William E. “Bill” Baker was sitting on his scooter at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., some years ago when a bus load full of Korean children approached him.
“They thanked me for saving their country,” Baker recalled. “They asked me where I was (during the war) and I told them. They knew where it was.”
He added, “Yes, it made me feel very good” to know he had made a difference in the lives of a new generation.
Baker's road to Korea was a winding one. Born in Bucks County, Penn., Baker joined the U.S. Army in 1948. As a private, he went through his basic training in Kentucky and then was dispatched to the Pacific Islands after World War II. His first job was to dispose of undetonated bombs.
“We got rid of 'em,” Baker recalled matter-of-factly, sitting in a recliner in his Nemo home. Its walls are covered with certificates, medals and honors Baker has received for his military service.“We'd pick 'em up all over the place. Then we blew 'em up.”
He added: “I enjoyed it.”
But Baker's military service was about to take an unexpected turn. After returning to the States, he was sent to Fort Lewis, Wash., and then headed back to the Pacific Rim. Baker was deployed to Korea, where another explosive conflict was building.
Baker participated in nine major battles. But in one fight he and his unit ended up surrounded. Baker was among 250 U.S. soldiers who were captured.
He and his fellow soldiers were taken to a prisoner of war camp along the Yuan River. It was mountainous country, freezing cold in the winter. The soldiers lived in old houses with no heat. They received no medicines when they were ill. One soldier had to have a leg amputated when it got infected with gangrene.
“We had a surgeon cut off a man's leg with a rusty hacksaw with no anesthetic,” Baker recalled. “But he survived.”
The soldiers received millet to eat — the kind of coarse grain that chickens are fed. As a result, Baker and other troops suffered from the lingering effects of beriberi, an ailment of the nervous system caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 in the diet. The disease produces symptoms of severe fatigue and cardiovascular, nervous system, muscle and gastrointestinal problems. Baker also suffers from emphysema and must use oxygen constantly. He is now 100 percent disabled.
Baker and his fellow soldiers stayed at the first POW camp for six months and then were moved across the river into China to another camp for 33 months.
The soldiers were beaten regularly and tortured.
“I don't go to church,” Baker said. “We used to try to pray but we got beaten. If I want to go to church, I go outside and I look up.”
Bill and his wife, Janet, now devote themselves to helping other veterans. They regularly attend reunions of Korean War veterans and travel all over the United States helping soldiers however they can. They take food to soldiers and families at Fort Hood each month. The couple is known as “Grandma and Grandpa Baker” at the fort.
On this Thursday, Veteran's Day, other stories will be told about patriotic service, personal sacrifice and heroism that most of us who have never fought in wars cannot imagine. Baker's message to others this Veteran's Day is to remember those who all too often are forgotten and to value our freedom. Veteran's Day is every day.
“Freedom is not cheap,” Baker said. “It's very expensive. Most people take it for granted.”