Heroes share war stories, advice with students

While some schools took the day off this Veterans Day, Webster Groves High School took the day get to know local veterans. The day was coordinated by history teacher Terry Verstraete. Here’s what a few veterans had to share.

Bernard Baker served with the Air Force during World War II with the 64th Fighter Wing in the German Theatre of Operations.

Baker was drafted into the war a week after his 18th birthday in February 1943. He was hurried off to Basic Training in Saint Petersburg and then to Everett, Washington where he was assigned to the 328th Fighter Control Squadron. He was trained as a ground crew personnel to direct fighter pilots on strafing missions.

Baker was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington for overseas training. He and others at the time expected to be sent to the Pacific Campaign. However, on December 1943, Baker was shipped to Italy across U-boat infested waters.

The convoy made its way up to Naples where Baker experienced a brush with death when a German fighter released a bomb near him that did not detonate.

“If that would have exploded, I wouldn’t have been here,” Baker said. On another occasion in Anzio, a strafer killed two of the ground crew’s guards who couldn’t get under cover in time.

Baker arrived in France after the Normandy Landings and eventually ended up in Germany in time for the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war he was sent back to France and queued up to be sent to the Pacific campaign. While waiting to be shipped out, Truman dropped the bomb, and the war was over.

Since then Baker has been active in the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge and Veterans Day parades in St. Louis, and parades in Webster Groves, Afton, Rock Hill and Jefferson Barracks. The veterans always gets a warm response from the crowds and on one occasion, “This woman, she just came right in line. She said, ‘I just gotta kiss you’, and she kissed me on the cheek!”

Captain Doyle Wilhite actively served in the Navy from 1957-1960 during a period of military tension between the Soviet Union and the United States known as the Cold War. The Cold War resulted in a nuclear arms race.

Veterans of the conflict seem to have been short-changed however. “It was interesting when I signed in today because they had a sheet for World War II, they had a sheet for Korea, they had a sheet for Vietnam, but they didn’t have a sheet for the Cold War,” Wilhite remarked. “The people in that era were not recognized very much. In fact were not even eligible to belong to the American Legion or the VFW because we didn’t serve during wartime.”

Wilhite was commissioned into the Navy after completing the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. He completed flight training and a number of schools before he was assigned to a ship.

Wilhite’s ship was tasked with monitoring aircraft operating over the North Atlantic with radar and discerning friend from foe. The ship could spot an aircraft operating 200 miles away with large antenna radar and could gather intelligence from the new Super Connie aircraft.

“We thought possibly that the Russians would fly over and bomb the United States. The ship I was on was there to prevent that from happening.” Wilhite said

Wilhite’s ship was under constant threat. “They told us if Russia did decide to attack the United States, the first thing they’d do is sink us with their submarines,” he said.

After three years of service, Wilhite transferred to the Naval Reserves for 30 years and held several commands including the Nuclear Weapons Training Group.

Today Wilhite works as a recruiter for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He encourages students to actively pursue their education.

“Don’t hesitate to take your SAT or ACT exams more than once to get the best possible score because a lot of scholarships depend on that score,” Wilhite said. “One of the first things we look for when applicants send in their information is what were their SAT scores, what was their class standing, what kind of leadership roles did they have,” Wilhite said.

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