Of The Los Angeles Times

In the summer of 1969, Alfred M. Baker was blown up by a satchel full of Viet Cong explosives. The explosion threw Baker 20 feet into air; the impact broke his back in two places, ripped off almost half his face and snapped bones all over his body. Medics deposited him in the triage section for those left to die. Before a priest began giving him last rites, Baker managed to clear away the teeth and bits of gum knocked into his mouth.

“Get the f— away,” he mumbled to the priest. “I’m not Catholic. And I’m not going to die.”

Baker was awarded a Purple Heart. It was his fourth in three years.

And Vietnam marked only the early phase of Baker’s career. Later assignments — including two “black book” posts delegated by the secretary of the Army — were just as dangerous and often more challenging. Yet no assignment, Baker contends, has been as painful as his post as chief of staff, U.S. Command, Berlin Brigade. Next month, he will oversee the closing of the only U.S. base behind enemy lines, ending a half-century-old American presence in a city that symbolized the Cold War. And as he turns off the lights of the headquarters built for Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Goring, Baker will also end a three-decade career.

“In some ways, this has been the toughest assignment I’ve ever had. It’s saying goodby to a city and a mission that has played such a role in history. It feels like amputating your own leg,” Col. Baker, 53, reflected recently in the cavernous office that once served the Luftwaffe. “Plus the whole kaleidoscope of what I’ve done and all I’ve been for 30 years ends here. This is the last stop. There is no more.”

The end of the Berlin Brigade and the cashiering of one of the Army’s most decorated soldiers are microcosms of the changes within the American military during the final phases of its massive drawdown. Their last days symbolize the passing of a certain kind of mythic American soldier and an ambitious mission that first led the United States to international power. The result is transforming the U.S. Armed Forces.

Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, more than half the 1,669 U.S. military facilities overseas have been eliminated, reduced or inactivated — just short of the 54% reduction of 1990 levels expected by 1996. More than 600 were in Germany. And since the height of the U.S. deployment in 1987, more than 200,000 of the half-million soldiers overseas have been reassigned to home bases, left the military or retired. The overall goal is a 56% reduction of 1985 levels by 1996; the largest drawdown is again in Germany. From more than 250,000 troops in 1987, the U.S. presence will be reduced to less than 100,000 soldiers after cutbacks culminating with the deactivation of the Berlin Brigade.

Like Baker, many of those affected by the cutbacks in posts and personnel are the most war-hardened officers still serving in the military. Due to either time, notably the 30-year career limit, or the new streamlined military, many who cut their teeth in the foxholes, marshes and jungles of South Vietnam are now being retired.

Among them is one of the Army’s contemporary legends.

It took more than 15 operations to put Baker back together; he underwent 10 just to reconstruct his face.

“I told them I had looked like Rock Hudson. They obviously screwed up,” he laughed. The only visible reminder of Vietnam is a lump on his upper right lip, which he opted to keep rather than undergo more surgery.

As a professional soldier, Baker didn’t take a military discharge. Eighteen months later, he was back in Vietnam. During his third tour, he worked under John Paul Vann, the acclaimed but controversial military maverick dissected in Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “A Bright Shining Lie.” It was a turning point in Baker’s life.

Vann appraised the Saigon government early on as corrupt and inept. He understood the war was being lost among the peasantry, and he knew high-tech weapons were often producing more guerrillas than they killed. After failing to win promotion and thus forced out of the Army, Vann returned to Vietnam as a civilian adviser and architect of a different strategy to counter the Viet Cong. His eight-man teams, culled from the diplomatic, intelligence and military communities, worked on a U.S. program advising villagers at the grass-roots level on economic, political, agricultural and health issues. Baker became one of Vann’s boys.

Years later, colleagues referred to Baker’s final tour in Vietnam as his Col. Kurtz period, after the officer played by Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now” who pursued the war on his own terms. Shortly after Baker arrived in the jungles and rice paddies of remote Phu-Yen Province, he dismissed the other seven members of his team. “They were the wrong people in the wrong place doing the wrong jobs. It wasn’t their fault,” Baker explained.

For the next 19 months, he lived mostly alone, moving among the villages to work on their problems. “I thought if I was going to get them to follow my advice, I had to live like they did,” he recalled.

“So I went on operations with the local Vietnamese home guard to show we were confident of their security. I slept in villages to show we weren’t afraid to live alongside them in exposed areas. I worked on problems of rats and agriculture to prove we were interested in their lives. And I spent a lot of time drinking tea and talking about what concerned them. Every two months I went into town to get rip-roaring drunk, then I came back and lived like a Buddhist monk, never raising my voice.

“But,” he stressed, “I never went native.” During that last year in Vietnam, however, the 6-foot-1 Baker dropped to 135 pounds from 170.

Vann was a role model for Baker. Their lives took similar turns. After World War II, Vann, a Southerner, pulled himself out of poverty through the Army. Baker grew up on a farm near a West Virginia coal camp; his father worked for the railroad. He joined the Army because “the military represented the prospect of a middle-class life,” he said.

Vann excelled rapidly in the Army. He distinguished himself in combat during the Korean and Vietnam wars, although his heroics led to tales of recklessness as well as valor. He also spoke his mind and rarely hesitated to take on the military brass, often drawing awe from troops but disapproval from superiors. The combination ultimately cost him a general’s star.

Baker also rose rapidly through the ranks; he was a major within seven years of his first commission. Soldiers who knew him in those early years remember archetypal blood-and-guts prowess. “He was a tremendous hunter, a natural hunter. That’s why he was so good in combat,” recalled Everett Thomas, who went through Ranger and Airborne training with Baker in 1963.

Besides the Purple Hearts, Baker also won two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star medal, two Legion of Merit awards and an Air Medal in Vietnam. He is “either the luckiest or unluckiest soldier I’ve ever known. Al Baker should have died a couple of times. But he was just too tough and too stubborn,” said Lt. Col. Jay Erb, who is now at the Pentagon.

Flamboyant and funny, with a propensity to break into nasal renditions of country and Western songs, Baker sees himself as an outsider. Officers who have served with him on four continents speak of Baker in almost adoring terms. But he’ll also leave the Army short of a general’s star, despite interventions by military peers.

“My way of thinking is different to almost everyone else in the officer corps. It often puts me out of step,” Baker said.

Vietnam’s climax, however, had a vastly different impact on Vann and Baker. Vann’s ambitions ultimately undid him. His criticism of U.S. strategy softened; his hawkish actions hardened. Obsessed with victory as proof of America’s rightness, he began to let the ends justify the means. And as that victory proved ever more elusive, he called for air strikes and even boasted of the smell of dead bodies wafting in from nearby jungles after their hits. Vann died in a 1972 plane crash during a North Vietnamese offensive.

In contrast, Baker was one of many officers who, angered by the American experience in Vietnam, became wary of war. “During the first two tours, I had one job,” Baker said. “It was to seek out the enemy and destroy him. That was my mind-set and that’s what I did. During the last tour, I began to understand we weren’t going to be able to win. And I began to see why.”

One of Vietnam’s most potent legacies was a generation of officers reluctant to engage militarily without clear goals and support from well-defined policy and the public. Without all three, many in this generation became gun-shy, sometimes reluctant to use force or even prepared to speak out against it. Many were outraged as the U.S. military was subsequently burned again by policy in places such as Beirut and Somalia; others urged the White House to think through its goals before taking on Iraq.

Baker came out of Vietnam transformed — as his family quickly noticed. Haunted by his friendship with a 12-year-old Vietnamese boy, Baker once went home on leave to find his children’s bikes unused because they had flat tires. “They were waiting for me to fix them. They wouldn’t do it themselves,” he said. “So I took all the bikes down to the thrift shop. It wasn’t fair to my own children. But I was living shoulder-to-shoulder with people struggling to survive. One of them was a little kid getting up in the morning and working and then going to school and coming back to work. So the piling up of possessions seemed irrelevant. I didn’t want them to possess my family.”

He hasn’t changed. When they leave Berlin, the Bakers have no home to return to in the United States. His wife, Joan, has put bids to buy much of the furniture in their Army-supplied home in Berlin for “whatever we end up in wherever that turns out to be.”

Since Vietnam, Baker has also never personally owned a gun. He concluded that there were different ways to wage and win a war. And firepower, he decided, had its limitations. Once again, it goes back to Vann.

“Vann’s idea was not to fight on a military basis. You had to offer people a better alternative, to show they could make government better without taking up arms. So the idea was to rebuild a nation from the grass roots up. It was a beautiful concept,” he said.

After Vietnam, Baker’s foreign postings reflected a determination to do right what Vann had failed to do in Vietnam. Baker hasn’t always succeeded. But he often made a difference.

In the 1980S, as the Middle East replaced Vietnam as the leading hot spot, Baker landed in Lebanon and found his life increasingly embroiled in the world’s longest ongoing conflict. In 1981, he was first assigned to work for the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), which monitored tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Baker headed UNTSO’s mission in Lebanon — at the time, the region’s most explosive border.

“The chances of being killed randomly were incredibly high,” Baker laughed. “There wasn’t just one war going on. We were tracking 80-odd groups and trying to referee all their fights.” Among them were Christian and Muslim rivals fighting a civil war, Palestinian groups in and outside the PLO challenging Israel, and foreign-sponsored militias, from Kurds to Libyan surrogates, playing out regional tensions.

The mission, which forbade U.N. observers from carrying arms, was to get the PLO and pro-Israel militias to honor the latest of many truces since UNTSO went to work in 1948. Both militias were resisting deployment of U.N. observers to monitor their activities.

To build relations with the PLO, Baker took his bedroll to a PLO guerrilla camp — contact banned by U.S. law, but allowed while he worked for the United Nations. After a dinner of rice stew, he listened late into the night as they talked about their cause and their lives. He then slept among them under the stars. Over time, he persuaded the PLO to let U.N. troops deploy at Beaufort Castle, the 12th-Century fort on the hills leading to Israel.

He then trekked across the front line to the Christian militia, an Israeli surrogate force based as a buffer inside the Lebanese border. “I told them it was a shame that they were losing business to the PLO, because the U.N. wives were shopping every Sunday in (PLO-dominated) Tyre, where they felt safe because of the U.N. presence. I told them I’d like to throw some business their way,” he said, chuckling at the memory of his guile.

“Well, there was nothing to buy there, but I brought the wives along and told them to buy whatever they could. They were dutiful and pulled out $100 bills. Within two weeks we could drive wherever we wanted. The U.N. finally had access to the town,” he added, chuckling again. The peacekeepers were thus deployed in the rivals’ two most strategic bases.

Compared to progress on Mideast peace in the 1990s, Baker’s achievements in the 1980s seem minor. Yet each marked a breakthrough. And not all who held the yearlong position were as successful. A predecessor was kidnaped by Palestinians. A successor, Lt. Col. William Richard Higgins, was abducted by Muslim extremists and died in captivity.

“Baker was able to do things that were almost impossible, that other people could only dream about, real miracles,” said Herman Kafura, an American who served with Baker in UNTSO. “He would talk to people and make sense to them. They trusted him.”

In 1983, Baker returned to Lebanon a second time, as chief of the Office of Military Cooperation, a so-called black book post because of its sensitivity. His mandate was to revamp and retrain Lebanon’s army as the basis for rebuilding the fractured state. But he arrived just three days before a suicide bomber drove into the U.S. Marine barracks, killing 241. From then on, the U.S. presence was in retreat.

Unprotected by the barricades or military backup afforded Marine peacekeepers, Baker quickly became the most exposed American soldier in Beirut. Within one 24-hour period in 1984, his car and apartment were hit by militia rockets and artillery. When he was forced to camp out on a cot at the Defense Ministry, an explosion then blew out a wall of windows above his head.

“I remember looking in on him to see if he was hurt,” said Alex Franco, chief of operations. “The blanket over him, all the furniture and the floor were completely covered with glass. Baker peeked out from under the blanket, looked at me and said, deadpan, ‘Next time I think I’ll ask for a room without a view.’ “

After the Marines finally sailed away in early 1984, Baker and his crew, who operated independently, remained behind. When the second U.S. Embassy was blown up that September, Baker was widely recognized as one of the heroes for rescuing the wounded and then operating a makeshift American mission. But by the end of 1984, most of the key American players were gone. U.S. diplomacy had failed to bring Lebanon’s warlords together; the political chasm actually deepened, throwing the battered country into a new round of violence. Throughout those three years, the only partial U.S. success was the Lebanese Army, traditionally dominated by minority Christians.

“Baker understood what the policy types didn’t: that he had to establish circumstances in which Christians and Muslims were equal, that he couldn’t let them stall or argue about change. That new reality was supposed to create a new instrument for stability,” said Robert d’Entremont, Baker’s second-in-command.

Baker coaxed, cajoled and prodded Lebanon’s foot soldiers as well as their generals to coexist. After Beirut’s Shiite areas became dangerous for Americans, he met with the army’s Shiite leadership on their turf to discuss grievances. He then held the hands of nervous Christian generals, while pushing them to remove inequities toward Muslim troops, including uneven distribution of equipment.

“He was good at building coalitions among factions. Sometimes he did it by sheer force of personality. He was always walking a tightrope, but somehow he made it work,” D’Entremont said.

Under U.S. direction, Lebanon’s army brigades, once divided by religious affiliation, were integrated for the first time. The process was slow, and many Shiite Muslims split after warfare resumed. But then they laid down their arms, refusing to fight other parts of the army — leaving it to the militias. Before they left, more than 50 Shiite officers individually contacted Baker to say they were still committed to a unified army, but that they couldn’t turn their backs on Shiites under bombardment by a renegade Christian army unit. Today, as Lebanon is finally at peace, the seeds of that army program are again the basis for reconstruction.

Before Baker left in late 1984, the Lebanese president awarded him the Order of Cedars, one of the country’s highest honors.

As in Vietnam, Baker unexpectedly went back a third time, in 1988, as chief of staff of the Sinai Force, the multinational peacekeepers set up by the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. In his second black book post, Baker finally got to practice the theme increasingly running through his life: how to get people to do things to overcome hatred and injustice by means other than force. He made a deep impression.

“I will never forget when he invited me for a drive from Israel to Egypt. As we drove across the Sinai and later went horseback-riding among the pyramids, I learned more from him about the Middle East in that short time than I could have in a university,” said Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under whom Baker served three times.

“He understood the smells and sounds of the region — and the challenges and opportunities. Regrettably, guys like Al Baker don’t come around often. He’s more in tune with today’s challenges than half the generals walking around.”

Baker’s career will end where it started — in Berlin. Shortly after the Wall went up and the Berlin Brigade was formed in the early 1960s, Baker was a young lieutenant often assigned to patrol East Berlin.

“It was like looking into day on one side and night on the other, like living in sunshine while looking into a storm,” he recalled. “As I drove around, people would sometimes signal, ‘Don’t forget us.’ “

Now Berlin, Los Angeles’ sister city, is preparing again to be the capital of a unified Germany. A key step is removal of all foreign forces, including the historic Berlin Brigade.

Since he returned as chief of staff in 1990, Baker has orchestrated its dismantling — an operation equivalent to closing down a city of 16,000, including dispatching almost 7,000 troops, their dependents and local employees. He’s also disposed of or transferred $5 billion worth of property, from tanks to elementary schools and hospitals, from 40,000 dining room chairs to three libraries with 400,000 books.

The job ends Sept. 7, when the U.S. flag is taken down from the old Nazi headquarters, a daily ritual known as the retreat. This ceremony is called the final retreat, after which all flags and references to the Berlin Brigade will officially end.

“I take great pride in the fact we finished our mission here, that a threat is over and we are able to end an era,” he reflected. “But you have to be careful about having your dreams come true.” He leaves Berlin without a job, facing an uncertain future.

In some ways, it’s an anticlimactic finish. “This is an odd way to end my career. I’m used to hot spots,” Baker said. “It’s quieter than I would have liked.”

Yet in other ways, Berlin may be appropriate. During the past three decades, a U.S. account of the Berlin Brigade concludes: “Probably no force of its size in history has contributed more to peace, stability and freedom in the world.” Yet, it adds, “the Berlin Brigade has never had to fire a shot in anger.”

Al Baker al.jpg


42 Responses to “Al Baker: The Good Soldier”

  1. 1 COL Christopher Essig
    December 31, 2007 at 4:03 am

    Thanks so much for the great article that I just happened upon as I reflected on my career and the officers and Soldiers I worked with. Happened to be thinking of my days in Berlin working for COL Baker and typed in his name and the google search got me to this article. I certainly learned more then I already knew, but nothing was a surprise. A great officer and Soldier – a pleasure to work for.

  2. 2 Special Agent Kareem Parson
    February 7, 2008 at 3:30 am

    Al Baker is my mentor and friend. I read (and have re-read) this article when I need inspiration. COL Baker is not just a great Soldier, but a rare kind of a Man.

    I’m proud to know him.

  3. 3 Jon W. Wright
    February 11, 2009 at 11:49 am

    I met Al Baker in Vietnam in 1967. I was a radio operator for HHC 4/9, (Manchus) 25th. Inf. Div.
    I didn’t get to know him then, I was a Spec. 4, and he was a Capt. of a company. I did get to see him in action a few times, and would call him when the Bn. Co. would want to see company Comanders to go over what was happening. The most impressive memory I have is seeing him walking on top of rice paddy dikes, showing his men where to fire thier weapons. All the while exposing himself to enemy fire. It was like he was saying, “go ahead try to shoot me”. I’ll tell you though, what it did for me was to have a calming effect, as scared as I was I would see him fully exposed and I would think, “if they can’t shoot him how can they get me down here in the mud” It worked for me and got me through some preyy bad times.
    Now I’ve met Captian Baker, “don’t call me Capt. call me Al, that was a long time ago” I don’t remember if it was 2000 or 2002 at our Manchu reunion. I just thought of him as Capt. Baker, but since then I’ve read other stories of things he did, I’ll have to say I’m proud to know Al Baker. I’ve met some pretty interesting people, but Al Baker has to be one of the most intriging.

  4. 4 Jon Michael Lamont Baker
    March 7, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Discovering I was the first born Grandson of Al Baker is an honor to say the least. Although I was raised without the knowledge of bloodline on my fathers side (circumstances brought about by my mother), I am proud to say that at the age of 18 I came to get a glimpse of my roots when I first met my father Cal Baker and my grandfather Al Baker. To see that my grandfather was such an influental American Hero sends chills up my spine and it is my hope that I could accomplish a fraction of what this man has done. Having read this story brings optimism that one man can make a differnce in this world and more over an extreme sense of pride that I may call this great man my Grandfather.

  5. 5 Whistle Pig
    May 27, 2009 at 12:27 am

    Until reading this, I’ve known Col. Al Baker in 2 ways …

    1. Resident Rotarian court jester for the Harrisburg Rotary club revealing that if he did not “miss” his calling of stand-up comic supreme, he came to it late. Fortunately for Rotarians, not too late. He is one of the funnier dudes on the planet when he determines to milk the crowd for laughs and happy bucks. I suspect he’d be a millionaire were he allowed a commission on his take of charitable change from his fellow Rotarians for worthy causes.

    2. As the story-teller/judge-and-jury-holding court in Rae’s Tobacco Shop, which when I began to frequent some years back, I’d make admiring and/or envious comments about the big guy in the corner, puffing on a stogie sufficiently large to mimic a small ballbat, waxing eloquent about various topics of impressive breadth. I was in awe and admiration for his talents on both fronts.

    But not nearly so much as now, having read about this man’s amazing courage and service to our nation and me and mine. With a son at a service academy, working to learn those things known too well among men like Colonel Baker, Memorial Days and recollection of memories like his take on new and profound meaning.

    Colonel Al Baker …thank you for your joy, laughter, courage, and life-giving service. Mine is the honor to have your path cross mine. And like you and Joan, I’m mighty glad that priest didn’t get to finish what he’d started with you! Do you suppose he counted you against his quota?

    And regarding your observation about your former similarities to Rock Hudson, I’m hoping you were referring to his handsome good looks rather than his amourous preferences???

  6. October 25, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I meet Al Baker in the latter part of June 1967 while serving my first 6 months of my tour in Vietnam,he was the Company commander of the 4/9 Inf Manchus of the 25Th Inf.Division in Chu Chi,my first impression of Al was he tall,his voice had a certain balance and very clear,when he gave commands there was no question of what to do,you would get of you butt and do what ever he said.

    One of my fondest memories of Al is when we here base camp in Chu Chi,we enlisted Soldier was playing football he came running out of Headquarter asking if he could play football with us,I through to myself an Officer wanted to play with with enlisted men and the Company Commander something I had never seen a officer do and that puzzled me,I ask my squad leader and Platoon Sergeant SSGT Edward Henderson and SSGT Cornell Johnson,both had served about 12 years in the Military they both had the highest respect for Al,he was a Soldiers,Soldiers and we where lucky to have such a great commander.

    I saw Al do so many brave thing in combat always under such great control of himself and the men he commanded like a music conductor over an Orchestra for example while walking point he would always come up to the front of the formation to see what was going for himself,talking on the phone to Artillery,Helicopter,Jet plains or Manchu 6 for our fire support and given direction to the Manchus all at the same time,one could never understand this unless you was there to see this amazing man deal with combat.

    I had never talked or seen any of my Manchus buddies since 1968,one day early months of 2006 I received a phone call from a Ad that I put in the Vietnam Veterans Newspaper trying to locate some of friends that I had served with in Vietnam,the phone call was from Al Baker,we talk for a long time,Al gave me phone numbers of some of the Manchus that had been coming to the Manchus Reunions that is held each year in different parts of the country,what a treat for me to know that I would be seen my old combat buddies after 39 years that I had been thinking of almost every day of my life since I left Vietnam,the closure and healing that I get each year from going to the Manchus Reunions is just unbelievable.

    I am BLESSED and Honored to know such a man as Al Baker for I will never meet another human in this time and space on this earth such as Al Baker for he is a man who truly care about the human condition and putting himself in behind his fellow men and to better the lives of so many peoples,there in many people that is alive today because of the discussion that Al Baker made on the battlefields of Vietnam so many long years ago for I know that that I am a better person to know Al Baker as commander,Human.most of all as my friend.It is a Honor and privilege for me to know Al Baker.

    Keep up the Fire,

    Wade Zebedee Pittman (Formal SSGT)

  7. November 8, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Correction on the last paragraph of my article that read because of the discussion,the word discussion,should read decision,Wade Zebedee Pittman

  8. 8 Ed Waller
    March 5, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    Al Baker died yesterday (4 March 2010)–what the enemy was never able to do, his heart finally did. He was among the very best leaders I’ve ever worked for in my 38years of military and civilian federal service. Soldier, diplomat, humanitarian, comedian, and all-round great man. I had the distinct honor of serving with him in Berlin, near the end of his stellar career. He advised, mentored, and when necessary straightened me out–but he always set the example. He advised me to take a UN Military Observer volunteer job in Cambodia–and as he predicted–it was an eye-opener and I’ll never forget the simple, life-lessons it (and Al Baker) taught me. I will miss Colonel Baker, as will everyone who knew him. God Bless you Al Baker–as you have blessed so many of us!

  9. 9 Katy Renae Baker
    March 6, 2010 at 4:15 am

    Miss you, Colonel. He was a great man and a great grand dad.

  10. 10 Vicki Schmitt
    March 6, 2010 at 9:40 am

    As I sit here in Berlin remembering the wonderful man Col Baker was, I can’t help but be thankful that I knew him and can call him a friend. He was my boss, but he was more than that. He was the kind of man who knew that you can only be a good leader if you listen to your troops. Just to be in his presence was an honor. He made you feel good, he made you proud, he was a wonderful person. I’ve stayed close to the Bakers in the years since they left Berlin and I can only say that Al Baker was someone everyone should have had a chance to know. The world has experienced a great loss because this great man is no longer with us. However, he was here and he was real and his memory will never die. There will never be another Col Al Baker, and I am so thankful that I knew him. Thank you for allowing me to know you, I will always be greatful for your guidance, leadership, friendship and great hugs! You are my hero!

  11. 11 Rich Neumann
    March 6, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    What a great priveldge it was for me to serve with Col. Baker during the drawdown of American Forces in Berlin Germany. Words are so inadequate when trying to describe the effect Al Baker had on me, my son and my family while serving in Berlin. We will miss him.

  12. 12 Larry "Bear" Criteser
    March 6, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    I am completely stunned to learn of Cpt. Baker’s passing. My life has been enriched by his leadership and friendship, which can never be conveyed with words. My sincerest condolences to his wife and family…May the winds blow gently across your heart…and mend it with the softness of time… Al was a hero to me, and as always, he will Keep Up The Fire.


  13. 13 A. G. (Griff) Killgrove
    March 6, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    The news that Al did not make it through this latest ordeal, saddens me beyond description. Al was a warrior’s warrior, a soldier’s soldier, a hero’s hero, a man’s man, and, a friend’s friend. I’m so happy someone was able to properly document his life. The world is not a better place without him, though I know he has gone to a better place. I will miss him. Keep Up The Fire, Al.


  14. 14 Les Robertson
    March 6, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    During my two years in the Army, I had the honor to be in the presence of two men who were what the Army was all about. The first was the senior drill instructor at basic traing. The second was Capt. Baker. I was his driver while he was head of the motot pool during his first 6 months in Viet Nam. As a secondary responsibilty, he was convoy commander of the resupply trucks taking supplies to the forward base camps. I had a mount installed in the jeep for an M60. When ever we could not find someone returning to their company, he would man the weapon. We made a lot of trips together up and down Highway One. When he told me that we would not be doing this anymore, I was greatly disappointed for I knew we would not be spending as much time together. Shortly after that, i drove him to a meeting at Brigade. He told me that he would be there all day and that I should return to the motor pool and he would call for me to pick him up. After returning to the motor pool and knowing we were not using the jeep to run convoys anymore, I asked permissiom to clean his jeep up. I removed the sandbags, washed it, replaced the top and bought and installed Ifantry blue seat covers. When I returned to get him, he came out of the building, and stood waiting for me as he did not recognize the jeep. I called out to him that I was there. When he came to the jeep, I could tell by the look on his face that he was pleased. That made the work worth while. Shortly after that he was transfered to a line company. I shall always remember the time we spent together as a special part of my life. I am lucky to have known him.

  15. 15 Cliff Collar
    March 7, 2010 at 2:14 am



    What can I say, The Good Soldier, a great American, and one Hell of a Manchu,the reunions
    won’t be the same w/o Capt Baker there will be some big shoes to fill, and we will never forget. one thing about it, there alot of Manchus up stairs to greet him.




  16. 16 Kareem Parson
    March 7, 2010 at 2:55 am

    America lost a hero. Harrisburg lost a favored citizen. People with disabilities lost a champion. I lost a mentor and friend.

    I love you, Al. And I’ll miss you.

  17. 17 Alfred W. Baker, Jr "Cal"
    March 7, 2010 at 3:30 am

    My father was my hero, I spoke to a friend the other day and he said,”Cal” I finally read the story about your dad and I was blown away” “I thought that you and Jim were just telling stories like people do about relatives and I have to say I am Sorry” I told him that Robin’s article just touched the surface. I am so proud to be Al’s oldest son and he inspires me to this day. I am also grateful for the other comments, Dad was somewhat reticent to discuss much of his life. Please feel free to join us as we celebrate his life. Also, feel free to contact me for details. I know that he was tired at the end and chose to leave us with the dignity that he always had. If anyone needs information or just wants to swap stories, my email is and my cell is 281-773-1014.
    I love you Dad

  18. March 7, 2010 at 11:22 am

    My sincerest condolences to Al’s family at this time of sadness. I hope there is some comfort in knowing that those of us who served with Al in Vietnam and knew him during his time as a Manchu share your sense of loss. I know Al would have preferred we remember the time we had together rather than focus on the emptiness caused by his passing. But like the good friend he was, I know he would forgive me.

    Larry James

  19. 19 Joe Mariniello
    March 7, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    I was one of those that was fortunate to know Al Baker from my VietNam time in 1967-1968. I think we all aspire to be like Al but unfortunately we dont reach his level of humanity. Fate intervened and I was able to reconnect with Al by attending Manchu reunions. He was a wit, a raconteur, and a real human being. I will pray for his departed soul but I already know where he is. When he got to the Pearly Gates I am sure the Lord said “You have done well good and faithful servant. Enter now into the kingdom of heaven”

  20. 20 MSG Charles E. Stebbins Ret.
    March 7, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    After 24 years in the army, I found out that one cannot choose your relatives, but you sure can choose your friends. A man like AL comes into your life but once. I could write a chapter. perhaps a book on AL’s life…but many have said it before me and I could not add to it.
    All has been said. We will miss him,he was the keystone of the manchus reunion. He will remain in our hearts. I hope that members of AL’s family will pay us homage and come to the reunion.
    Auf Wiedersein AL … Charlie Manchu

  21. 21 Stan Adams
    March 7, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    Thanks Al for all that you have done for your country, its people like you that make this such a great nation…you will be missed at the reunions each year by all of your Manchu buddies. May God bless you. A friend and Manchu brother forever…Stan Adams..

  22. 22 Andy Gayle
    March 10, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    I feel so sad. Al was an exceptionally wonderful soldier, warrior, hero and citizen of the first order. Topping that, he was one hell of real friend to any and all of us. I am so pleased that I had the privilege of knowing him as a long-time brother-in-arms and dear friend. A reluctant farewell Al, you can now rest, God bless you, and WELL DONE!

    Andy Gayle
    Manchu Charlie 67-68

  23. 23 Ron Beedy
    March 11, 2010 at 2:01 am

    To the family of Al Baker,
    With a heavy heart I offer my condolences upon the loss of your loved one. I first came to know Al in Vietnam during the year 1967 while serving with the 4th Battalion 9th Infantry Manchus. Al was B company commander at roughly the same time that I was the 1st platoon leader in A company. Thus, I did not serve in Al’s command but we did cross paths occasionally and shared some intense times in places such as the Horseshoe and Katum. A soldier could not have a finer comrade-in-arms than Al Baker and I feel honored to have served with him. In later years I, like many other Manchus, re-acquainted with Al via the yearly reunions. As many know, he was a huge presence at our gatherings. I have great memories of Al at several reunions ranging from his hearty greeting with accompanying hug to the deeply moving address he once delivered in reference to the combat death of one of his platoon leaders. I particularly remember sitting by myself in the hotel coffee shop at about 0600 one morning when Al walked in and asked, “Mind if I join you?” (as if he had to ask) So I got to have breakfast and spend well over an hour one-on-one with this great man. I came to know a bit about his roots. Having grown up on a hardscrabble farm in rural Maine far removed from wealth and privilege, I truly admire and appreciate all that Al accomplished in life.
    In closing I would like to share with you a few lines from a poem entitled “Carry On!” written by Robert Service, a Canadian soldier during World War One. Service knew well the horrors of war having been an ambulance driver whose brother was KIA with the Canadian infantry.

    Carry On! Carry On!
    Fight the good fight and true;
    Believe in your mission, greet life with a cheer;
    There’s big work to do, and thats why you are here.
    Carry On! Carry On!
    Let the world be the better for you;
    And at last when you die, let this be your cry:
    Carry On,my soul! Carry On!

    These lines resemble the Manchu creed and seem so fitting in remembrance of our departed comrade. So farewell Al Baker and may you rest assured that your soul and spirit will forever help Manchus to “Keep Up The Fire”.

  24. June 20, 2010 at 11:12 am


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    Read more at:

  25. 25 Preston Powell (Manchu Radar)
    July 19, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    I was attached to B company commanded by Al Baker in 1967 in the Hobo Woods, we were guarding the Roman Plows, He was a great leader.

  26. 26 Bill E. Trakas (former 2nd Bde Sports Director
    August 10, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    I was Col.Baker’s 2nd Sports Director back in mid-1980s at the Coleman Fitness Center, Fort Jackson, SC. It was one of the best and fondest experiences that I’ve ever had in my entire life. He was such a kind and caring person toward my entire staff, regardless of their grade/rank. He would tell all the guys during award ceremonies to hold their wife’s hands and kiss her while a picture was being taken, afterwards, he’d present the award to them. He told all of the young soldiers during one meeting that he’d be on the 3rd floor after 4PM Mon-Fri. at Bde Hqs, where he had acquired a few flipper machines and purchased several cases of beer, if anyone of you does not have a wife or girlfriend to please stop by, we’ll talk about anything you want to for as long as you want. He went to say that he knew what it was like to be young with nowhere to go and nothing to do, plus, he went on to say that I just don’t want any of you to get into trouble. Again, God Blessed All of Us with this truly great person.
    A Real American Military Hero! Thanks Col.Baker for providing me with a lifetime of fond memories.

    Retired DOD Civil Servant,

    Bill E. Trakas

  27. 27 Megan O'Brien
    September 16, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Robin – Could you please send me Herman Kafura’s contact information? I am a former student trying to track him down to update him on some things and inform him of the passing of a former colleague?


  28. 28 Michael Smith
    September 30, 2010 at 12:55 am

    I Met Al at Rae’s during my lunch and breaks from my state job. An ARMY vet myself for 7 years. I am trully gratefull I was able to meet an horrible and great man! He is trully a hero! I wish I had the opportunity to serve under him rather than the micro managers and bad leaders that made my ARMY experience bad sometimes! I wish I was able to meet him better! I enjoyed talking to him and having a cigar! He still had that intimidating and great personality.after I told him I was an ARMY vet you could tell he saw me different! I am soo glad I was able to meet him and enjoy his company! I will miss his laugh voice when I go to Rae’s. He has made better men out of many people! I pray for Joan. From one soilder to another ill see you again! Take care Al, I know your up there some where looking down! Thanks for all you service and sacrifices!

  29. 29 Larry Parker
    February 18, 2011 at 2:16 am

    We Couldn’t Stand Each Other. Many people dispised you. I never got to Finally Punch you in the Mouth “Handsome Al” You Blowhard….. and Now your Gone. RIP Al Baker see ya across the River Styx…

  30. 30 Nizar and Patricia Abdel-Kader
    July 2, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    My name is Brig.General (R) from the Lebanese Army.I learned today July 2,2012 that Al passed away .I knew him during his mission in Lebanon in 1984 .He was a great friend of mine.We spent sometime together at the
    Army war College in Carlisle, PA.I am sorry that Pat and I did not learn about his death earlier.We like to have
    his family’s address to express to them our deep sorrow..
    My e:mail is

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In culinary school and getting ready to trade the writing life for the cooking life. Or not. Might do both. At the moment I'm a feature writer for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. My name is Pat Carroll.

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