Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.
(Downers Grove, IL) With his mortar platoon under attack and surrounded by North Korean troops, Joseph “Joe” Tucek, Jr., refused to surrender. Despite heavy fire from snipers and machine gunners just 100 yards away, Joe continued to fire his 4.2” mortars at the enemy’s position. His skillful targeting opened a hole in the North Korean line and the platoon withdrew to safety. For his “gallantry in action” at Waegwan, South Korea, on Aug. 15, 1950, the Army awarded Joe the Silver Star, the third highest combat medal.
” I’m so very humbled to receive this honor,” says Joe, who at the time was a private first class stationed with the First Cavalry Division’s Heavy Mortar Company, 5th Cavalry Regiment. “So many of our guys lost their lives on that extraordinary day. I also killed a bunch of North Koreans that day, and that’s something I will always live with.”
Joe grew up in Brookfield, IL, along with a sister and two brothers, including one who served in the Navy during the Korean War. Their father, Joseph, owned Tucek’s Bakery in Brookfield where Joe worked as a youth. His interest in the military began when he was just 12 years old, Joe says, having grown up following the news reports during World War II. His grandfather, a cavalry officer in the Czechoslovakian army, also served as an inspiration.
In 1948, Joe graduated from Riverside-Brookfield High School and “went right into the service,” enlisting in the Army at age 18. “I had the military in the back of my mind, and my folks couldn’t afford to send me to college, anyway.” The Army shipped Joe to Fort Knox, KY, for 16 weeks of basic training. The ordeal focused on physical fitness, discipline and military customs and “was not to my liking, but I made the best of it,” Joe says. When he was finished, Joe transferred to the Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, where the Army develops and tests ordnance and armor for vehicles.
Joe was to train as a tank mechanic, but after just six months, the Army sent him to Japan to replace soldiers rotating out of the First Cavalry Division, which was serving as the occupation force following Japan’s surrender in World War II. “Japan was a fun place to be,” he says. “They treated us like conquerors. They bowed to us for everything.”
Joe trained with the infantry and remained in Japan for a year until on June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army invaded its southern neighbor. While crossing the 38th Parallel, the well-armed North Koreans overwhelmed South Korean troops. Within days the invaders had captured Seoul. A small contingent of UN troops, including the U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry Division, arrived in July and attempted to stall the North Korean advance until reinforcements could arrive. The First Cavalry Division immediately began preparations to join the fight, and 10 days later, Joe boarded a Navy ship headed for the Korean peninsula.
“In Korea, we were supposed to make an amphibious landing at Inchon, but the enemy had long passed that position,” Joe says. “So, we landed unopposed at Pohang-Dong and drove to Taejon, where the North Korean Army had decimated the 24th Infantry Division.”
Fighting in the rough, mountainous terrain was brutal, Joe says, and the North Koreans continued to push the line forward. “They really bashed us. We lost half our company. Other companies lost more.”
As the Armed Forces continued to bring in reinforcements, the men were able to hold the perimeter outside of Pusan, repelling several waves of attack by the North Koreans. Their success changed the tide of the war, and U.S. troops recaptured Seoul on Sept. 27, 1950.
“The Air Force had really done a number on the North Korean Army, allowing us to bring in reinforcements,” Joe says. “And we pushed the North Koreans all the way back to the Chinese border. … but when the Chinese entered the fray, we got our butts kicked again.” The Chinese pushed the line south, Joe says, and Seoul was captured again. Eventually, the U.S. and its allies pushed the Chinese and North Koreans back to the 38th parallel, where the “fighting ground to a stalemate until the truce was signed.”
Joe arrived in South Korea with the rank of private first class and quickly rose through the ranks. He received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant when the Army “needed officers to lead platoons.” He took command of a platoon that had been captured by the North Korean Army, which marched them behind the lines, sprayed them with machine-gun fire and left them for dead. Only five survived, including a soldier from Chicago. In 1951, Joe returned stateside and landed at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, where he spent the next year training younger soldiers.
While on leave, Joe met his late wife, Betty, who also graduated from Riverside-Brookfield High School. They married at Fort Leonard Wood in 1952. Joe completed officer candidate school at Fort Benning, GA, and was promoted to first lieutenant. Next, the Army sent him to serve in Germany for a year, and in 1954 he returned. Although Joe intended to make a full career in the Army, his wife “didn’t like military life” and he sought a discharge. The couple bought a house in Downers Grove and raised five children there, where Joe still lives today.
Because of his experience at the family bakery, Joe took a position at Kirschbaum’s Bakery in Western Springs. “Even though I told my father I’ll never be a baker, when I got out of the service, low and behold, I took a job at a bakery.” Joe worked for Kirschbaum’s for 32 years, teaching generations of family members the art of baking. He retired in 1995.
Joe takes time each Veteran’s Day to visit students at his high school where he was installed on the school’s Wall of Honor. During his talks, Joe wears his medal and brings a collection of photographs and news clippings, including the front page article in the Chicago Daily News announcing Joe as a recipient of the Silver Star. Students always have lots of questions, Joe says, and he appreciates the thank-you letters they write to him.
Joe has eight grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. Thank you, Joe, for your service. Enjoy your well-deserved Honor Flight.