Imagine spending almost a week in near pitch-black darkness in a train car with seventy other people crammed in with you, not sure where you are being taken and not sure what will happen once you get there. Former U.S. Army-Air Force airman, Lewis Edwin "Ed" Baker can relate to that personally as he experienced this same scenario 70 years ago.
When Baker was in the service during World War II (1942-1945), he was taken as a Prisoner of War (POW) and held captive for nearly 16 months. He recalls being transported in a German train boxcar that was also known as a 40 or 8 (meaning in carried 40 men or 8 horses). He said the German boxcars were smaller than the train boxcars in the U.S. and said they were more about the size of a caboose. Baker said about 70 other fellow servicemen were crammed into the box cars, in utter darkness, only a crack of light at the tops of the doors. He added that they used a corner for their toileting needs. Periodically, they would stop along the way for a short break outdoors to stretch their legs, get fresh air and eat what small amount of food was offered. Baker said spent the long hours sitting in the darkness, talking or sleeping.
Baker said a German guard was assigned to each boxcar, even though the boxcars were bolted shut from the outside. He said they eventually ended up in the Stalig 17-B camp prison in Krebs, Austria (40 miles from Vienna). There were a total of 40,000 prisoners which consisted of Americans, Russians and French soldiers. A total of 15,000 of those prisoners were American airmen.
Baker, a 1939 graduate of Jewett-Scio High School, worked on the family's farm, located in Tippecanoe, up to the time he was drafted into the service. He was born to E.L. and Bessie (Spring) Baker, the youngest of six children.
At the time, Baker was in the service he said the Air Force was known as the Army-Air Force. It did not become known solely as the Air Force until about 1948. Baker recalls he received his initial assignment at Fort Hayes in Columbus following the preliminary testing to see where he could best be utilized in the service. He then was sent to Jefferson, Mo., where he took his basic training. Baker was later sent to Lowe Field in Denver, Colo., for armor training. Those that were trained in armory managed the guns that were onboard the planes.
Following the armory training, Baker said he volunteered to go to aerial gunnery school in Las Vegas, Nev. He said this is where he later earned his wings and the rank of staff sergeant. Baker said he was paid $212 a month for compensation. Baker then went to Boise, Idaho, where he met up with his crew who would be aboard the B-17 (a four engine bomber plane). The crew comprised of ten airmen (four officers, and six enlisted men) aboard each plane.
He recalls it was June 1943 when they flew to England to the Eighth Air Force, one of the largest Air Force bases in the world at that time. Baker recalls that he later completed six major missions. He said they were all significant missions and normally an airman was required to complete 25 missions before he could return home to the U.S. for re-assignment.
Baker's final mission on September 1943 was one
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of the most significant of all the missions he had been on. The target was an air raid over Stuttgart, Germany over a large ball bearing factory. He said there were 21 bomber planes on this mission. Eleven of the planes were shot down. He remembers the mission took about 11 hours, and they did later successfully hit their target. Baker's plane was later hit during the raid and he recalls that the pilot informed them they needed to prepare to evacuate because the plane was going down quickly. Baker said he remembers after he jumped, and pulled the ripcord for his parachute that he looked up and seen multiple holes in it where it had apparently been hit by bullets earlier. He said the descent was much more rapid than normal because of the holes, and he feared he would not survive the jump. He said he had never prayed before that, but said he did at that time. Baker survived the jump but the end result was a fractured right foot. He said he later learned that the loss of men that day was the most that had ever been encountered throughout the entire war and Sept. 6, 1943, became known as Black Monday.
Baker said he landed in a grape vineyard where he spent the night hiding among the vines. A German guard later discovered him, and took him prisoner. He said he spent ten days in a hospital until he could walk. He then was transported in the train boxcar to Stalig 17 B camp prison. Baker said the movie "Stalig 17" is based on this very same prison camp were he spent nearly 16 months.
He recalls being fumigated and having his head shaved as precaution for lice that was typically rampant in the camps. He said they were later separated into groups of 150 men each. He said they settled into their beds once they were settled only to be awaked by the severe itching, biting of fleas that were living in the bed mattresses. He said they later had to take the beds apart and hold the frames over a fire to kill the flea eggs. The next day's meal was soup and rutabagas (a root vegetable of the turnip family). He said it was the first hot meal they had eaten in weeks. He said they were all so starved that they didn't even pay any mind to the worms that were later discovered crawling in the soup! He said they later received parcels from the U.S. Red Cross which contained SPAM, corned beef, crackers, instant coffee, skim milk, cheese, raisins, and a chocolate bar called Square D.
He said there were 1,500 men when they arrived at the Stalig, and by March 1944 there were about 4,000. He said the prison barracks held three hundred men. He said they only had water available at specific times during the day in which they could shower. He recalls the latrine (for toileting) was outdoors and they were not permitted outside the barracks after dark, so there was a mad rush early in the morning, and just before dark. He says the camp was encircled by guards, and guard dogs on each corner, with large spotlights, and twenty foot high barbed wire fencing.
Baker said he has many memories of those days of uncertainty, and has written a personal account of his experience appropriately titled, "My War, My Story."
Baker later was released from the prison after they were liberated, and returned to the United States, finally returning home to his parent's farm. He later met, and married Mary Ferrell from Freeport in the fall of 1947. They later became the parents of sons, Richard and Gary.
Baker's name should be familiar to Newcomerstown residents as he was the original owner of the Baker's A&G that was once located where Medi-Wise is now located. He says he and son, Gary, purchased the store in August 1974 after the former Newcomerstown Kroger Store closed its doors after many years. He said they later expanded the Newcomerstown store, and purchased another store in Scio. Baker retired, and sold his part of the business to son, Gary, in 1983. Baker is a past commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a charter member of the Freeport Volunteer Fire Department, past president of the Lions Club and a member of the Masonic Lodge for over 65 years.
Baker turned 93 years old this year and received a very special birthday gift from son, Gary. He said he had told Gary for years that he would like to get back on a B-17 bomber plane just once again, so this past July, Baker got what he had been wishing for. He said they were in luck as a B-17 was at the Port Clinton airport and offering rides to the public. He said he had nearly the best seat on the plane, right behind the pilot.
He says, "It had been a long, long time since I had been on the B-17, but I still knew where most everything was still located."
Baker said his son recalled that Sept. 6 was going to be the seventieth anniversary of his B-17 being downed, and him becoming a POW, so he wanted a chance to give his Dad another flight on a B 17, but with much happier memory that seventy years before.
In 2009, Baker was one of the recipients of the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame awards, an award Baker is extremely proud of. He said his passion for the veterans and his community is second to none.