by Jonathan Scott | Photography by Katherine Clark & Diana Matthews
Sometime while the company was traveling through darkness in central Germany, Thursday, April 12 had shifted into Friday, April 13. There was no way to tell exactly when the unlucky day officially began, but as the miles passed and the stars crawled across the sky, the soldiers knew it had to be well past midnight.
Pvt. John Baker wasn’t going to get any sleep. His squad had been ordered to ride on top of a tank destroyer, which required holding on tightly every second. You couldn’t predict when the next big rattle would come, and if he wasn’t vigilant with his grip, he could easily bounce up and fall into the darkness, possibly into the path of the tank behind them.
It wasn’t difficult to stay awake. Even though it was April, the moving air was cool enough to prevent him from nodding off. A fellow soldier sitting on the other side of the barrel complained about the temperature, and Baker had to laugh. For him, it felt like a sauna compared to being billeted in ancient Charlemont Fortress in Givet, France.
That past winter, when the train carrying Baker’s company finally chugged into that newly liberated town, the condensation on the windows and doors of the train had frozen shut.
“That’s what cold is,” says Baker, remembering that it was the type of cold that never lets up and doesn’t allow you to think of anything else.
Baker was one of the Repple-Depples. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and Gen. Leslie McNair created the Repple-Depples trying to solve one of America’s toughest deployment problems.
Unlike the Germans who were fighting close to home, it would have been logistically difficult for the United States to transport fresh men and equipment across the Atlantic to fully replace a depleted unit. Instead, Marshall and McNair set up replacement depots close to the front, made up of individual soldiers who could be sent to companies that needed fresh troops. They became known as Repple-Depples.
It wasn’t the easiest of assignments. Coming into a squad to replace a killed soldier tested the bonds of comradeship in a formerly tight group. But it was the spring of 1945 and years of American casualties had taken an inevitable toll. Regardless of what the men had endured before, they were all in it together for whatever the future had in store.
Finally, almost imperceptibly at first, the black of the sky softened into gray. There was no denying it at that point. It was definitely Friday the 13th.
The thing was, not only could the men now see, they could now be seen. The tank came to a stop as cannon fire ripped through the morning air. The Americans were between two villages, each set on a hill with a level area between. The first town was deserted, but there was no doubting the presence of the enemy in the second.
The lieutenant ordered the squad to advance across the level area to take the occupied town. The Americans were in plain view of whoever was firing at them from above in the safety of buildings just 100 yards away. This was a bad decision, Baker recalls. Not a good way to start off an unlucky day.
Baker was equipped with a BAR, a Browning Automatic Rifle, capable of firing a round of eight shots at once. On orders, he began to return fire.
He was struck with a piercing pain. He had been hit squarely in the forearm. In a split second, without even knowing what he was doing, Baker shifted the rifle into his left hand, hardly pausing from discharging the weapon. Despite the blood coming from his forearm, he ran on.
Zing! Another sharp pain, again in his right arm. He tried to continue to fire the Browning, but the pain was taking over his body.
“The next bullet I get,” Baker, 91, recalls thing, “is going into my head.”
Around him, Baker could see the other guys in the squad taking bullets and falling. Baker joined his comrades on the ground. It would take until noon, hours and hours of excruciating pain and bleeding, unable to move for fear of alerting the Germans he was still alive, that Baker was taken to a field hospital by the Red Cross. He was the only one of his squad to make it out of that battle alive.
By the time Baker’s wounds healed, the Germans had surrendered and the war in Europe was over. Three years later and back home, Baker met a delightful young woman named Helen. They have been married for nearly 70 years and now reside at Scotia Village in Laurinburg.