Medal of Honor recipient John F. Baker Jr. thought for a quick second Friday afternoon as he sat in his suite at Jumer’s Casino and Hotel in Rock Island.
“So far, I’ll be the only Medal of Honor recipient to have a bridge named after him,” he said, referring to today’s ceremony to attach his name to the Interstate 280 bridge.
Many recipients of the nation’s highest military honor have roadways and streets and other things named after them, he added. “It’s really an honor,” the Vietnam War veteran said.
After today, that bridge will known as Baker Bridge for the only Medal of Honor recipient from the Quad-Cities.
What helps make it even more special is the fact that the bridge connects Illinois and Iowa, Baker, 65 said.
“I was born in Davenport and lived there for eight years, and then we moved to Moline.”
The Medal of Honor is awarded by Congress for risk of life in combat beyond the call of duty.
Baker recalled his military service Friday, saying he first tried to enlist in the Marines because many of his friends were going into the service. But the Marines wouldn’t take him. “I’m only 5 feet 2 inches,” he said. He needed to be 5 feet 3 inches.
However, the Army took him immediately.
Baker’s Medal of Honor citation credits him with “selfless heroism, indomitable fighting spirit and extraordinary gallantry” in saving the lives of fellow soldiers while his company was under intense enemy fire on Nov. 5, 1966. Baker is credited with knocking out several enemy bunkers and killing four Viet Cong snipers.
Deflecting some of the attention away from himself, Baker was quick to point out that he was not the only Medal of Honor recipient from the events of that day. His commanding officer, then Capt. Robert Foley, also was awarded the Medal of Honor. Baker was a sergeant.
It may be the only time that two men from the same unit have been awarded the Medal of Honor for actions on the same day and in the same battle, he said.
Baker, who lives in Columbia, S.C., with his wife of 27 years, Donnell, said he and other Medal of Honor recipients spend much of their time talking to students in schools. Many of the talks to students in higher grades extol the virtues of the military as a career, but many of the talks also are about service. Those talks also include lessons in history and in the values that made America great.
“This is a great country of ours,” Baker said. “Some people can’t go into the military, or won’t qualify. However, they can still serve their city. You can put that spirit to work in the place you live. People can donate two years of their lives to that.”
Family friend Col. Drew Meyerowich, who accompanied the Bakers to the Quad-Cities, said that when students meet Baker, they learn a very important lesson.
“He’s not a super man, and he’s not a star athlete,” Meyerowich said. “He’s a man who performed extraordinary actions under extraordinary conditions.”
Meyerowich pointed out that Baker initially was awarded the Silver Star. “It was taken away and upgraded to the Medal of Honor,” he said.
“It’s that one time, that one moment that you do something, and somebody sees you do it,” Baker said. He and Foley were nominated by members of their unit.
Baker added he is proud of the men and women in today’s Army, and their dedication to their units.
As Meyerowich pointed out, “They fight for their buddies, and don’t want to let their unit down.”
“When they get wounded and to hospitals, their first words are, ‘I want to go back,’” Baker said.
At least three members of Baker’s unit who were with him on Nov. 5, 1966, are in the Quad-Cities for today’s bridge ceremony. They are Mike Marcukaitis, 64, of Kankakee, Ill.; Tom Donovan, 62, of Oxford, Ohio; and Roger Schoonover, 63, of Waterloo, Iowa.
“If’ John’s going to be there, I’ll be there,” Marcukaitis said, with Donovan and Schoonover nodding in agreement. “I heard about this three years ago, and I said then, ‘When they have it, I’ll be there.’”
Donnell Baker pointed out that there are only 88 living Medal of Honor recipients. “We lost two more about a week and a half ago,” she said.
She said she and her husband met in Hawaii where he was stationed with the Army. She was working for entertainer Don Ho.
While Baker is recovering from heart surgery — he recently had a heart valve replaced — his bearing is that of a soldier, proud and erect.
Pointing to Donnell, he said, “My wife keeps me going.”