An Exceptionally Good Death

By Will Dabbs, MD

I’ve got some hard news for you—everybody dies.

I’ve chewed on that a bit myself. Lots of folks haven’t. The very idea leaves us justifiably discomfited.

The US Army taught me the fine art of flying in my early twenties. My stated life goal is to meet Jesus at the bottom of a smoking hole with the tail of an airplane between my shoulder blades sometime in my nineties. However, if I can’t go out doing something I love at a ripe old age at least I want it to mean something.

Succumbed to excitement soon after defusing some supervillain’s thermonuclear bomb concealed underneath a congested daycare might do. Smothered to death from unbridled affection after having rescued the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders from a raging volcano would also look fetching on a tombstone. 

That’s all fine in the abstract, but it’s also fairly improbable. To my knowledge I’ve never even met a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. However, in the breathtakingly powerful story of Sgt. Thomas Baker, we find a young man who went out in a literal blaze of glory. His tale is one of almost superhuman power.

Origin Story

Thomas Alexander Baker was born in Troy, New York, in 1916. He enlisted as a soldier in 1940 at the age of 24. After basic training he was assigned to the 27th Infantry Division. In the summer of 1944, Baker found himself in the sweltering heat of the Japanese-held South Pacific island of Saipan.

Saipan saw some of the most pitiless combat of the Pacific War. Seizing Saipan would give American B-29 Superfortresses the bases they needed to begin pulverizing the Japanese home islands. Saipan would be the turning point in the Pacific. Everybody knew this. As a result, the Japanese fought like rabid weasels for every inch of the godforsaken place.

Once in combat, Tom Baker unleashed his inner wild man. Baker crept out ahead of friendly forces with a 2.36-inch bazooka and center-punched a Japanese pillbox that had his company pinned down under fire. Soon thereafter, he was providing rear security when his unit passed a hidden Japanese element consisting of two officers and ten enlisted soldiers. Without hesitation Baker charged into their midst and killed every last one of them. Later that same day this maniac happened upon another half dozen Japanese troops and eliminated them all with his rifle.

Appreciating the gravitas of this fight, the Japanese devoted 31,629 troops to the island’s defense. When the smoke cleared only 1,810 still drew breath. The rest spent themselves in mindless Banzai charges and nighttime suicide assaults. For the attacking Americans, Saipan was a sortie through Hell.

A Good Day to Die

On 7 July 1944, Baker’s defensive perimeter was attacked on three sides by between 3,000 and 5,000 fanatical Japanese soldiers. In the opening stages of the assault, Baker found himself badly wounded. With US troops withdrawing in the face of the relentless pummeling, Baker voluntarily stayed behind to slow the enemy advance and buy his friends time to escape. The young grunt fought on until he ran out of ammunition, killing one Japanese soldier at a range of only five yards.

In the process, Baker’s rifle was shot to pieces and he was injured too badly to stand. A buddy carried him some fifty yards to the rear before also being shot. Unwilling to risk his comrades’ lives any further, Baker directed that he be propped against a tree and given an M1911 pistol loaded with eight rounds of ammunition. Despite being offered assistance, Baker directed his fellow soldiers to the rear, implacable and stalwart as the overwhelming Japanese attack flowed toward his position.

Eventually, American forces regrouped and counterattacked, retaking the terrain lost in the maniacal Japanese charge. When troopers of the 27th ID regained the clearing where Tom Baker made his last stand, they found the young soldier slumped over against his tree. The pistol was still in his cold dead hand, the slide locked back over an empty magazine. Scattered around his battered corpse were the bodies of eight dead Japanese soldiers, each killed with a single round of .45 ACP.

Ruminations

In war young people die unnaturally. That simple fact is what makes the enterprise so timelessly obscene. War is, in fact, the most lewd and offensive of mankind’s many manifest foolish pursuits. However, war is also the catalyst that most reliably precipitates human greatness.

Sixteen million Americans served during World War II. Of those many millions in uniform, only 473 earned the Medal of Honor. More than half of those perished in the process. Despite the sordid circumstances and tragic reality of young life so horribly wasted, the brass-balled Sgt. Thomas Baker died an exceptionally good death.

Editor’s note: The lead image shows troops near the front lines in Saipan. Their identities were not immediately available.




From the FE Films Archive


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