Veterans Day: A lifetime of memories and action|City native has spent 64 years following comrades

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The bitter cold, early morning hours of Nov. 20, 1944, are still painfully crisp in Fielding Tucker’s mind. The Vicksburg native was 19 years old, and had already been fighting in World War II with the Army’s 36th Infantry Division for about a year when he and others on patrol outside a small village in France were ambushed.

In an instant, two of his closest friends — with whom he had served since basic training in Fort McClellan, Ala. — were on the ground, one dead and the other mortally wounded.

Archie Taylor was nearing his 21st birthday when he was shot through the chest in Saint-Leonard. He died the following day. While giving first aid to Taylor, Charley Holm was shot through the head and instantly killed, but his body had to be left in no man’s land as the 136th was forced to retreat under heavy Nazi fire.  “I made a promise to myself that day,” recalled Tucker, now 83. “I promised that I would go back to that place to honor them if I ever got the chance.”

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Tucker would eventually make good on his promise, and more than once, but not before a decades-long search for the final resting places of his friends. In between getting married and trying to raise eight children with a job in the layout department at the Natchez Democrat, Tucker searched for Taylor’s relatives in Taylor’s hometown of Pinola, Miss., without luck. Meanwhile, all he knew about Holm’s childhood was that he had once told Tucker he was raised by an uncle and his family had never seen him in uniform.

“I was never going to give up,” said Tucker. “We were like family. Friends of war are not like friends of peacetime. When you been through that experience together and something happens to them — especially when you see them lying dead in front of you — you carry that with you for a long time.”

When Tucker made his first return trip to Saint Leonard in November 1991, he was hoping to locate Taylor and Holm’s graves. He came up empty at the American Cemetery and Memorial at Epinal, France, but learned Taylor could have been one of the 17,000 American soldiers whose bodies were sent back to the United States at the request of their nearest of kin.

While in Saint-Leonard, Tucker retraced for the first time the steps he had taken with Taylor and Holm leading up to what would be their last steps exactly 47 years earlier.

“It’s hard to explain that feeling. My mind was going back to everything that had happened to us since we were in basic training together — the good and the bad,” he said. “It wasn’t that I wanted to go back. I had to go back.”

When he returned from his first trip to France — of what has now become five — he was able to locate Taylor’s grave despite his failure to locate any of Taylor’s relatives. After much research and with help from his son and daughter-in-law, Taylor’s grave was found 8 miles outside of Georgetown, Miss., about 20 minutes west of Pinola.

“I broke out into a cold sweat. Really, I couldn’t believe it,” said Tucker of finally paying respect to his old friend — and later discovering one of his relatives by writing an open letter to anyone who knew Taylor that was printed by the Copiah County Journal in Crystal Springs.

On his second trip to France in 1994 — to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Saint-Leonard — Tucker would finally find Holm’s grave. Although he had always been listed as missing in action, Tucker learned the French had initially buried Holm in the field where he was killed. It was not until three years later, in 1947, that his body was exumed and relocated to the Saint-Avould American Military Cemetery, where Tucker eventually located it.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Tucker.

During his visits to Saint-Leonard, Tucker usually stays with the Bott family — whom he discovered on their vineyard farm, hiding from the Nazis in between large vats of wine in their cellar two weeks after Taylor and Holm were killed. He always goes in November with one of his children, and often joins a group who retrace the movements of the 36th during the liberation. In 1998 he was successful in convincing the mayor of Saint-Leonard to honor the men of the 136th by adding a memorial plaque to a prominent monument in the village.  

Taylor and Holm were not the only men in 136th who Tucker saw die in combat throughout his more than three years in Europe. By the time they reached Gingen, Germany, and the war ended, 138 of his fellow soldiers in the 36th were killed in action. When he finally returned to Mississippi, he had 39 months of combat behind him, 15 of them on the front lines. His service took him from North Africa to Germany via Italy, France and Austria.

To honor the memory of all those who served and died, he publishes a newsletter for their families every three months.

“I think about them every day,” said Tucker, who served a total of nine years in the Army and another seven years in the National Guard, “and they’re in my prayers every night.” 

He is still trying to contact many of the men with whom he served and is planning his next trip to France. Born and raised in Vicksburg, Tucker has made Natchez his home since 1950 but still makes regular visits to Vicksburg to visit his sister, Elsie Tucker Hossley. A widower since 1991, Tucker said his eight children are now grown and most still live in the Natchez area. He has recently finished a book about his experiences in World War II entitled “Promise Made, Promise Kept,” which he hopes to have published by Christmas.


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