The day Walter Tucker became a man began when he awoke at 7:30 in the morning by the sound of aircraft. He thought it was the Navy out training again.
Tucker was a 20-year-old staff sergeant in the Army’s port service command then, stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, almost 5,000 miles from his Philadelphia home.
Sixty-six years ago today, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed the course of American history and the lives of those, like Tucker, that survived the bombing.
“We were boys until the first bomb dropped,” Tucker said. “When the first bullet passes by your ear. That’s when you become a man.”
Soon after he woke up, Tucker, now an 86-year-old East Naples resident, stood outside with a rifle and no ammunition, hiding behind a Coconut Palm tree. The Japanese were machine-gunning the grounds of Schofield Barracks, about 15 miles north of Pearl Harbor. Tucker looked up and saw a pilot wearing a leather helmet and goggles and laughing at those below him.
When the shooting stopped and Tucker realized he had survived he went to a water fountain for a drink. He discovered his dread left him unable to swallow.
“The feeling I had, I can’t describe it,” he said. “It was pure terror.”
Three days later, Tucker helped bury the dead in wooden boxes.
As the events of Pearl Harbor Day and its survivors grow older, fewer voices remain that can speak to the attack’s legacy and its importance. Last year, the 65th anniversary of the attacks was the last time the survivors gathered together in Hawaii. Tucker attended the ceremony.
There’s a need, Tucker said, for those left to tell their stories to others.
Duane Reylets, the state chairman for the Florida chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, said 20 survivors from the state die each year. Four hundred remain in Florida and about 5,000 are still living across the country, said Reylets. The organization has reduced its local chapters in the state from 15 to seven.
Reylets, 85, encourages all survivors to talk to the media and local schools about their experiences.
Reylets himself was in the Navy and on the USS Oklahoma when the attack came that sunk the boat.
“I happened to find a porthole,” Reylets said.
Paul Smith, 86, who also lives in East Naples, is one of the few survivors remaining in Collier County. Each year, he flies his white Pearl Harbor Survivors flag on his flagpole below a Marine Corps flag and the American flag. Smith, the subject of a Daily News profile last year on his wooden domino making, had to stop his hobby this summer for health reasons.
When Smith hears of a fellow Pearl Harbor survivor’s death, it hurts.
“You miss them,” Smith said. “Just like a brother.”
Tucker plans to be around to tell his story for some time. Seventeen more years to be exact, he said. His war stories are popular with his 15 children, 22 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
Just a couple weeks ago, Tucker said, he was golfing on Florida’s east coast when course’s pro heard he was a Pearl Harbor survivor. The pro said his father was at Pearl Harbor, but he didn’t talk about it very much.
The pro wanted to hear Tucker’s story.