went to the mess hall to watch a movie. Within five minutes, the bomb went right through the dental office where he had just been.
The ship was a disaster area. There was fire on the deck and many men were killed or badly burned. As a hospital corpsman, Harold did his best to care for the wounded and dying. The next morning he found his belongings floating in the water on deck. You could honestly say Shirley saved his life that day.
On November 11, 1945, while on a 30-day leave, Harold and Shirley were married at Pilgrim Lutheran in Spokane. Following his leave, Harold returned to duty and the couple spent the first six months of married life apart, until his discharge in 1946.
In Spokane, Harold worked a number of other jobs, mostly at service stations – even owning one at one time at 38th Avenue and Grand Boulevard. In 1950, he took the civil service test for the Spokane Police Department and came out number 12 of 127. Beginning duty as a patrolman, he was later assigned to the motorcycle unit.
After 25 years on the force, Harold retired, taking a job as an investigator for the state Department of Revenue. He was also active in the Masonic Lodge, and in his 60s became a licensed minister, serving for a time as interim pastor of the United Church of Christ in North Spokane. Harold had an exceptional knack with both people and their kids. It was hard to know him and not immediately like and respect him.