Senior Lifestyles

Flying high at 100: LA resident, WWII pilot celebrates milestone


Mary Larsen/Town Crier
Chuck Baker, 100, displays the refurbished flight jacket he wore during World War II.

Los Altos resident Charles “Chuck” Baker celebrated the big 100 Feb. 15. He received many certificates of congratulations – from the Rotary Club and the mayor of San Carlos, as well as from members of the U.S. Congress and President Donald Trump.

With parties in his honor at the San Carlos Rotary Club and Los Altos United Methodist Church, and another with close friends and relatives, it was “one celebration after another,” the centenarian said.

The festivities aren’t over yet. In April, Baker plans to take to the skies for a skydiving adventure – a new thrill. Although he spent four years flying in World War II with a parachute at the ready, he was fortunate not to have to use it.

Two years ago, a friend gave him an aerobatic flying session.

“Loops, spins, rolls – you never forget,” Baker said.

Born in Montana (his father was sent there to grow wheat for the U.S. Army during World War I), Baker and his family moved to San Francisco when he was 2 years old. He played football in high school, and was recruited by the University of Oregon Ducks. He majored in physical education, with the aim of becoming a football coach.

Uncle Sam had other plans, though. With World War II looming, Baker was drafted into the Army in October 1941, shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Stationed at Fort Riley, Kan., in the Cavalry, he continued to play football there. Wanting to fly, he was admitted into the Aviation Cadet program. After a year of intense training, he was commissioned a pilot in November 1943.

Wartime

As a B-17 pilot for the U.S. Army Air Forces, stationed in England – the 390th Bombardment Group, 8th Army Air Force – Baker flew 35 daylight bombing missions against Germany. He still attends annual reunions of the 390th Group in Arizona.

The carefully choreographed missions to Germany from

England took eight hours, there and back, Baker said. Although his plane, the “Bomboogie,” was often severely damaged by aerial gunfire as well as ground-to-air flak, he always made it back.

Positioned up front on the B-17, underneath machine guns, the noise of the firing cost Baker some of his hearing.

“When that gun was turned forward, it was right over my head,” he recalled. “When the gun went off, it blew out my ear. Me and my buddies … about one in three didn’t come home. One night we came home, and we were the only crew that existed that day. Everybody else was shot down.”

He was awarded the Air Medal seven times as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Baker met his wife, Donnabeth, in San Carlos while on furlough. They married in December 1944. She died in 1999.

After four years of active duty, Baker spent 15 years in the reserves. He flew for United Airlines before joining his father’s contracting company in Los Altos. He then started his own cabinet business, Sequoia Mill, in Redwood City. Much later, he ran an import business in Munich – mostly as an excuse to go to Europe to ski, he said with a laugh.

During one of those ski trips, while on a gondola ride up a mountain, the Bakers found themselves seated across from a German man, approximately Baker’s age. Engaging in conversation, the men realized they had fought on opposite sides decades earlier: “Hey, you tried to shoot me down,” Baker said. Without the backdrop of war, they became friends and wrote letters to each other for many years.

Palo Alto resident John McIntosh has been friends with Baker since the mid-1950s, when McIntosh returned from the Korean War and joined the Palo Alto Ski Club. McIntosh said he has enjoyed a wonderful relationship with Baker, including many social engagements and ski trips with Baker and Donnabeth.

“He’s always adventuresome,” McIntosh said of his friend. “Always, ‘Let’s do this, let’s take this run,’ when we were skiing. He would encourage us to go along. And we usually would go along.”

McIntosh summed up his friendship with Baker: “He’s sociable, a good friend. We’ve had just a great life together.”

An active lifestyle

Baker has longevity in his genes; his parents, longtime Los Altos residents, lived to be 102. He recalls them saying to him, “Son, we gave you the best of genes; it’s up to you to take care of them.”

He enjoys good health and maintains an active lifestyle. He is very close to his nephew, who lives in Palo Alto and visits every day, and his niece in Carmel.

Baker works out at the YMCA four times per week, using the treadmill and weight machines. In addition to skiing, his interests over the years have included sailing, cars and flying.

He has self-published books for friends and family on his wartime experiences, letters he wrote home to his mother, and memories of his life with Donnabeth.

Baker still drives, “as well as I did 30 years ago,” he said. He maintains the house he has lived in since 1957 and the large backyard, with the help of a gardener for the lawns.

He is an active member of the San Carlos Rotary Club and Los Altos United Methodist Church.

Final thoughts?

“I’m looking forward to my next hundred years,” Baker said. “I love it here in Los Altos. I have a lot of good friends here. I love Rotary, I love my church, I love YMCA. I have an active social life. As long as I keep active, that’s the important thing as far as I’m concerned.”

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