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thedrifter
05-10-09, 09:14 AM
Published: May 09, 2009 08:16 pm

WWII veteran’s heroism shined on June day in 1944
By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD, Va. — On the night of July 4, 1944, 22-year-old Sgt. Edward S. Baker Jr. of the United States Marine Corps started writing a letter to his parents. Conditions were not the best for writing, but he had endured a lot and he had to tell his mother and father about it all.

“Dearest Mom ‘N Pop,” Baker wrote. “If my scrawl is somewhat illegible, please excuse as I am writing this by moonlight which is difficult. I just had to sit down and write as we were told that we could disclose our location. You probably already know that your guess of June 24th is correct — I am on SAIPAN!!!”

Baker’s parents would read about the artillery and mortar fire the Japanese had hurled at their son and other Marines on that island. They would also learn later that he had displayed, according to a Secretary of the Navy citation, “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity while serving as a Radio Operator of a Tank Liaison Party of Company C, Fourth Tank Battalion, during action against enemy Japanese forces on Saipan, Marianas Islands, 15 June 1944.”

Now 87 years old and a resident at Westwood Center in Bluefield, Va., Baker still remembers the harrowing circumstances that earned him one of the United States’ highest military honors, the Silver Star. On that June day he had to contact his commanding officer quickly, and all communications had failed.

“We went ashore with the infantry,” Baker recalled. “And it turned out my walkie talkie wouldn’t work. We’d been pinned down on the beach about 45 minutes.”

Baker had to find another radio quickly. He spotted a possibility, but it involved plenty of risks. He had to reach a partially destroyed amphibian tractor, and the only way to do it was to brave Japanese machine gun fire.

Baker saw his chance when the enemy machine gunner firing at him had to reload. He left the shelter of a shell hole and ran.

“My machine gunner, who fortunately was not a very good gunner, had a 10 round clip,” Baker said.

Removing the machine gun’s ammunition clip, getting the last round out of it, putting in a new clip and pulling the trigger took time. Baker used it to sprint for the tractor; it was a close race. One of Baker’s superiors later told him about the frightening scene.

“The lieutenant said it was like watching a movie. The gunner was always shooting right behind me some. Sand kicked up at my heels,” Baker recalled. He didn’t see this because he was focused on reaching the tractor.

Baker was familiar with the tractor’s radio. Searching the radio frequencies, he found his company commander’s voice.

“I located his frequency, called him and told him we’re in trouble, and you’d better get in fast,” he recalled. Medium tanks aboard landing craft were ordered to land at a critical time.

“From that I got the Silver Star,” Baker said. “Actually, they put me up for the Navy Cross. I probably would have gotten that if I was wounded, but I wasn’t wounded.”

But Baker was not thinking about winning medals when he sprinted for the tractor and its radio. Discovering later that he had earned the Silver Star was a surprise.

“I was stunned,” he recalled. Since Baker was out in the Pacific, arrangements were made in the field for the presentation. Baker didn’t know about the citation until a jeep was sent for him. He was told to put on his “Uniform A” and report to the ceremony by 1 o’clock. It was a distinctive medal to earn.

“Not so many enlisted men were getting a Silver Star, so I kept a copy of the citation in my wallet for years in case there was any question,” Baker added.

Marines had to endure a lot while fighting on Saipan. When asked to described the conditions on that island, Baker eloquently summed it up in one word– “Hot.” The Marines didn’t like the high temperatures, but a nasty inhabitant loved the heat.

“We about changed the name to ‘Flypan,’” Baker revealed. A species of fly the Japanese had imported to counter aphids on plants multiplied rapidly as the battle continued.

“With all the corpses around, flies really bred,” he said.

Baker came close to becoming a causality himself. He told his parents about the “terrific” artillery and mortar fire the Marines had to evade. He said why he was not hit was “a mystery I’ll never solve. By all rights, I should at least have caught a little metal. Apparently your prayers along with mine at the time were answered. I honestly never thought I’d see another day dawn, but here I am alive, kicking and perfectly healthy.”

Baker did have one especially close brush with death during his second day on Saipan.

“I was operating one of those small hand radios so often seen in advertisements,” he wrote. “I had the radio to my ear when an artillery shell landed nearby. A piece of shrapnel punctured the set next to my ear, ricocheted against my temple. The radio was ruined but all I got was a lump on the skin barely broken. Apparently the radio took most of the sting out of the shrapnel for it was sufficiently spent to do no damage on me. Believe me when I realized what two inches meant in that case. I appreciated life quite a bit more.”

Baker and his fellow Marines also had encounters they definitely never expected. On “D plus 8 or 9,” the eighth or ninth day after arriving on Saipan, they saw two medics carrying a wounded Japanese woman on a stretcher. Curious, they walked over to investigate.

“She looked up and said, ‘Anyone here from Milwaukee?’” Baker remembered. She was from America, but had been visiting relatives in Japan when the fighting started “and got caught up in the war.”

Baker later made a career of the Marine Corps and served 26 years, three months and seven days before retiring with the rank of Lt. Colonel.

“Well, I got out in ‘46 and was in the reserves. Was called back in the Korean War. It seemed silly to me to just start all over again, so I stayed.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

Ellie