World War II veterans share their stories

The day Edward Baker graduated from high school is one he will never forget. In one hand was his diploma and in the other was his military induction orders. World War II was in full swing and he had been drafted into the U.S. Navy. The year was 1943.

            “I was an 18-year-old boy and didn’t know too much about what was going on,” he said. “I was young and looking for a little adventure anyway, so I didn’t worry about it.”

Edward Baker, right, after he was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1943.
Edward Baker, right, after he was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1943.

            Baker was assigned to the Garfield Thomas, a destroyer escort that provided escort service against submarine and air attack for Navy vessels and convoys. “We dropped hundreds and hundreds of bombs,” Baker said. “It was our job to protect the convoy.”

            He recalled how tedious it was to get 190 ships through the isthmus when the Navy was building a force to stop the invasion that was coming from the English Channel. “Having a whole bunch of ships made us a sitting duck because the ships had to line up and wait their turn to go through.”

            The only time he recalled being afraid was when a German submarine launched a torpedo at his ship with a dead aim. A buddy of his up on the bridge saw the torpedo coming, but it stopped short of the ship as the submarine succumbed to the depth chargers that had been dropped just moments before the torpedo was launched.

            As a Detroit native, one of Baker’s boyhood dreams had been to attend the University of Michigan after graduating from high school – a dream he never had the opportunity to fulfill. It just so happened that one of the first friends he met in the military was an all-state football player from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

            “We were marching one time with everything we owned. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and I couldn’t take another step farther, so I just threw my stuff on the ground. This guy behind me turned out to be the guy from Ann Arbor. He picked it up and threw it over his other shoulder – he was pretty strong,” said Baker. “I was tired and wore out, but it didn’t bother him none. He picked it up and said, ‘Come on. Let’s get going.’ He helped me get through that march. Not too long after that, we were on the ship and he fell overboard and drowned. It broke my heart.”

            Another experience that Baker defined as “stomach churning” still haunts him to this day. Some of the military transport ships used during the war were old merchant ships that weren’t necessarily in tip-top shape. One of them had engine problems and fell out. Baker’s ship was the closest to them and was commanded to go out and stay with them, with the caveat that if the engine wasn’t repaired within two hours, they had to leave. “We had to leave them, and that still bothers me,” he said in an anguished voice. “It was hell to pull away and leave them there – it just didn’t seem right.”

Edward Baker, of San Jose, is among the last of The Greatest Generation, having served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Edward Baker, of San Jose, is among the last of The Greatest Generation, having served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

            Although he didn’t choose to go to war, Baker, now 95, has no regrets about his three years of military service. “I was willing to serve my country, wherever they put me. I was proud to be an American,” he said. “I was lucky to go there and come back in one piece.”

            For Violet Keels, it was her adventurous spirit that prompted her to volunteer through the American Red Cross to help with the war effort. At the age of 21, she was in her last semester of college to be a business teacher when she decided to do something different. “I didn’t want to teach to begin with and this was my chance to do something that I thought would be worthwhile. I’ve never regretted it,” she said.

Violet Keels, of San Jose, served overseas during World War II with the American Red Cross.
Violet Keels, of San Jose, served overseas during World War II with the American Red Cross.

            The 97-year-old has a vivid recollection of what transpired during that time and recalls with clarity even the tiniest details. She started with the American Red Cross in England, near Liverpool, but she wasn’t satisfied with being so far removed from what was going on. “I told them I wanted to go where the action is, and they transferred me to Paris where I was with the 82nd Airborne Division.”

Violet Keels, at age 21, as a "Donut Dolly" during World War II.
Violet Keels, at age 21, as a “Donut Dolly” during World War II.

            Keels and three other girls moved from base to base with the 82nd Airborne Division. Each girl had her own club and her own driver. Women who volunteered for the Clubmobiles were popularly referred to as “Donut Dollies,” since one of their biggest tasks was making doughnuts for the servicemen.

            Delivering doughnuts, coffee, and cheer to enlisted men was a big part of her job, but more importantly, she listened to them and got to know them. “I encouraged them to keep in touch with home,” she said. “Several came back and said, ‘My mother was so glad to hear from me,’ which made me feel like I was doing a good job.”

            When enlisted men came back from the bombing raid in German-occupied Nijmegen, Holland, Keels met them at the train, offered them coffee and refreshments and invited them to the club that night. She had a big sister-like protective instinct when it came to the soldiers, most of whom were younger than her.

            She often wrote letters to home, giving accounts of her days and experiences in Europe. She recalled getting a response from her mother, asking her to write on only one side of the paper. For safety reasons, Keels’ letters were screened before they were mailed. Portions of her letters were being cut out and her mother couldn’t understand them.   

            Crossing the ocean for the first time was one of Keels’ most harrowing experiences. The ship’s captain detected a submarine, so he cut the engine and the ship sat still for four hours. “We had gone the northern route, and the captain told us that if anything happened, we could only survive for about five minutes in the cold water. The other girls and I agreed that if the ship went down, we would stay aboard and go down with it rather than getting in the water and letting something eat us,” she chuckled.

             D-Day was another unforgettable experience. “We were told to stay in our quarters. We were not allowed out because they were still dropping V2 bombs over London. It was scary. We sat there and held our breath and prayed that nothing would happen to us. We lost so many people – it was terrible.”

            Berlin was her last station. She and the three other girls that served the 82nd Airborne Division had the distinction of being the first American women in Berlin after the war was over. Upon leaving Berlin, she received the warmest welcome home.

            General James Gavin saw that Keels and her three cohorts came back with the division. They were greeted in New York City with a ticker tape parade, followed by a special dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. “He thought enough of what we had done to talk to the Red Cross and have us come back with the men,” she said. “Even though it was us four girls with all those men, they knew what we were doing – we were there to help, not to pick up a man.”

By Kandace Lankford

Resident Community News

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