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A long overdue honor for a World War I heroSon, 80, accepts dad's Purple Heart Medal

Seven years shy of a century later, Russell E. Tucker Sr. got his due Friday at a ceremony where he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart Medal for wounds he suffered as a Marine in World War I.

From all accounts, Tucker was a quiet man who would have shied away from the elaborate ceremony during which Rep. Brian Higgins presented the medal to the war hero's 80-year-old son, Russell E. Tucker Jr. Five generations of the Tucker family watched and a Marine Corps color guard stood at attention.

"We present this long overdue recognition with honor and appreciation on behalf of a grateful country," Higgins said as he pressed the encased medal into the hands of the aging son at the Purple Heart Memorial in Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park.

The senior Tucker was a native of England who came to South Buffalo as a boy. At 19, he was wounded at the Battle of Belleau Wood in France. The battle started in early June 1918 and raged for weeks.

"In the wheat field at Belleau, Russell Tucker stood shoulder to shoulder with his fellow Marines, marched into German machine gun fire and drove the enemy out of the field," said Stephen T. Banko III, who was awarded four Purple Hearts for wounds he suffered in Vietnam.

The Marines engaged in hand-to-hand combat before finally driving the enemy from the woods. Impressed with their tenacity, the Germans nicknamed the Marines the "Devil Dogs."

Victory was costly. More than 1,000 troops perished, and several thousand were wounded.

"My father was shot in the head, in the temple, and in the right hand. He lost part of his knuckle on his index finger," the son said, recalling that whenever the subject of the First World War was mentioned, his father barely acknowledged he had served.

"He'd say, 'Oh, yeah, I was there,' but not once did he talk about it," his son said.

Tucker said he was driven to find out about his father's military service after reading about other war veterans in The Buffalo News' weekly feature, Salute To Veterans.

With the help of his daughter Linda Criss, they obtained copies of Russell Tucker Sr.'s military records and learned of his participation in the Battle of Belleau and his wounds.

The records, Criss said, showed that when her grandfather was honorably discharged in April 1919, he was given $229.11 in mustering out pay and the Good Conduct Medal.

She and her father then contacted Higgins' office a year ago, and the congressman worked with the Military Awards Branch to obtain the Purple Heart. The medal features a side profile of George Washington, who in 1775 established the honor, which was first known as the Ribbon of Merit and was purple in color.

But the ribbon was not issued in World War I, and not until 1932 did it become what it is now known today as -- the Purple Heart Medal, which recognizes military members wounded in combat.

Part of Tucker's motivation for enlisting in the Marines was to protect his homeland of England, family members said.

Once he completed his mission, he returned to South Buffalo, married the former Mildred Kintzel, and together they raised a family of four girls and three boys. He supported them by working in shipping and receiving at Weed & Co., a wholesale hardware outfit with a warehouse on Swan Street.

All three of the couple's sons served in the military. Gordon Tucker, the oldest, served in the Army Air Corps. He was shot down over Germany in World War II and taken prisoner. Russell Tucker Jr. served in the Army in the Korean War, and Richard Tucker served in the Army during peace time.

Gary Shea, a grandson of Russell Tucker Sr., paid the ultimate price while serving in Vietnam. He was killed in combat in 1968.

But Friday was not a day to mourn. Instead, it was devoted to remembering the gentle warrior who never sought glory.

One of Russell Tucker Sr.'s delights in life, before dying at age 72 in 1971, was to simply sit and watch family members when they came to visit in his South Buffalo home on Armin Place.

"He'd sit in the background. He loved to watch people. He'd listen and laugh when they laughed. He'd call my son and tell him to come over and bring peaches. He'd say, 'I love to watch you eat peaches,' " said Joan Tucker Powers of her father.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com.