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Los Altos resident, World War II vet shares his experiences as B-17 pilot

Photo By: photo courtesy of Larry Nevin
Photo Photo Courtesy Of Larry Nevin

Charles N. Baker, top, poses by a vintage B-24, similar to the plane he flew during World War II.

They grew up enduring the harsh times of the Great Depression, came of age fighting in World War II and worked tirelessly to rebuild and reshape the United States as the 20th century progressed. Often referred to as “The Greatest Generation,” they are the cornerstone of America’s strength and success.

Charles N. Baker personifies that generation.

Baker, 95, a Los Altos resident for more than 50 years, is not quite as active as he was during his days as a B-17 pilot in World War II. However, when engaged in conversation, his youthful spirit and humble nature shine.

Baker was born Feb. 15, 1919, in Montana, but grew up in San Francisco. While living in the Bay Area, he played football and was recruited by the University of Oregon, where he became the starting quarterback. After completing his third year at U of O, Baker was drafted into the Army.

“I was drafted in my senior year at the University of Oregon,” he said. “It was Oct. 14, 1941, before Pearl Harbor.”

Dreams of flying

Baker was first assigned to the 15th Cavalry in Fort Riley, Kan. Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he requested a transfer to become a pilot. Given the popularity of flying, it wasn’t an easy request to fulfill, but Baker somehow scored his dream job.

“More young men wanted to fly than do anything else,” he said. “It was push, push, push – it was testing all the time. If you didn’t qualify, get out of the way, because someone is behind you that can take your place.”

After a rigorous year of cadet pilot training, the Army commissioned Baker a pilot Nov. 3, 1943.

During World War II, he served as a B-17 pilot for what was then the U.S. Army Air Forces, attached to the 390th Bombardment Group, 8th Army Air Force, stationed in England.

He flew 35 daylight bombing missions against Germany and earned many commendations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

When asked what he did in particular to deserve the medal, the veteran replied, “I survived.”

Baker recalled his trepidation and fear during his tour of duty.

“Lives were expendable in World War II,” he said. “Not only were we afraid of the Germans, we were afraid for our survival.”

“It must have been a terrifying experience,” said a friend of Baker’s who asked not to be named. “Going on dangerous missions, encountering swarms of enemy fighters, seeing their buddies’ planes shot out of the sky and going down in flames, then watching, often in vain, for parachutes to pop out of the falling planes, feeling their own plane hit again and again.”

Writing it down

In the midst of World War II, Baker chronicled his service daily in a journal. With help from a friend, Baker is writing a book on his wartime endeavors, intended primarily for family and friends. The book will document his experiences from the time he was drafted through his training and assignments as a pilot and his bombing missions over Germany.

Like many men categorized as among “The Greatest Generation,” Baker is modest, claiming that he doesn’t want special recognition. He deflects praise, saying that he is indebted to Uncle Sam for giving him the education, tools and honor to defend his country.

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