Samuel Baker entered military service before WWII and served 35 years continuous active duty before his retirement in 1974. Although only wounded once, as a glider pilot in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, he was always a bit unconventional and something of a risk taker, especially in his younger days. Fortunately though, he was always lucky enough to walk away from some of his less than successful landings. The early part of his story is told in his own words, starting here.
It all started in September 1921 when I was born in the Sacramento County Hospital in Sacramento, California. I went to and graduated from the North Sacramento Grammar School in North Sacramento in 1934. Being somewhat eager to please the teachers, I graduated as class Salutatorian. I entered Grant Union High School in Del Paso Heights. In my senior year, I was elected class president, but due to my poor attendance record was asked to resign. This was a rude awakening and one I sorely needed at the time. It gave me the incentive to get back to work and accumulate enough credits to graduate (Sam graduated in December 1937 as a 16 year-old). The depression was still gripping the country at that time and jobs were hard to find. The representative of the Land Company that held the mortgage on our home would make his monthly call for payment and my dad would say there was no money and they might as well foreclose. As the Land Company needed no more foreclosed properties on their books, that ended it for another month.
I worked during the summers as a lifeguard at the Woodlake swimming pool in North Sacramento or in the logging camps of Northern California. When one envisions a logger they usually picture the Paul Bunyan type bringing down majestic trees. Sixteen year-old kids who went into logging in that era were the ones that cleared all the Manzanita and other brush from around the trees so the real loggers could do their work. I personally never felled a tree, but I did decimate a lot of brush. This was beneficial to me in one way, it made me realize this was not the way I planned to make a career.
Another part time job that I had during the summers was as a flunky in the box factory in Sacramento where my father worked. As summer ended and still with no worthwhile employment in sight, two of my best friends, Raymond Robertson and Orlin Flores mentioned joining the service. This was about the time Hitler had marched into Poland.
I met a fast talking Recruiting Officer who had been in the Army for 24 years, and he was making $54 per month. His offer to me of 70 cents a day, which equated to $21 per month, or $252 per year, was in addition to room and board, and a promise of travel away from Sacramento. In fact, the recruiter said that in all probability my first station would be Hickam Field on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Fortunately, this did not come to pass. I say fortunately, because later events made the area around Pearl Harbor an unhealthy atmosphere shortly thereafter (Sam enlisted and was inducted September 30, 1939).
From Sacramento, I was first sent to Fort McDowell on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay near the Federal Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz brings back memories of an interesting experience I had concerning that particular piece of real estate. The liberty boat from Angel Island stopped at Alcatraz on the return trip from San Francisco. Having been to San Francisco before, I thought it might be worthwhile to kill a day by going again. On the return trip, on a dark and rainy night, I stepped off the boat when it made the stop at Alcatraz (big mistake). I found myself in the hands of several burly gentlemen with Tommy guns and a definitely unfriendly manner who told me what would happen to me if I ever set foot on The Rock again.
Anyway, instead of the Hawaii assignment, I was ordered to Chanute Army Air Field at Rantoul, Illinois, to enroll in the technical school and become an airplane mechanic. At least I would be learning a trade. After progressing through the various systems such as hydraulics, props, engines, instrument, and all the other systems, I was assigned to aircraft instrument repair and promoted to Corporal. Shortly thereafter I was promoted again, this time to Sergeant. After a series of tests, which I somehow passed with high grades, I was promoted to first class airplane mechanic with the pay of Staff Sergeant. Seventy-two bucks a month ! Shortly after this I was transferred to Keesler Army Air Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, and became an instructor in aircraft instruments. After Pearl Harbor happened, I became somewhat eager to get into the fray and volunteered for glider training. Little did I know, I received a summons to report to the medics for a physical. Upon completion of the physical, I noted it had been marked lA. I thought that meant that I was a healthy specimen. It didnt. IA meant Immediate Action. I was off the base in two hours, destination Goodland, Kansas, for beginning training as a glider pilot by doing dead-stick landings in Piper Cubs.
Sam completed Basic Glider Training and then was schooled in Cargo Gliders. Gliders were new to the U.S. Air Forces and throughout his training a great deal of experimentation and innovation was going on at all levels. Sam was ready and willing to try anything and he crashed more than his share of times while gaining experience. Upon graduation from the CG-4A Waco Glider course, he received his glider pilot wings and his appointment as a Flight Officer. He was then shipped overseas to England.
Glider pilot, FO Baker was assigned to the 93rd Troop Carrier Squadron, 439th Troop Carrier Group, 50th Troop Carrier Wing, IX Troop Carrier Command, Ninth Air Force at Upottery, England. The troop carriers supported the training of the Airborne forces and prepared for their part in the invasion of Europe. Sam did some cross-training in piloting the Horsa glider, a British glider larger than the Americans, and capable of carrying heavier loads and larger equipment than the Waco.
The 439th Troop Carrier Group dropped elements of the 101st Airborne Division by parachute into Normandy during the night before the Landing Force hit the beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Then, the troop carriers returned inserting reinforcements for the paratroopers by glider, and Sam Baker was part of that. His commander had designated Sam to pilot one of the Horsas. It was loaded with 30 troops plus some heavy equipment. After the flight to Normandy, his C-47 plane was off course and it released the tow without having reached the designated Landing Zone. Sams glider was shot down by German ground fire and broken up in the crash, killing 15 of the 30 troops. Pilot and co-pilot were thrown forward through the front of the glider, and into dense vegetation. Initially, troops recovering the bodies and clearing the wreckage did not find Flight Officer Baker who was nearby, but apart from the crash and lying unconscious and concealed from view in the brush. Later, realizing the pilot was unaccounted for, they made a more thorough search of the area and found him (the co-pilot was also grievously wounded and died years later in a VA Hospital in Syracuse, NY, never having recovered).
Sam was in-and-out of consciousness for an extended time afterward. Much later he recovered some fragmented memories of having been taken to the Normandy beach area and while lying among rows of other casualties awaiting evacuation, of being hit by German mortar fire and scrambling to find cover. After it was over, he realized he had taken shelter in stacks of ammunition boxes. On the ship taking casualties back across the channel to England, they were being fed steak. Sam had head injuries and couldnt chew anything. He remembers trading his steak to another man for his bread, which was easy for him to eat without pain.
Back in England, he was initially comatose for much of the time. He was in a British Hospital because, having been recovered from the wreckage of a Horsa glider, he was believed to have been a British commissioned officer aviator. Accordingly, he received accommodations and treatment substantially better than American flyers were accustomed to. For a couple of months he was out of it most of the time. Eventually, he recovered sufficiently that the hospital understood the mistake. Just as they were about to downgrade his patient status, Sam located where his flight suit had been stowed, retrieved it, got dressed, slipped out of the hospital, did some hitchhiking and found his way back to his base at Upottery.
When he walked into the mess hall, his Squadron Commander dropped his cup of coffee. He couldnt believe his eyes. The British hadnt known, so they hadnt reported that Sam was an American in their care, therefore his unit had listed him as missing and presumed dead. He was put back in the hospital for a couple of weeks, and even after that, Sam wasnt considered to be quite right. One of Sams friends was pilot of a C-47 and with Operation Market Garden coming up Sam tried to sign on to fly the mission as co-pilot. The commander found out about it and stopped him. His friends plane was shot down and his friend was killed.
In September 1944, the 439th Group moved across the channel to France, first at Juvincourt, and then moved again on November 4th to Chateaudun where they remained until after the war was over.
During the Battle of the Bulge, gliders from Sams 93rd Troop Carrier Squadron were used to take in supplies to the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne and some of them were lost. Sam still has a photo of one of his friends in a Waco that went down in enemy territory and was held POW for the remainder of the war. They also participated in the last major Airborne operation of the war, the insertion of the 17th Airborne Division across the Rhine near Wessel, Germany. But, after being shot down over Normandy on D-Day, Sam was never again wounded. However, that is not to say his flying was without mishap. Sam says that if the Germans had only known him at the time, the Luftwaffe would have made him an Ace, because he had destroyed more than enough of their enemys aircraft to qualify.
Postwar, Warrant Officer Baker was sent to an assignment at Atkinson Field in British Guyana in 1945 as a Maintenance Officer. Subsequent to that he had an assignment on Trinidad.
In 1950 he went to B-29 school, received a commission and became a Flight Engineer. He later transitioned to B-36s, also as Flight Engineer. On one of the training missions that he flew from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Sams B-36 bomber crashed and he was the last crew member to parachute out before the plane went down. He says he landed on a cow out in some North Texas pasture.
In 1958, he was a B-52 Navigator stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas. Still at Bergstrom in 1965, he had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was in command of an Air-to-Ground Missile Squadron, when he met and married Darline Pelham, an Air Force Nurse assigned at the base hospital.
In 1967, Sam was sent to Vietnam as a squadron commander at the air base at Tuy Hoa. About the time he was due to return home, Darline also received orders to Vietnam. So, Sam extended for another year. He took a Logistics Officer job at Tan Son Nhut Air Base and they were together in Saigon for a year.
In 1969, Sam returned to the U.S. to become the Air-to-Ground Missile Squadron Commander at Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota. Lieutenant Colonel Baker retired from there in 1974 and then was free to be the house husband and follow Darline for the remainder of her career. After her assignments to Goose Bay, Laborador, and Rome, New York, in 1982 Darline retired from Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Mississippi, also in the grade of Lieutenant Colonel.
After her retirement, they continued living in their home in Ocean Springs, near Biloxi, until 2006. Hurricane Katrina did some damage to their property, but otherwise massively wiped out much of that whole area, whereupon they moved to Central Texas to be near a son and a daughter of Sam that were living in the area.
Sam transferred his membership in the Military Order of the Purple Heart from Chapter 682 in Gautier, Mississippi to Chapter 1919 here. At the time of this writing, Sam is enjoying life in the Wesleyean at Scenic in Georgetown (2001 Scenic Drive in Georgetown) where his children and Darline are often around. But, he is greatly appreciative of other visitors as well, and Patriots and Auxiliaries are always welcome to drop by and reminisce.
Samuel E. Baker provided this Purple Heart story for publication in the March 2009 issue of PATRIOT BULLETIN. Sam died in December 2009.