Baker as a POW
On June 27, 1972, U.S. Air Force Capt. David E. Baker flew his O-2 Skymaster over Cambodia in an attack on North Vietnamese supply stashes. As a forward air controller during this Vietnam War mission, he traveled low and slow, marking targets and coordinating airstrikes in his prop-driven plane.
The North Vietnamese, using a heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missile, struck Baker's plane. He parachuted from the plummeting Skymaster only to land amid enemy fire. Using the sole weapon he had on him, a .38 caliber pistol, he temporarily held off the opposing forces, finally succumbing when a shot through his leg from an AK-47 perforated his femoral artery.
"When we first saw him, he was in what I call a North Vietnamese ambulance -- two bicycles with a vertical pole on each one, a hammock slung between them and David in the hammock," says retired Army Capt. George Wanat, who had been held with six other American soldiers in five-by-seven foot tiger cages deep in the Cambodian jungle for several months when Baker joined them. "We weren't allowed to talk or signal anyone at that point. All I could do was give the thumbs up when he made eye contact."
North Vietnamese medics had stemmed the arterial bleeding, Wanat recalls, but Baker was clearly in agony. No one expected him to survive. After five months of captivity in isolation, Wanat and Baker were moved into the same cage. "It was like heaven," Wanat recalls. Forget the cramped space, the leaky leaf roof, the inadequate bamboo-and-gourd that served as a toilet, and the triple canopy jungle that blocked the sky. "I hadn't talked to anybody in five months. It was great. We just started talking and didn't stop talking for the next five months."
The seven Americans knew they were probably being kept alive as pawns who might be traded in a prisoner exchange, Wanat said, but conditions were brutal: "We were on a Russian prison diet, with just enough calories to keep us alive. Barely."
They subsisted on meager portions of rice and pork fat and were always starving. "You would think of food before you would think of your loved ones because you were so hungry all the time," he said.So a game developed. Baker, whose father was a gourmet chef and who was a good cook himself, made up menus.
"I'd call over to his cage in the afternoon and say, 'Dave, what are we having for dinner?' " recalls fellow POW Sgt. Ken Wallingford, who is retired from the Army and lives in Texas. "He'd go into a long dissertation about how we were having this for an appetizer and that for a main course and this for dessert."
"It was beef Wellington and brie cheese and fine wine," recalls Wanat. "Every afternoon, these exotic menus." Sometimes, Baker recited from memory the menu from the Old Homestead Diner near where he lived in Huntington, Long Island.The monologues distracted and sustained them, Wallingford says. "He was encouraging us, 'Let's fantasize for a few minutes, guys, about what we could have in the real world.' "
After the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the prisoners were released. Baker's calf had swelled to the size of a football, and he still could not walk, so the six American POWs used a makeshift stretcher crafted of bamboo and a blanket to carry him down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the release point miles away in Loc Ninh, Vietnam.
Baker, who had joined the Air Force in 1969 and trained as a pilot at Webb Air Force Base in Big Spring, Tex., remained in the service and continued to fly. Before retiring in 1997, he became the only Vietnam War-era POW to fly missions in the Persian Gulf War.
After Baker died last Jan. 29 of congestive heart failure at age 62, the men who had survived with him in the jungle of Cambodia reunited for the first time in 36 years. But on May 13 last year, it was a horse-drawn caisson that carried Baker, as the surviving POWs walked with him in the bright sunlight of Arlington National Cemetery.
"It was so important for us five remaining prisoners to come to his funeral and symbolically walk behind the caisson to the burial site," Wallingford says. "Because we carried him out of the jungle, we are going to carry him to his last resting place." One of the men came from as far away as Thailand.
Buried along with Baker was a memory box containing the POW bracelet Florida resident Judy Sanchez wore during Baker's imprisonment and had recently sent to him, along with the prison "pajamas" he wore throughout his captivity.
Baker's wife, Carol, his two grown sons and 7-year-old granddaughter were joined by more than 200 friends and colleagues, whom Baker had befriended at his military postings all over the world, as a defense analyst for various financial firms, and as a longtime Mitchellville resident.
Afterward, the five POWs gathered at the officers' club and toasted their friend over an elegant dinner of fish, roast beef, dips and cheeses. He would have approved of the spread.
Karen Houppert is an author and freelance writer in Baltimore who covers social and political issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTOS: Courtesy Carol A. Baker