This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we'll highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Retired Army Master Sgt. John F. Baker Jr. could have had a prominent gymnastics career, since he competed in high school and trained for the Olympics in his hometown of Moline, Illinois. But after graduation in 1966, he decided to pursue something entirely different: service in the Army and a tour of duty in Vietnam, which earned him the Medal of Honor.
Only a few short months after he began his Army training, Baker was shipped off to Vietnam with the 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.
A private first class at the time, 19-year-old Baker said he and his company went out in the jungles for weeks at a time on combat patrols. Often, since he was small guy – only 5 feet 2 inches tall weighing 105 pounds – he was tasked with crawling through Viet Cong tunnels filled with booby traps to try to lure the enemy out of their hiding spots.
Baker had been in Vietnam for only two months, when, on Nov. 5, 1966, he and his company were called to help rescue another unit that had been surrounded by Viet Cong. On the way there they were ambushed, and the man at the front of Baker’s unit was killed instantly. An assistant machine-gun bearer at the time, Baker immediately moved to the head of the group, and, with another soldier, knocked out two enemy bunkers.
Throughout the ordeal, Baker repeatedly assaulted the enemy and pulled wounded soldiers to safety.
At one point, he was blown off his feet by a grenade, but he recovered and single-handedly took out another bunker, then another.
When the battle was over, Baker had saved eight of his fellow soldiers, knocked out six Viet Cong machine gun bunkers, and killed 10 enemy soldiers, including several snipers. His courage and commitment under fire earned him the Medal of Honor in 1968, which he received from President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Baker continued to serve in the Army until 1989, when he retired to Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife regularly attended special events at nearby Fort Jackson, and he continued helping soldiers by working for the Veterans Administration until his death in January 2012. He was 66.
“Five-foot-two John Baker was a giant,” said Army Col. Drew Meyerowich at Baker’s funeral. “Once you got to know him, you realized he’s exactly the giant we expect to see on the battlefield. He was larger than life.”
In August of this year, Baker was honored by U.S. Army Garrison Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, which named a street after him.