Douglas Baker’s first World War II battle was his last.
Unlike most of his comrades, he came through without a scratch.
For the Maywood man, the war amounted to the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, in which U.S. forces captured a key island 300 miles from Japan at the price of 75,000 Allied dead or wounded.
“I tell (people) I got shot at every day for 30 days,” said Baker, who will turn 96 in January. “Guys fell within two feet of me, lots of them. And I never got hit.”
Had the Japanese not surrendered after persuasion from two atomic bombs, the 17-man remnant of Baker’s 180-man 96th Infantry Division company would have faced far grimmer combat en route to Tokyo in March 1946.
He headed home that month instead.
He’s proud of his service, Baker said, but his experience watching buddies fall and enemy soldiers fight to the death remains “something I want to forget about.
“I can still see those guys.”
The son and grandson of Cherry County ranchers, Baker grew up in the heart of the Sandhills county except when he attended the former high school at the Nebraska School of Agriculture in Curtis.
After his 1941 graduation, he returned north and spent America’s first war years working as a ranch hand, a truck driver and a mechanic in and around Valentine.
He met Della Foster, a farmer’s daughter from Sparks, at a dance in 1942. “We’d go to a dance every Saturday night someplace,” Baker said.
The couple married in Ainsworth on May 3, 1944, a month before Allied forces under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower launched their D-Day invasion of France.
Baker would be sent in the opposite direction after his Aug. 28 Army induction at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
He learned his destination in late October at Camp Roberts, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“We took the first eight weeks of basic training and then were transferred to the mechanic company,” Baker said. “We were there one day, and they transferred us back to the rifle company. They wanted people to go to Okinawa.”
U.S. military leaders, then poised to fulfill Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s “I shall return” promise to the occupied Philippine Islands, had been ordered Oct. 3 to start preparing for what would prove the last step in their long “island-hopping” campaign.
Okinawa, the main island in the Ryukyu chain, would be the Allies’ target after regaining control of the Philippines and capturing the small, forbidding island of Iwo Jima as a base for bombing the Japanese home islands.
Both had been effectively accomplished — despite lingering Japanese resistance — as the Okinawa invasion date neared in late March 1945.
Baker had boarded a troop ship in Seattle following a brief leave at the end of 1944. He and Della, who lived near Camp Roberts during his initial training, spent five days in Valentine before he left her with her family, two months pregnant.
After layovers in Hawaii and Saipan, Baker joined the 96th Division, one of three pulled out of action on Leyte in the Philippines to join the U.S. 10th Army.
Baker landed with his 22,000-man division on Okinawa’s western shore on Easter morning, April 1, 1945.
“We landed on the opposite side from where they thought we’d land,” he said. “Nothing happened for a couple of days.”
That was by design — the enemy’s, that is.
Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima decided before the invasion to make his stand on the island’s southern end. Little happened for a week as Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the 10th Army’s commander, consolidated his force that would top 300,000 men.
On April 6, the kamikazes struck.
Some 900 Japanese aircraft, one-third of whose pilots had signed up for one-way trips, assaulted the troops and offshore fleet. They were joined by the last 10 vessels of the once-mighty Imperial Fleet, including the Yamato, the world’s largest battleship.
U.S. forces sank the Yamato and five other ships, abolishing the Japanese navy. But nearly 2,000 suicide missions had sunk 38 Allied ships and damaged dozens more by battle’s end.
Baker remembers the naval battle as a huge fireworks show.
“A few of those old (Japanese) Zeroes, they used to fly over out there,” he said. “There were 20 ships out there in the harbor. Every one of them would get to shooting at them.”
As the 6th Marine Division cleared Okinawa’s northern half, the 96th Division joined in the costly assault on Ushijima’s southern defense line.
“Well, it was bad fighting them,” Baker said. “It started to rain, and then it rained for three weeks. Never stopped — just a little old slow rain ...
“The mud got so deep that they couldn’t bring us supplies with four-wheel-drive outfits. They had to have tracked vehicles.”
Slowly but surely, the 10th Army pushed the Japanese toward Okinawa’s southern shore.
The 96th Division occupied the west side of the U.S. line. GIs up and down the line, however, faced attacks from Japanese who would sneak out of caves or rise up from sugar-cane fields and throw grenades.
“We’d get a tank to knock out a pillbox,” said Baker, who served as a squad leader. “They had machine guns dug in, you know, where you couldn’t see them.
“You’d start across the field or something, and then they’d just mow us down like ...”
His voice trailed off.
Baker’s largely Texas squad had only four men left by battle’s end. But “none of us ever got killed after I took over the squad,” he said. “You take farmers and ranchers out of the hills, (and) they know what to do.”
Gen. Buckner, namesake son of a Confederate general who surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1862, was shot dead June 18 on the front line. Brig. Gen. Claudius Easley, assistant 96th Division commander, was killed the next day.
When resistance ended June 22, nearly half of Okinawa’s prewar population of 300,000 had died, disappeared or killed themselves.
Gen. Ushijima and his second-in-command, Lt. Gen. Isamu Cho, committed ritual suicide. More than 110,000 Japanese soldiers had died, mostly by their own hand. Only about 7,400 surrendered or were captured.
U.S. troops were told “there was a big bank on that side of the island, and there were 3,000 of them (who) just jumped over the bank,” Baker said.
“It was hard to capture one of them. He thought that was the deal, you know, to die for the Emperor.”
U.S. military planners feared invasion of the home islands would repeat Okinawa’s horrors on a national scale. They prepared nonetheless to invade Japan’s southern island of Kyushu in November, followed by an amphibious assault on Honshu’s Kanto Plain near Tokyo five months later.
An Army order issued Aug. 12, 1945 — after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — listed Baker’s 96th Division among the U.S. forces slated to invade Japan’s main island had the war continued.
The Aug. 14 news that Emperor Hirohito had ordered his nation to surrender “was a relief, because we knew we were done,” Baker said. “We didn’t have enough men to move anymore.”
He spent his last seven months in uniform on Mindoro island in the Philippines, waiting to go home. His unit was trained to go to southern Korea, only recently occupied by U.S. forces, “and then they said they weren’t sending us.”
Baker had qualified for promotion to sergeant, but he remained a private first class when discharged.
“I didn’t care about the stripes,” he said. “I wanted to send the money home.”
Della and Baker’s mother, Mary, picked him up at a train stop southwest of Alliance in late March or early April 1946. He finally could meet his 13-month-old son, Douglas Lynn, the first of his and Della’s four children.
Baker returned to driving trucks, then worked on Cherry County ranches. He and Della lived in North Platte from 1964 to 1974, then moved to Wellfleet before settling in Maywood in 1990.
He helped build Nebraska Public Power District’s Gerald Gentleman power plants in the 1970s. Before retiring in 1986, he owned and operated an International Harvester garage and store in Maywood while Della did likewise with the Maywood Café and Della’s Ceramics.
The couple had 16 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren when Della died in January 2018 after 73 years of marriage.
Douglas, who said he aims to reach his 100th birthday, lives on in their house along Nebraska Highway 23. As he thinks back, one thought sticks out for the life member of Maywood’s Veterans of Foreign Wars unit.
“They said we were fighting this war and there’d be no more wars,” he said. “We’ve been in wars ever since.”