Baker recalls WWII, life in Lingle
Lingle — When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor John Baker was 18 years old and had enrolled for his first semester at the University of Wyoming.
“I knew I was going to have to go to the Service,” recalls John, who now lives in senior housing in Scottsbluff, Neb. with his wife Betty. “When Pearl Harbor took place I told my dad I was going to enlist in the Marines.”
His dad’s response, recalls John, “I have to sign and I’m not going to sign you in. I know you’re going to the Service, but I want you to think about what you want to do there and to have a goal.”
“I went to work at the Sunrise mine for a couple of months,” says John of the mine that was near the town of Guernsey. “It came out that summer that in the U.S. Army Air Corps that if you had two years of college you could enter cadet training.” Unable to draw enough people who could qualify, John says, “They came out and said they’d give you a mental examination. If you could pass that test they would take you. I took the test and flunked it by one point. You had to have a 90 or better and I had an 89.”
John says, “There were 33 of us who took it and one guy passed it.” The lieutenant administering the test told John to go home and come back to retake the test in three months. “I came back and was wondering what I was going to do,” says John. “About then my brother took the test. He’d graduated from UW that year. He came back and I asked him how he did. He said, I did good, I got and 88 and I’m in.”
After asking his brother some questions, John realized they’d take the exact same test, largely including questions on current events. “I called Cheyenne up and they couldn’t get enough to pass it so they lowered it to 80. I still have the letter at home that said anyone who got between 80 and 90 could take their physical and could go to Air Corps.”
John says, “It qualified me for cadet training at San Antonio, Texas.” When he arrived in Texas John says he learned that there were 40,000 soldiers in training at the facility.
“I asked to be a pilot and I qualified,” he says. “We had nine weeks of tough schooling. It was tough.” If you made it through that segment of the training, John says, you transferred to Fort Stockton, Texas for flight training. “It was in the middle of nowhere, a nice place for an airfield.”
“That was also a nine-week course,” recalls John, who completed the course, unlike the remaining 80 percent of his class. “Some of them had problems trying to fly, but they also needed crewmen, they needed bombardiers, gunners and radio operators. When you washed out you were still enlisted, but they sent you where they wanted you.”
With one week of flight training left, John got word to report to headquarters where it was confirmed that his friend Marvin Bales had been killed in a plane crash while training. “Get your stuff ready you’re going to Kansas City to escort the body,” said the commanding officer. John was told he could finish his flight training upon his return.
“I lived with his family for a week,” recalls John of the duty assigned to him when he was 19 years old. It was longer than a soldier would ordinarily stay, but John says the fog delayed his return trip. He ended up catching a train back to Texas.
Upon returning to Texas John finished his flight training and was transferred to San Angelo, Texas for basic training. “In Lubbock I was flying twin-engine planes. Everybody there wanted to be a fighter pilot, that was an automatic. But our instructor told us that none of us would be fighter pilots.”
“Everyone’s got to go to heavies,” said the instructor to the class. When asked, John chose a B-26.
“It was called the widow-maker because they were killing so many people in training,” recalls John. The losses grew so large that Congress grounded the planes until six feet could be added to the wings to increase safety. Following the modifications, the planes ended up being among those with the highest safety ratings.
“They took us down to Louisiana for combat training,” says John. “We had four and a half weeks of that and then they sent us overseas.” Upon departing the United States flying an airplane assigned to him in Savannah, Ga., John says he had about 200 hours of flight time. “My engineer was 26 years old and we called him ‘Pop.’ We didn’t have anyone else over 21.”
Given their frequent need for fuel, the young crew made stops in Florida, Puerto Rico, South America, Africa and more. “We had to land in the Atlantic Ocean on Ascension Island,” says John. “It was three miles across. We landed there and then went to Africa where we made two stops.”
“At Sardinia, an island near Italy, I joined the 320th bomb group,” says John. “They assigned my crew to the 442nd Squadron. We were there several months bombing Italy.”
They then moved north of Corsica, a location from which they began bombing southern France and northern Italy. Of the invasion of southern France on Aug. 15, 1944, John says, “We flew in support of that. You always hear about the big battle at Normandy, but there was the largest bunch of ships in history in the Mediterranean.”
After the American troops took France, John and his crew were re-stationed and began bombing Germany. “I flew for about 11 months. I had 65 missions and 287 combat hours,” says John. Throughout that time he never lost a crew member, but did have one close landing. His landing gear wouldn’t extend down and he landed the plane on its belly. The military newspaper reported the happening under the headline “Hot pilot makes hot landing.” No one was seriously injured, but John says one of his crewmembers did skin his chin sliding down the airplane.
John returned to the United States in April of 1945 and asked for an assignment shuttling fighter planes to Alaska. “But the war ended before I got to take the trip,” says John. “I was in Great Falls, Mont. when the war ended.” It took 95 points to leave the military and John had accumulated 135 points.
Within days of returning home John and Betsy were married. In 2010 the couple will celebrate 65 years together.
“They courted on dad’s bicycle,” says John’s daughter Peggy DesEnfants.
“She was a seventh grader when we started dating,” says John. They considered marrying before he left for service overseas, says John, “but it just wouldn’t have been right.” He couldn’t stand the thought of the affect it would have on her if he was injured or didn’t return home.
Back in Lingle, John operated a small filling station. “I’d go down and rent small planes every once in a while, but I never wanted to fly commercially. If I would have known it was going into the jet age, I might have.”
John was operating the filling station, also a source for the white gas many people used to use heat their homes, when the blizzard of 1949 hit. He stayed open throughout the blizzard to ensure people had the fuel they needed.
In 1952 the family sold the service station and moved to Wheatland where John was a parts manager. In 1968 they returned to Lingle where he spent over 20 years as the parts manager at Rose Brothers before retiring in the late 1980s.
“When I got out I could have made more money in a metro area,” says John, “but I like small towns. I’ve never been sorry.” Lingle, where his father operated a now retired power plant south of town during John’s younger years, was home.
Looking back on the war effort John says, “I often wonder if we had something similar happen today, how much cooperation we’d get. Everyone was working and everyone was on rations.”
Women in the community, says Peggy sharing a story from her mother, shared their gas rations so they could go places together.
“People really worked together,” says John. “Most of the boys from my graduating class were in the service.”
For many years John attended reunions with the friends he made in the Army Air Corps. Peggy, her two sisters and her brother knew her father’s military friends as “uncles.”
“You can be around people you’re whole life and never be close to them. When you’re with people in combat you get a close relationship that lasts for years,” says John.
He says, “I have good memories of the Air Corps. There were things that weren’t good, but the Good Lord lets us discard those out of our mind. You think about the good things and the humorous things.”
Jennifer Womack is a staff writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at Jennifer@wylr.net.