FORT KNOX, Ky. — Considered by some to be the last tanker from World War II’s 784th Tank Battalion, Dr. James W. Baldwin died Aug. 1 at the age of 98.
It has been increasingly common to see obituaries for those we’ve lost from that generation. I know I reflect in my own way, but it’s enhanced for me because I had the good fortune to visit with some of them and hear stories of sacrifices and lives spent.
Baldwin was one who I talked with on several occasions.
My first introduction to him was found in the pages of Joe Wilson Jr.‘s published history about the famed 784th, where he included Baldwin’s accounts along with others to tell the story of the racially segregated unit. As a result of their interactions, Wilson and Baldwin grew close.
“He was a gifted father,” Wilson said. “I lost my father in 2003 and was granted another 19 years. We made great memories together.”
Wilson has been a friend of mine for many years and was happy to put me in touch with Baldwin. I jumped at the opportunity to speak with an eyewitness and active participant in U.S. history.
I quickly realized that talking with Baldwin was like talking with someone many generations younger than his 95 plus years, yet having all those years of experiences and wisdom. Mentally sharp, he had an easy going and positive personality that was magnetic.
Baldwin shared pleasant memories of childhood in rural North Carolina and how he graduated as valedictorian from his high school. He then attended college before enlisting in the Army Enlisted Reserve Corp. He was inducted in the Army at Fort Benning and sent to Fort Knox to attend armored basic training.
As a Fort Knox historian, I was keen to hear of his experiences on post.
Baldwin related stories of his lighter skinned sergeant that turned down enrollment in Officer Candidate School because he was chosen primarily for his appearance, the mess cook that treated Soldiers with dignity and provided meals that reminded them of home, and a weekend pass for a quick trip home to visit his girlfriend and future wife, Ann.
Baldwin was assigned to 784th and continued training at various posts before seeing combat with the unit in Europe. When he came home, he graduated from Howard University but seemed different.
One friend told him he “was nervous from the service.” War had changed Baldwin, though he was able to cope. He built a successful career with the city of Washington, D.C., retiring as head of the city’s Office of Human Rights. He had also been blessed with a wonderful family that included children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In his twilight years, Baldwin was recognized for his WWII service and returned to the Netherlands, where villages still offered sincere gratitude for liberation from German occupation.
It was in those years that Baldwin sought assistance to manage his PTSD incurred during the war. In fact, our talks were scheduled around his veteran support group gatherings. As a combat veteran and former professional counselor, I suspect he had become a positive presence at those meetings.
While I didn’t get to talk with Baldwin as much as I should have and wanted to, the times I did left a lasting impression. He will be missed by countless people, but he leaves behind those of us who have shared in his experiences — who have been impacted by the life of 784th Tank Battalion Soldier Cpl. James Baldwin.
Editor’s Note: For more about 784th Tank Battalion in World War II, visit the National WWII Museum website HERE.