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By CNN chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper
His grave at Arlington National Cemetery reads: ANDREW EDWARD TUCK III, 1st Lieutenant, United States Army. But to comedian Stephen Colbert he was Uncle Eddie, a hero of Normandy and his mother’s beloved younger brother.
Tuck was in F-Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne, and jumped behind enemy lines on D-Day
“People are familiar with Easy Company from ‘Band of Brothers,’” Colbert says, referring to the Stephen Ambrose best-seller and HBO mini-series. “But this was Fox (Company), which went everywhere Easy went.”
In a bound volume, Colbert and his siblings have dozens of Tuck’s letters, including one sent just days before he dropped behind enemy lines on D-Day. June 6, 1944.
“Mom, do you want to go on a dream with me?” Tuck writes. “I'm tugging myself back to reality. It's quite a job. A little jingle keeps running through my head. Here I am on a hillside – master of all I view. That is, master to toy with each beauty in my mind. Each green hill bows gracefully into a valley. Each valley smiles back up to me, its face wrinkled with roads and gardens and clustered houses.”
Colbert reads the letters aloud – he prefers to use those in his uncle’s handwriting, not typed – with emotion. “Let me offer to God in Thanksgiving for what was and always shall be,” Tuck writes. “This is England in the spring of forty-four and warriors gaze eastward as warriors have before.”
“He’s looking eastward over the Channel at the hedgerows of France that he knows he has to drop into,” Tuck’s nephew observes. “You can feel a sense of purpose in it. You can also feel how lonely he is.”
Tuck at the time obviously didn't know if this was going to be the last letter he ever wrote.
And it almost was.
Tuck “landed in a little schoolyard, off of the main square at Saint Mere Eglise,” Colbert recalls. “He was one of the first on the ground and these Germans were patrolling. And they grabbed him right away. But as soon as they grabbed him, two other men came down on either side of him in trees on either side of the schoolyard. And they got hung up in the trees and they were shot and were killed. In the confusion, he dashed off down an alleyway and got away and then joined up with his company later.”
A few years ago, Colbert took his family – four children and wife Evie - to Normandy, with a guide who had done some research for them to retrace Uncle Eddie’s steps. They went to find the spot where Tuck landed, and were walking down a narrow alley when a baker stuck his head out the window.
"Tuck?” the baker asked.
“Oui,” said Colbert. “Tuck, mon oncle."
The baker pointed down the alleyway and the family followed the directions. Colbert called his mother. “Hey, you never knew where Eddie landed, but I'm standing there right now,” he told her.
Colbert lost his mother, Lorna Elizabeth Tuck Colbert, 92, one year ago this month. They were close, perhaps especially so after Colbert lost his father and two older brothers in a plane crash in 1974, when he was ten. His mother’s recollections and the letters of her beloved brother Eddie were a gift to Stephen Colbert and his siblings.
“We're now at the tail end of our ability to have firsthand descriptions of what that experience, and what that war, and what that sacrifice was like,” the comedian says. “And she gave it to all of us with such love of her brother. And it's like we knew him. I know I didn't, but these letters and my mother's love is a big reason why I feel like I know the man. And I feel like we lost him.”
He’s emotional, near tears, talking about Eddie and his mother. But there is also a sense of whimsy running throughout the correspondence of Uncle Eddie, who signed letters to his parents, “The Squirt.”
But this was also war, and the reality of Tuck’s charge was reflected in his letters to his father, Colbert’s grandfather, Edward Tuck, Jr., a former cavalry officer in the Spanish American War.
“There are letters in here that say, ‘Dad, thanks for the stiletto you sent me,’” Colbert says. “Because what they were doing at night was going into enemy camps and killing German officers in their sleep and then coming back without getting caught.” So a letter reads “'Sorry, could you send me another (stiletto), I left it in a German.’ … Those letters would go to my grandfather. And my grandmother would get the ‘Thank you so much for the socks.’”
On June 24, 1944, Tuck wrote to his father, “It's been rough as hell, but now things are quieting down as far as our unit's concerned. Right now I'm in a foxhole O.P.” – observation post – “about 300 yards from enemy… sights are marked with a good deal of shelling. I took a patrol out last night into the enemy M.L.R.” – Main Line of Resistance – “mission accomplished and ‘Troopers’ returned safely. Not only am I well but happy as hell and prouder of the outfit than ever.”
Before traveling to Normandy, Colbert and his wife tried to educate their children about the 101st Airborne, and they watched a few episodes of HBO’s "Band of Brothers." One episode featured the protagonist, Major Dick Winters, on a trip to Paris.
“They show him like going to a show and having dinner with a woman and, you know, drinking and taking a bath and that sort of thing, and then going back and going to Bastogne,” Belgium, Colbert recalls. He asked his wife if there were any letters from Tuck from December 1944, when that episode took place.
She found one from December 14, to his mother. “Returned last night from a ‘forty-eight’ in Paris - your beloved Paris and, Lady, I can see why it is. Never in my life have I seen a more wonderful place,” Tuck writes. “Quite expensive, but well worth it's cost. (not as expensive as London however.) … Just before dinner I went to a ‘snazzy’ little cafe and imbibed quite freely in cognac. Result mild paralysis. In the process I met a very beautiful model who spoke about three words of English - but was a real lexicon with the hands and eye. Depending on my "extensive" knowledge of the language and a steady flow of champagne, we got on famously.”
Tuck sent a photograph in the letter of six soldiers, including both him and Dick Winters.
“I turned to my boys,” Colbert says, “and I said, ‘This is real. I want you to know … that's a TV show, but it's describing something real, that is real to your own life. Here is your great uncle, Eddie, Mima's brother, had that experience you just saw. This isn't fiction, and you're going to go see where it happened.”
On the beaches of Normandy, Colbert’s guide challenged his sons to run as fast as they could up to the hills in the distance.
“And so they, of course, being boys … took off against each other to race to see who could get to the hills first,” Colbert says.
He turned to the guide and said, “that's cruel. That's cruel to make us watch that.”
Because Uncle Eddie “was only four years older than my son when he enlisted. And it - it made it very real. These were … sons just like we were, and we have. And the idea of … running into the teeth of that fire is unbelievably harrowing and unbelievably terrifying.”
“You know, it's alive. It's not history. It - it's alive. I wish more World War II vets were still alive to tell us their stories.”
CNN's Kim Berryman contributed to this report