|World War II Memories from the Front
Born in New Cumberland in 1925, Robert E. Baker ’49 moved to Shiremanstown when he was five and still returns to the area annually to attend reunions of his Mechanicsburg High School class of 1942, including his 70th anniversary reunion this past spring.
Like many of his high school classmates and other young men around the country during the early 1940s, Baker wanted to join the military and fight for the U.S. in the war in Europe. Specifically, all through high school, he dreamed of becoming a Marine but the Corps only took two Marines from his area. Instead, he was drafted into the Army.
Baker had excelled in chemistry during high school while also working as a third-shift superintendent at Manbeck’s Bakery in town. Since he didn’t want to cook or bake for the Army because “they had to get up at six a.m. and active duty soldiers were able to “sleep in” until 6:30,” Baker let the recruiter know about his interest in chemistry and was assigned to chemical warfare.
Stationed at Camp Sibert in Alabama, Baker remembers a pair of facts that surprised him at the time. “Camp Sibert was completely segregated in 1943; there was absolutely no integration whatsoever and all the officers were white,” he said. “The Army also promoted smoking by including cigarettes in K rations and GI field rations. Officers used to tell us to “Smoke em if you got em.’” Coming from a geographic region where the races often worked and lived together, Baker was proud to note that the Army integrated during WWII, well before much of the rest of the country. He is also proud of the fact that the Army were at the forefront of another major social change, warning soldiers about the dangers of smoking by the 1950s.
After completing basic training, Baker was sent to England to join the 81st Chemical Mortar Battalion. Affectionately known as “four-deucers” because of the 4.2 inch mortars they used rather than the shells used by the military that were measured in millimeters, Baker’s battalion was involved in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. “The chemical mortars were portable by Jeep and dispersed white phosphorous that created a dense smoke to obscure German observation posts from reconnaissance and also made it difficult for their artillery to aim,” Baker said. “They were intended to be defensive weapons, but because the shells could not be put out by water, the Germans feared the chemical mortars more than the artillery.”
Baker’s battalion was assigned to any division that needed such white firepower. They were attached to the 1st Division under Lt. General Omar Bradley, Commanding General of the U.S. First Army, during the D-Day invasion. They continued service through France and Germany after VE Day [Victory in Europe] moving south toward Leipzig, Germany and Czechoslovakia. There, they encountered a group of German youth who decided they weren’t going to surrender. His chemical corps lobbed some shells into the woods and quickly drove the youths out. “We had a reputation that our mortar shells were the Devil’s shells,” Baker said. “When the phosphorous got on your skin, it was tough to get off before burning you.”
After D-Day, except for a few holdouts, the chemical corps remained in a holding action until the final Germans surrendered. Despite the name of his corps, Baker is convinced that no chemical agents were used to defend against the Germans. However, the U.S. Army had them on hand in case the Germans used them first. “We had them and were prepared to use it to retaliate against the Germans use of them,” Baker said. “Fortunately, we never had to.”
The shells were color-coded to designate the level of severity: “If the shell had a white band, it was phosphorous; a red band indicated that it was a high explosive shell; and a purple band noted it had chemical agents inside,” Baker noted. “You didn’t want to have anything to do with a purple band.”
One of Baker’s primary duties was to serve as a lineman and, with his fellow soldiers that included his best friend Leroy Speedy, lay down ground wire from the mortar locations to a place from which they could scout the enemy. Because of the secrecy surrounding the D-Day invasion, absolutely no radio communications were allowed thus making these line communications essential—and dangerous. “We had to set up observation posts, often close to a German artillery observation post,” Baker added.
Despite these dangers, Baker shared a story that made it into the pages of the Army’s main communications tool, the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper. “Laying the wire was an all-day job because you had to lay the wire regardless of the terrain, all while trying to avoid detection from German snipers,” he said. While performing this brave task one day in Normandy, Baker decided to visit his cousin. “I knew he was with the 29th Division manning the 105 Howitzer and his observation post was near ours, so I decided to make a surprise visit.” The two were pictured together in the military newspaper.
Because of the unique nature of the familial reunion, the picture of Baker visiting his cousin at the front appeared in his hometown newspaper, “The Patriot News,” much to the chagrin of his mother, who suffered from stress-related chronic asthma all her life. She was unaware that Baker was even in France or had taken part in D-Day until the photo ran in the Patriot.
“Near the end of the ETO (European Theater of Operation), the Germans were rapidly retreating but kept back a couple of airplanes to make strafing runs or drop some bombs on the advancing allies,” Baker said. “One of these planes came out of nowhere and dropped a bomb that detonated an ammunition truck in our convoy.”
After being blown out of the Jeep by the resulting explosion and returning to headquarters surprised but uninjured, Baker was told by his officers that he had earned a Purple Heart. “I turned down the Purple Heart because I wasn’t hurt in the explosion and didn’t feel that I had earned it,” Baker said. And, because hometown newspapers inevitably printed photos of Purple Heart recipients, he had another incentive to turn down the honor. “I didn’t want my mother to learn that I may have been injured.” She had already been adversely affected by the photo of Baker and his cousin that had appeared earlier in The Patriot News.
Baker would later receive other military honors as a member of the Order of the Dragon on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. He joined five other members of his battalion who served in D-Day.
After returning home from the war, Baker decided to enroll at Lebanon Valley College rather than Penn State because of his family’s close connection to the United Brethren Church. He also knew he wanted to get hands-on laboratory experience at LVC rather than sit in a 300-person lecture hall at Penn State.
Having been part of several international historic events such as the D-Day invasion and as a member one of the first battalions to enter Berlin at war’s end, Baker made history on a local scale while a chemistry student at LVC. He was one of the several million returning soldiers who attended college under the G.I. Bill and was a member of the College’s first-ever student-faculty research group.
In the summer of 1948, Baker and four of his classmates, all returning veterans, conducted research with Dr. H. Anthony Neidig, late professor emeritus of chemistry. The group assisted Neidig in studying “Oxidation of Secondary Alcohols,” a project Neidig had begun while pursuing his doctorate at the University of Delaware. After two summers of research, the group’s work was published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry—the first student-faculty publication in the history of the College.
This research was aided by a fellow chemistry student who would become Baker’s wife in 1948. Barbara Kilheffer Baker ’48 had taken two semesters of Russian and helped Baker solve a chemical problem by finding it in Russian and translating it into English.
Neidig selected Baker to present a summary of the group’s work at a major regional conference. One of the attendees, from Drexel University, was so impressed that he offered Baker a position as instructor of chemistry before he even graduated from LVC. “I won first place, which led to a job as an instructor in inorganic chemistry at Drexel,” Baker said. “However, after three years in the position I decided that teaching was not my field.”
Baker left Drexel to work in research and development for the Glidden Company. He spent the next 37 years with the paint company. He worked in their commercial laboratory, resin manufacturing, and polymer science divisions but never actually worked with paint. Ironically, Baker’s son, Paul Baker ’79, worked in the paint division of Glidden during summers.
Robert and Barbara, who died in 2010, had five children together, four of them daughters, and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at Kreiderheim, in 1998. One of the daughters, Robin Baker Thomson ’76, also graduated from LVC and followed in her father’s military footsteps. She joined the Army after graduation and advanced to company commander of an armored maintenance company before retiring as a Major. There are eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren as well and Baker will proudly show you their photos on his iPhone.
Today, Baker resides nine miles from campus at Cornwall Manor, an active continuing care retirement community in Lebanon County, which has numerous LVC connections. Wesley T. Dellinger ’75, chair of the LVC Board of Trustees, is also chair of the Cornwall Manor Board of Trustees, and fellow LVC chemistry graduate, Dr. Joseph M. Clark ’64, is a member of Cornwall’s board. Perhaps of greater interest, another member of Dr. Neidig’s original student-research team, Wesley Kreiser ’49, lives down the hill from Baker in a cottage on the grounds of Cornwall Manor and Dr. Neidig himself lived at Cornwall Manor before his death in 2008.