CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Richard Baker was born in 1920 and, at the outbreak of World War II, worked for an oil refining company in Philadelphia. He did not remember details of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent hysteria, but was sure that he was outraged. In 1942, at the age of 22, Baker was drafted into the US Army. Though he had expected it was coming, he recalled that his family was devastated.
Baker traveled to join the 4th Infantry Division’s 12th Infantry Regiment at Camps Gordon and Wheeler in Georgia, and then to Fort Dix in New Jersey. He was trained to set up, sight in and fire an 81mm mortar and fire and maintain his sidearm, a .45 caliber automatic pistol. Baker did not recall many details, but remembered that training was tough. While participating in maneuvers in Georgia, he contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized for a month. Baker was subsequently given a brief leave before being sent overseas.
Baker sailed on the transport USS George Washington to England as part of a large convoy. Some sailors suffered from seasickness, though Baker was unaffected. The men were anxious, yet spirits were high. They gambled, played cards, and “did the things that GIs do.” After an uneventful eleven-day voyage, the ship arrived in Liverpool, England.
Baker and his comrades traveled by rail to Exmouth, a port town in Devon on the English Channel, where training continued for another six months. In April of 1944, he participated with Exercise Tiger in preparation for the D-Day landings. The exercise proved to be a fiasco, with “friendly fire” casualties and attacks by German E-boats which penetrated the naval screen and torpedoed several LSTs. Fortunately, Baker had already landed on the beach before the ships were hit. He and his associates knew that it had been a debacle, but the news never went public at the time, as the Allies did not want to give the Germans propaganda material.
Living conditions in England were good for Baker. Air raid sirens sometimes blared, and planes could be heard overhead, but no bombs ever fell near his unit. Rather than being housed in barracks, the men were quartered in villas on a large estate. Baker was fortunate to meet up with a friendly family while in England. They had several young boys, who would often offer money or shoe-shining in exchange for flour, sugar, coffee, and other goods. Baker kept in touch with the family for years after the war; on the 40th Anniversary of D-Day, he was able to track down the boys and see them! At the time of this interview, he was still in correspondence with them.
The 4th Infantry Division was slated to land on Utah Beach on D-Day. The tension built as the fleet crossed the Channel in complete darkness to conceal their presence. During the voyage, the ship Baker was on collided with another vessel, prompting him to don his lifejacket. Though little damage resulted, he was already fearful, wondering if he would even make it to the beach.
Baker recalled that on D-Day, the navy dropped the 4th Division somewhat off course, but the Deputy Commander of the 4th Infantry Division, Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt Jr., (who went ashore in the very first landing craft), decided to “start the war where they were.” Baker himself landed on Utah at H-hour +1. He expected that they would land right onto the beach; instead, when the ramp dropped, they plunged into armpit-level water. Baker was part of a three-man mortar team; each man carried one of the three parts of the 81mm mortar on his back. The weight of the mortar parts dragged some of the men under water, forcing other soldiers to assist them to shore.
Baker was shaken up by what he saw on the beach. The riflemen from previous waves had already cleared the beach of German defenders, but dead and wounded soldiers lay in the sand, while German artillery continued to shell the beach. Baker prayed that he would make it off the beach alive. Fortunately, he was able to do so unharmed.
On June 11, Baker and the two other members of his mortar team stopped for the night and dug a foxhole. Each man took a two-hour guard duty shift. Baker finished his shift, took off his helmet, and went to sleep. Suddenly, the Germans began to shell the field, and a shell landed on the side of the foxhole. The two other members of his team escaped the hole, but Baker was buried in dirt. Miraculously, his helmet had fallen across his face and left an air pocket for him to breathe. When his fellow soldiers dug him out, they saw he was in bad shape. The commanding officer believed that Baker “was gone” and wanted to leave the field, but a medic stepped in and said he could save him. After resuscitation and a blood transfusion, Baker’s condition was stabilized, and he was evacuated to a hospital. Baker stated that he “wouldn’t be here today” if not for the actions of that medic. Baker had met the medic, named Churchill, on the voyage across the Channel before D-Day. Baker had promised that, if the medic had saved his life, he would find him and “kiss him.” Unfortunately, despite searching, he never met Churchill again. Baker remembered very little from his time at the hospital. He wrote letters to his mother, but they have since been lost. After a month of recovery, Baker was sent back to the 4th Division.
Baker was one of the first Americans to enter Paris when it was liberated. He recalled how the citizens of the city welcomed the Americans with hugs, kisses, and offers of food and drink. To spend the night, Baker’s team dug a foxhole in the park across from Notre Dame cathedral. He could hear firing in the distance and was always wary of snipers, but fortunately never encountered any enemy forces. Baker never used his mortar in Paris, instead carrying an M1 Garand rifle that he had picked up along the way. He noted that it was a nice change from his .45 pistol, which he jokingly claimed might be more useful for throwing at the enemy than for firing!
Baker’s unit stayed only one night in Paris before moving on, and advanced through many small towns before arriving in the Ardennes. The unit participated in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, which he described simply as “tough”. The snow made it difficult to dig foxholes, and he was especially afraid of “tree bursts” – the Germans would fuse artillery to detonate upon hitting the treetops, showering a rain of shrapnel across large swaths of forest. His unit suffered many casualties before it was redeployed to an inactive front for some respite.
A few days after, Baker arrived at the town of Echternach, Luxembourg, as the Germans began to shell the town. He felt lucky that his division was in the town, as everyone was able to rush into houses and take shelter in the basements. Other divisions were stationed in fields and were not so lucky.
Baker recalled that he received a package from his brother’s wife: a small Christmas tree, which he had placed in the house he was staying in. After everyone had taken shelter in the basement when the shelling began, one of his comrades suddenly ran back upstairs before returning a moment later with the Christmas tree. “He was nuts,” Baker stated, though according to the fellow soldier, it would not have truly been Christmas without that tree.
Baker happened to be facing the southernmost German thrust of their Battle of the Bulge offensive. The Germans subsequently ceased shelling and surrounded Echternach. They fired into the town, but were unable to enter in the face of American resistance. Baker’s unit captured three or four German prisoners, who they treated “very nicely”. The logic, he said, was that if he happened to be captured, hopefully the Germans would treat him with respect in kind. After a week of enduring the siege, as Baker’s unit was beginning to run low on ammunition, it was finally relieved by the 101st Airborne Division.
After the battle, the 4th Division continued to advance east. Baker could tell that the war was ending, as his unit increasingly faced less resistance. He did not recall where he was when Germany surrendered. Baker received two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts for his service during the war. His brother also served, based in England as a ground support member for the USAAF.
Baker spoke a great deal about his day-to-day life and regular responsibilities in the army. When asked about the weapons he used, he noted that they were “very good.” His mortar consisted of three parts – the baseplate, the tube, and the bipod – and was crewed by three men supported by two ammunition carriers. Baker’s mortar was usually positioned about a mile behind the frontline. As one of the gunners, he would receive coordinates to fire on from a radioman on the frontline. Baker would then aim the mortar to hit those coordinates and fire one shell. The radioman would radio back the results, giving him corrections if need be. Once a shell landed on target, he would start firing continuously.
Baker also had a high opinion of the German arms he faced. He especially remembered the Nebelwerfer, a rocket launcher firing what he referred to as “Screaming Mimis” due to their distinctive sound. The nature of this noise, though ominous, allowed him to know if the rockets would land near his position or away from it.
In the field, Baker ate C rations and K-rations, although he was treated with hot meals while in England. He was supplied with a heavy overcoat to deal with the winter weather; and, an extra pair of socks came in handy as his feet would often get wet.
Baker said that he did not receive any unusual assignments while in the service. Army life had been much of what he had expected it to be. Baker never had direct contact with German forces, save for snipers, nor did he ever interact much with German prisoners (save for Echternach) or civilians. Morale among the men was generally high.
Following the cessation of hostilities in Europe, Baker was sent home for a thirty-day leave. Subsequently, he would have been retrained ahead of an invasion of Japan, but fortunately Japan surrendered during his leave period. At this time, through the army’s “point system”, Baker was three points short of a discharge. However, after speaking with the medical department, he was able to receive a Purple Heart (worth five points) for a minor injury he had suffered during an artillery attack, thus giving him enough points to be discharged.
Baker decided not to continue in the army as a career. He married and used loans provided by his GI benefits to buy a house for his family. Baker became a member of the VFW after retiring, as well as he attended reunions with his former soldiers, most notably a large gathering in France for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. It was a “very gratifying experience”, he remarked, to see so many people together for the ceremony.
Baker often visited schools to tell his war stories. He hoped that younger generations would “get along with everyone and the other countries” to prevent future conflicts. Baker recommended that youth enter the service for three years after high school to see what it was like. He said that he himself would serve again if he could go back and do it all over.