By DEBRA HAIGHT
ST. JOSEPH – The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic’s first Berrien County victim is a Buchanan native son who fought in Vietnam and was honored for his bravery.
Walter Lyle “Bud” Baker died last Monday, March 30, at the age of 74 at Spectrum Lakeland in St. Joseph. He grew up in Buchanan where he graduated from high school in 1965 before later moving to Coloma where he resided with his family.
As U.S. Rep. Fred Upton noted in his tribute to Baker last week, “Today many a tear will be shed for our beloved Walter “Bud” Baker. He represented the very best of our community and our nation.”
During the Vietnam War, despite being shot 13 times in the chest, arm, and leg during action in Bien Hoa in 1968, he fearlessly fought to save the lives of his fellow patriots,” Upton noted. “He was rightly awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.”
Upton cited Baker’s incredible courage, selflessness, and love of country that was evident in duty and after he returned home, where he served as a chaplain and as part of the Lest We Forget veterans organization.
“Bud was one of our most decorated veterans and celebrated citizens in Berrien County,” he said. “Sadly, this vicious virus did what even the ravages of war could not. Bud will be dearly missed … We lost a wonderful friend and hero tonight – who we will never forget.”
Buchanan resident and past American Legion State Commander Larry Money has known Baker since high school. Money noted last week that he lost track of Baker after high school and didn’t realize the extent of his military service and his heroic actions until recent years.
Money spoke of Baker’s service in 2016 when Baker and another local Vietnam veteran served as the grand marshals of that year’s Memorial Day parade in Buchanan.
He noted then that Baker, a specialist fourth class, received the Distinguished Service Cross for his extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty in April, 1968 when he was on a mission in North Vietnam to rescue prisoners of war. The distinguished service cross is the highest military award that can be given to a member of the U.S. Army.
During an attack by enemy combatants, he moved through a hail of enemy bullets and was wounded in the leg and back, Money said. Baker continued to assault the enemy machine gun position to protect his comrades and received more wounds.
Many south county residents likely saw Baker in 2014 when the American Veterans Traveling Tribute’s replica Vietnam Wall was in Niles for a short time. Baker was there every day paying homage to fallen comrades. He spoke about his experiences and gave the closing prayer at the closing ceremonies.
As he said then, he was on a mission in North Vietnam in an area known as the “iron triangle” to rescue prisoners of war and credits the bravery of his fellow soldiers in rescuing him after being hit by enemy fire. In all, 96 men died that day.
“I got the Distinguished Service Cross, the guys put me up for it,” he said. “I was the point man and took 13 rounds. They got me out of there but took some rounds themselves. We were all working together, you couldn’t ask for anything more.”
“We were brothers, we knew what each other was thinking before anyone said anything,” he said. “If it weren’t for the guys in my unit, I wouldn’t be here today … There are probably 47 men from my unit on this wall.”
He said then that while it was hard to visit the traveling Vietnam Wall, it was also healing. “People need to realize that freedom is not free,” he said. “It’s not only about those who lost their lives but those who are still suffering. The nation still has to heal and come to the reality of what happened there.”