Post mourns Medal of Honor winner
February 1, 2012
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- An estimated 1,300 Soldiers lined the streets of Fort Jackson and hundreds more filed into the Post Theater for a memorial service in honor of retired Master Sgt. John Baker, a Medal of Honor recipient who died Jan. 20 at his home in Northeast Columbia.
The ceremony began with a caisson procession along Jackson Boulevard that ended at the Post Theater, where Baker was remembered for his heroism on the battlefield as well as a devoted husband to his wife, Donnell, and a compassionate and caring man.
"He was not only someone whom you wanted to have by your side in combat, but he also reached out to others all his life in a caring, compassionate, considerate manner and treating everyone with respect and dignity," said retired Lt. Gen. Robert Foley, who was Baker's company commander in Vietnam and was awarded the Medal of Honor alongside Baker in 1968.
Baker and Foley were assigned to Company A, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment (Wolfhounds) when on Nov. 5, 1966, they were engaged in a fierce battle with Viet Cong forces. Both men received the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions during that battle.
Foley said Baker embodied the Army Values.
"Master Sgt. John Baker was a terrific Soldier. He had great strength and character," Foley said. "I will tell you that the strong values which he possessed were instilled in him long before he became a Wolfhound. Nobody had to explain to him the meaning of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. These values were part of his basic character. Nobody had to explain to him what is meant by, 'I will never leave a fallen comrade,' because he was always there for his fellow Soldiers."
Retired Col. Kevin Shwedo, former deputy commanding officer of Fort Jackson, said that describing Baker in a short speech was "an absolutely impossible task." Shwedo called Baker a "great American hero" and compared him to other highly decorated warriors such as Alvin York, Audie Murphy and Eddie Rickenbacker.
"John did not win the medal, he earned the medal. He launched into action to take care of his friends. He fought relentlessly for over two hours," Shwedo said. "It was not a game he was playing when his friends were off at college. There were no timeouts, no halftime shows - only the love of his fellow Soldiers that kept him focused during a time that can only be described as absolute chaos."
Col. Drew Meyerowich, commander of the 193rd Infantry Brigade and former commander of the 2-27th, said Baker took every opportunity to share his experiences.
"He simply did not understand the meaning of the word, 'no,'" Meyerowich said. "Even immediately following open heart surgery -- traveling to the dedication of the Baker Bridge, riding across the bridge on a Harley Davidson, and attending all of the ceremonies was never considered a task of which he would say, 'No.' They were all opportunities that he loved to share with everyone."
The Sgt. John F. Baker, Jr. Bridge connects Interstate 280 between Baker's hometown Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island, Ill. The bridge was named after Baker in 2008.
"So many people look at John Baker and see the Medal of Honor," Meyerowich said. "I will tell you that the medal is not the man. The man is the medal. The citation paints a picture of a giant, but meeting the man, knowing the man was truly what made me see this five-foot-two tall man as a giant."
Installation Chaplain (Col.) Bart Physioc revealed some of Baker's personal side as he read a "Dear John" letter written by Baker's wife, Donnell.
"We smiled and laughed every day. You said, 'Thank you' for everything. An hour of the day did not go by without you saying, 'I love you,'" the letter read.
Physioc, Shwedo and Meyerowich also talked about Baker's extensive collection of eagle replicas, which were on display at Baker's home.
"This bird describes the man -- brave, noble, powerful, strong and even majestic. I find it interesting that John once told Donnell that he would return as an eagle," Shwedo said. "So now, for the rest of my life, I will look frequently into the skies for that lone, soaring eagle, knowing that when I find it, I will have found John's spirit among us."