Seventy-eight years ago in November 1944, then-2nd Lt. Harry Baker was loading up on a Chicago and Northwestern train with the rest of his 500-man artillery battery to deploy to Europe from Camp McCoy.
For Baker, the deployment out of McCoy on a snowy, late-November day just after Thanksgiving most likely brought to light the reality of where he was heading overseas.
“We entrained just after Thanksgiving that year and headed east through Chicago,” he wrote in a memoir entitled “Reminiscence” in 2000 at the age of 80. “Two nights later we arrived at Camp Miles Standish on Cape Cod, Mass. — a marshalling depot where units were housed until shipping was available at the Boston Navy Yard. Two days later we were moved to the dock and boarded a Liberty ship … built solely to carry troops, generally in a convoy.”
Baker, now 102 years old, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and currently resides in Pewaukee, Wis., and is a native of Milwaukee. During World War II, he was an artillery officer with Battery C, 302nd Field Artillery Battalion, 76th Infantry Division. His path to service time at McCoy was like many others — a war came calling.
Baker said he graduated from Riverside High School in Milwaukee in 1939. “Then after a summer of working in the Cudahy Packing Company Slaughterhouse, I went to East Lansing, Mich., to matriculate at Michigan State College,” he wrote in his memoir. “The date was Sept. 1, and coincidentally on that date, Adolf Hitler’s German Army began the invasion of Poland.”
And Camp McCoy at that time was still mainly a camp comprised of buildings on what is now the same area as South Post Housing Area. Much of it was tent pad spaces, wood buildings, train tracks, and artillery and training ranges. Like Baker’s military life, that would all change in just a few short years.
By December 1941, more specifically Dec. 7, 1941, Baker was taking military science as part of his college courses, and the woman who would become his wife of 78 years — Patricia — had also been attending classes at Michigan State since the fall of 1940. But also on that day, Baker wrote about what he and Pat learned.
“In December of 1941, a Sunday, we went to the movies in East Lansing, and upon exiting the theater in the dark, were met with newsboys shouting ‘extra, extra’ about the Pearl Harbor bombing. We looked at each other and said, ‘Where is Pearl Harbor?’ We went to the college Union and over coffee heard the radio describing the event until late at night. The next day, the entire campus seemed to have matured over night at the prospect of war — giving authentication to that event in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland.”
Soon after Baker competed for Advanced ROTC and was eventually accepted into artillery. He stated in his memoir that many men who were attending Michigan State for a time were going over to Canada and enlisting in the Canadian air force. But that soon changed.
“One bright morning in April 1943, we were told to assemble in Demonstration Hall in ranks,” his memoir states. He said his major said, “This is voluntary for those of you who agree, and mandatory for those of you who do not. We are leaving for Detroit tomorrow morning to be inducted into the U.S. Army.”
Baker said instantly he and his ROTC classmates were all made corporals and by June 1943 they were on the move.
“We were shipped off in June 1943 to Fort Custer (Mich.) for issuance of equipment, clothing, and preparation for basic training camp,” Baker wrote. “The details were only two or three days, and we then embarked on a troop train to Camp McCoy, Wis., assigned rifles, and began training as infantrymen.”
Once at Camp McCoy, Baker’s training for war began. He discussed his first stay at McCoy in 1943 in his memoir.
“One of the first days there, a new young lieutenant decided that we would be toughened up if we took a 20-mile hike — finishing off with an obstacle course,” Baker wrote. “It was to his downfall since our shoes were only days old and not yet broken in. The blisters and foot difficulties sent many men to sick bay. The lieutenant was shipped overseas to an infantry unit as punishment.
“We trained for a month before getting a pass to town,” Baker said, “continuing through July heat we hardened up and again entrained the first week of August (1943) heading for Fort Sill, Okla., for the Artillery School for the Army.”
Baker trained at Fort Sill, earned his second lieutenant bars, and in early 1944 he received military orders back to Camp McCoy to serve with the 302nd Field Artillery Battalion. In between that time, Baker was able to make his way back to Wisconsin and get married to Patricia on Dec. 10, 1943, in Milwaukee. It was a beautiful memory for him.
“What a beautiful affair — candlelit aisles at St. Marks, beautiful bride in white, I was in my newly gained uniform, and Father Stimpson did a very solid and memorable service for us,” Baker wrote.
And Baker described his new job at Camp McCoy in early 1944.
“In addition to being a battery officer, I was selected to be aide-de-camp to Brig. Gen. Henry C. Evans, Division Artillery Commander at his headquarters,” Baker said. “Duty there other than assisting him in personal, social, and all military matters consisted of time-consuming representation of the general at special and general court martials of which there were many.”
But prior to Baker’s first or second arrival to Camp McCoy, the installation itself saw a transformation itself in 1942 while Baker was still in training. In February 1942, the U.S. War Department announced the building of a cantonment area, referred to as the “New Camp,” which is still Fort McCoy’s cantonment area today.
The new camp site was all countryside consisting of scrub oak, jack pine, and wild grass in early 1942. More than 1,500 buildings were constructed by more than 8,000 workers, which took nine months to complete at a cost of $30 million (approximately $545 million today). The triangular share of the cantonment area, or the “triad,” was designed to allow troop units to live and train efficiently under one headquarters.
“The most memorable part of the whole operation was the wonderful cooperation of everybody in the surrounding communities,” said Lt. Col. D.C. Lamoreaux, the area construction engineer in 1942 in a local news article. “They (the community) contributed a tremendous amount to the success of the camp.”
Similarly, an article in the Aug. 28, 1942, edition of The Real McCoy newspaper also discussed the opening of the “New Camp McCoy” as it was announced by then-Camp Commander Col. George M. MacMullin. “Huge is not the name for it,” the article states. “The camp is larger than many of the cities within the territory, and plans for training, according to Col. MacMullin, will bring in more Soldiers than there are civilians in several of the nearby communities.”
“They were very nice accommodations,” Baker said. “It was nice to have warm rooms and hot showers.”
At the time Baker first stayed in the “New Camp” in 1943, most buildings were less than a year old. Baker also mentioned a pet peeve about waiting in line for the mess hall in winter when returning in early 1944.
One of his not-so-fond memories was “to be lined up for mess and those damned coal-fired furnaces would get soot on a uniform. Try to stay in proper uniform with the coal flakes on your uniform that came out of those … kitchens.”
As busy as Baker probably was throughout 1944, when June 6, 1944, took place — the D-Day invasion in France — he said “everything seemed to change that day.”
“The tiring training and repetition now proved to require even more acceleration,” he wrote. “Heightened security at post, stringent pass and leave orders, and orders from Washington came quickly to prepare for port of embarkation, preparation, and plans. My dear wife arrived shortly after, having graduated from Michigan State, and I left the barracks finding quarters for us nit in Sparta as I had planned, but farther away in a town called West Salem.”
From June to November 1944, Baker’s unit and the rest of the 76th Infantry Division that was at Camp McCoy continued to prepare for deployment, and by before Christmas 1944 they had all made it to Europe.
Baker went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and many other battles well into 1945. He was among tens of thousands of Soldiers who trained, processed, and went through Camp McCoy during World War II.
He returned home to his wife in August 1945. And as he said, “Wonderful to see my darling girl after too long a separation. … How lucky to be reunited.”
After World War II, Baker served in the Army Reserve where he retired in 1980 at his current rank.