The D-day invasion of June 6, 1944, is the event of that date and time that captures the public imagination. There was, however, an especially important and historic event that had just occurred hundreds of miles to the south of the Normandy landing.
Late on June 4, elements of the U.S. 5th Army entered Rome, and by the next day, Rome was occupied by Allied troops, the German army having declared it an open city and withdrawn. Among those first Americans entering Rome was Fred Baker riding on the rear of a U.S. tank.
Baker, who was living in Sumterville, Alabama, entered U.S. Army service at Fort McClellan, Alabama, on Oct. 26, 1942. After 13 weeks of basic training, he shipped overseas to join the 133rd Regiment of the 34rd Infantry Division in Algeria. In the battles in North Africa and across Italy, the 34th is said to have had the distinction or misfortune to have spent more days on the front line than any other U.S. Army unit. They were on the front lines for 517 days
It is almost a miracle that serving in combat during World War II on the front lines for as long as he did, where he was and with the close calls he had, that Fred Baker recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Baker’s most serious injury occurred when winter and Germans halted the American advance in December and January 1944. The 133rd was in the mountains pinned down by the weather and German fire. There was heavy snow and freezing rain that filled the men’s foxholes. As a result of those conditions, many soldiers lost toes or even their feet to frostbite or trench foot.
Baker’s feet were frostbitten in December 1943, and he was evacuated to North Africa for treatment. He recovered after two months and returned to his unit on the front lines.
During the advance through Italy, he often served as first or second scout for his platoon, moving ahead to locate German positions. On one occasion, he and another scout were on a road when a German tank suddenly appeared and fired at them. He was unharmed, but he saw the other scout disintegrate in the explosion.
Another occasion saw him come under German fire and take cover behind an olive tree. A German soldier had spotted him and shot with the bullet kicking up dirt inches from Baker’s head. He quickly moved to a more protected position.
Once as he scouted along a road, he passed a machine gun nest but the Germans did not fire at him until they realized he had spotted them. Baker dove into a ditch with bullets kicking up dirt all around him. He found the ditch full of water with the German fire hitting close to him on both sides. He got up and started to run for a better position, and as the machine-gun fire seemed to be zeroing in on him, it suddenly stopped, as though the gun had jammed.
His luck also held when he went to scout out a white house on top of a hill as possibly a good position to occupy. As he slowly opened the door to the house, he found it full of sleeping German soldiers. He eased the door shut and hurried back to the American lines without being detected.
When Baker and the other American soldiers entered Rome, people poured out into the streets to cheer the American troops as they advanced into the city. He recalled the food there in Rome was very good and the girls friendly and very pretty. He said the ruins of the Coliseum — ruined from age not war — reminded him of the “totally wiped-out towns” he had passed through where even ancient churches had been destroyed.
When Germany surrendered and the war ended, the 34th Division was along the Swiss border. The German army division the Americans had been fighting across Italy marched out to surrender in dress uniforms. Baker said most of them spoke good English, and he spoke with some of them and found they were as glad as he was that the war was over.
After Baker returned home, he moved to Cochrane, which is just south of Aliceville, Alabama, where he raised queen bees, shipped bees all over the country and did a good bit of business with Stover Apiaries in Mayhew. He married late in life after meeting his wife, the late Ann Long, at the post office in Panola, Alabama. Mr. Baker now lives in Columbus.
In 2019, Mr. Baker was honored at the Mississippi State — Alabama football game in Starkville. Baker, a lifelong Alabama fan, called it one of the highlights of his life, especially when Alabama coach Nick Saban came over to him after the game, shook his hand and then put his arm around him and thanked him for his service.
We all need to remember Fred Baker and all those who have put their lives on the line in defense of our country.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]