Army Master Sgt. John F. Baker Jr., who received the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of eight of his fellow soldiers, killing 10 Viet Cong and knocking out six machine gun bunkers after his unit was ambushed Nov. 5, 1966, in Vietnam, died Friday evening after collapsing in his Northeast Richland home. He was 66.
Baker and his wife, Donnell, had just returned home from supper when he collapsed, said retired Maj. Gen. Gene Rogers of Columbia, a family friend. Baker had suffered heart problems and had been using oxygen for about a year and a half, Rogers said.
The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest award for valor in combat. Baker’s commander, Robert Foley, also received the Medal of Honor for the unit’s action.
“We’ve lost a brave and courageous American hero,” Rogers said. “He and Donnell asked for so little and did so much for the country. The country is a better place because he lived in it.”
Baker was active in veteran’s issues and was instrumental in bringing the national Medal of Honor convention to Charleston in 2010.
Baker was born in Davenport, Iowa, and went to high school in nearby Moline, Ill. In 2008, the I-280 Bridge connecting Davenport with Rock Island, Ill., was renamed in his honor.
During the Vietnam War, Baker was a 5-foot-2-inches tall, 105-pound “tunnel rat” – a soldier who, armed with only a pistol and a flashlight, would crawl into enemy tunnels to clear them. He was one of only 239 service members to receive the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. And he was the last Army soldier with ties to South Carolina to receive the medal from any conflict.
“He is the last of a long legacy of great Army recipients who lived in South Carolina,” said retired Marine Maj. Gen. James. E Livingston of Charleston, also a Medal of Honor recipient.
A memorial service is being planned for late next week at Fort Jackson. Visitation will be the day before the service at Dunbar Funeral Home. Interment will be in Arlington National Cemetery.