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MEMORIAL DAY: Burnet’s ‘Stubby’ Baker received Purple Heart

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

BURNET — In 1942, the country was in the middle of a war on two fronts against the Japanese in the Pacific and the Germans in Europe. Joining the military in 1942 pretty much guaranteed you a trip to either area — and one’s safety was not guaranteed.

That didn’t stop W.E. “Stubby” Baker Jr. from signing up. The young athlete graduated from Burnet High School in May 1942 but didn’t spend the summer celebrating. Instead, the teenager joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

He was 17 at the time, so his parents had to actually sign the documents allowing him to become a Leatherneck.

As a Marine in the Pacific theater, Baker took part in many of the toughest and grueling battles as the men went island to island rooting out Japanese soldiers. Baker was among the men who launched an offensive against the Japanese on Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. The attack started Aug. 7, 1942, and ran through Feb. 9, 1943. Since the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese had advanced through the South Pacific. The U.S. Navy made considerable headway against the Japanese with the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. With those victories, Allied forces began turning their attention to the Solomon Islands, which included Guadalcanal.

The Japanese held the island, which gave it a strategic point between the U.S. and Australia.

The Japanese put up a tenacious fight, but after several months, the Marines and U.S. Army pushed them off the island and took control. It turned out to be the first major offensive by U.S. forces against the Japanese and a key victory in the war.

In late 1943, American leaders took aim at the Bismarck Archipelago of the Solomon Islands, particularly the island of New Britain.

The Marines landed in late December 1943 to capture a Japanese air base. The Japanese offered some resistance, but the Guadalcanal veterans captured the air base on Dec. 29, 1943 — just three days after landing on the beaches.

After the Marines secured the airfield, the Japanese mounted vicious attacks with the most violent coming New Year’s Day of 1944.

On Dec. 30, 1943, Baker and Company B of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines had secured a ridge and managed to drive back the Japanese. Their task included holding that ridge while the rest of the battalion moved around the left flank of the Japanese.

Japanese snipers continued to work the area. On Jan. 1, 1944, Baker and some other Marines were fortifying their positions on the ridge when a enemy sniper shot and killed him. His fellow Marines quickly returned fire and killed the Japanese sniper.

Baker’s company commander, Capt. John W. Holland, praised the Marine as someone who not only took care of his duties but was always willing to help out wherever and whenever he could.

“We have lost one of the bravest, finest friends we had,” Holland wrote in a letter to Baker’s father, Walter Baker.

The Marines posthumously awarded Baker a Purple Heart.

Baker was 19 when he died.

daniel@thepicayune.com

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