Molalla veteran tells of World War II combat wearing oxfords and slacks
"The United States entered the war in 1941. A total of 11,260,000 Americans served in that war. I was one of them," Don Baker wrote in his memoir. "A total of 407,300 died. I was spared. Only part of me died."
Letters from Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, an honorable discharge certificate and photos of Baker in uniform; these decorate the poster titled "My Grandpa in World War II" that sits next to Baker's bed.
Now 91, Baker was 17 in 1943 when he enlisted in the army during World War II. His two older brothers were in active duty—one a lieutenant in the Navy stationed on Attu in the Aleutian Islands, and the other a captain in France keeping General Patton's 15th Army supplied.
"He wanted to be a flyboy and find the wild blue yonder," his daughter Kate Thomas Baker said.
In 1944, Baker left his family from Union Station in Portland and took an old American Standard locomotive to Fort Lewis, Washington where he was inducted into the United States Army Air Corps, but not exactly as a flyboy. In fact, during his years in the service, Baker never flew.
He was sent to New Guinea and then to the Philippines just outside of Manila as a cryptographer with the 141st Army Airways Communication System attached to the Fifth Air Force. There, Baker was adopted into a Filipino family, who he keeps in touch with to this day.
"Their son was an accomplished pianist," Baker said. "He was like an adopted brother to me. He used to play the piano for me after my shifts on duty, and soothe my nerves."
It was in Manila one day that Japanese infantrymen began encroaching on the cryptographers' secret location. Baker was one of the two men, both untrained for combat, who volunteered to go on the offensive.
"He was completely unprepared," Thomas Baker said. "Had no idea what he was doing. He went out without a helmet…He had never shot his rifle before."
In his memoir, Baker describes his battle dress.
"I was wearing a pair of freshly pressed khaki trousers, highly shined cordovan oxfords, a white T-shirt with no helmet and I was aiming a carbine I had never fired.
"It was not a violent firefight, but it did change my life forever," Baker writes in the memoir.
When one of the Japanese infantrymen threw a hand grenade at the two men, Baker instinctively fell on the grenade. With just three and a half seconds to live, Baker relived his 19 years and planned his funeral, he writes in the memoir. But the grenade, a dud, wasn't what sent Baker home on medical discharge. In the moments that followed, Baker watched the enemy soldier put a grenade to his own head, blowing it off, and then watched a U.S. tank use a machine gun to kill the rest. Instead, Baker was sent home for "operational fatigue."
"Only recently have I become aware that the trauma of those seemingly endless three and a half seconds and the moments that followed, tore into me in such a way that it took up residence somewhere in my soul or psyche where it has remained to this day," Baker writes.
Baker was initially diagnosed with anxiety neurosis, now referred to as post-traumatic-stress-disorder.
"I've been depressed for 70 years," Baker said.
Baker went on to college at Bob Jones University where he met his wife, Martha, an instructor there. They had two children, Kate Thomas Baker and a son, John, who pastors Grace Church in Molalla. Baker settled in Molalla late in his life to be near his son.
Baker pastored several churches, including Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland, where he once welcomed President Ford for a visit.
"He sat with my wife and children and was very honored to be in the service," Baker said, "and we were honored to have him."
In the aftermath of his war experience, Baker has found healing, partly through writing. He has published 21 books including his recently released memoir "3 ½ Seconds to Live" from Westbow Press, co-written with his daughter. And while he never took flight during his time in the force, he did eventually get his wings through a private pilot's license.