World War II Army Lt. Col. Addison Baker was one of four men who earned the Medal of Honor during a daring raid over Romania. The veteran pilot was declared missing after that flight, but thanks to DNA technology and the tenacity of scientists dedicated to bringing missing service members home, his remains were recently identified. After nearly 80 years, Baker was given the burial he deserved.
Baker was born Jan. 1, 1907, in Chicago, to parents Edith and Earl Baker. He had two brothers, Russell and Harold. When Baker was still young, the family moved to Akron, Ohio, so his dad could take a new job.
Baker went to Central High School and was known to be a bit of a wild child, according to a recent interview with his grandniece, Mary Ostrow, in the Akron Beacon Journal. A 1962 edition of the newspaper said he quit school and eventually joined the Army, going through flight school training that enabled him to earn his pilot's wings in 1931. In December 1934, he married Frances Rodgers.
Baker spent several years in aviation before transferring to the Army Reserve in 1939, but he was called back to active duty in 1940. He worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the time the United States was heavily involved in World War II. During the summer of 1943, Baker was stationed in North Africa and was the commander of the 328th Bombardment Squadron's 93rd Heavy Bomb Group.
Bravery in the Skies
On Aug. 1, 1943, Baker and several other men took part in Operation Tidal Wave, a daring attack that aimed to destroy one of the Nazi's largest oil refineries at Ploiesti, Romania. Baker and his B-24 Liberator, named "Hell's Wench," took off from Libya to join nearly 180 other bombers on the mission.
Baker was the first aircraft in the second of five formations that flew for 18 hours on the 2,400-mile roundtrip trek. As they neared the target area, Baker and several other pilots noticed that the mission's lead pilot, Col. K.K. Compton, turned at the wrong point and was heading toward Bucharest instead of Ploiesti. Records show that Compton didn’t respond to calls to warn him of the error, so Baker made a split decision — he broke formation and led the rest of the men in the 93rd Bomb Group back on the right track.
Baker was the first of the bombers to reach Ploiesti. Like all of the mission's pilots, he was flying low to avoid enemy radar. But once they got to the target area, the Hell's Wench was hit by an antiaircraft shell that caused serious damage, including a fire. Baker knew he was flying over territory on which he could land, but he ignored that and stuck to the plan. He continued to lead the bombers to the target and dropped his bombs, successfully completing the mission.
After that, Baker left the formation and, with the help of his co-pilot, Maj. John Jerstad, avoided hitting other planes as they tried to gain enough altitude for their crew to parachute to safety. Unfortunately, their efforts failed, and the aircraft went down in flames. No one on the plane survived.
The Allies suffered a lot of losses during the raid — 54 bombers were destroyed, and 532 of the 1,726 personnel involved died, were declared missing or were taken prisoner. But the mission itself was a success. The attack destroyed 42 percent of the oil refinery's facilities, which struck a heavy blow to the Germans for several weeks.
Baker and three others who took part in Tidal Wave – Jerstad, 2nd Lt. Lloyd Hughes and Col. John Kane – all received Medals of Honor for their bravery that day. According to an Airman Magazine article, some traditionalists initially objected to Baker and Jerstad getting the medals, arguing the men had disobeyed orders by breaking away from the formation. But outraged airmen who took part in the mission quelled that dissent, and the awards were approved.
On March 2, 1944, Baker's widow and parents received the Medal of Honor on his behalf from Brig. Gen. Uzal Ent during a ceremony at First Presbyterian Church in Akron. That medal can now be found at the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
A Long-Awaited Homecoming
Since Baker's remains weren't identified after the crash, his name was listed on the Wall of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery in Impruneta, Italy. That "missing" status stayed the same for nearly 80 years — until this past spring.
On April 8, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced that experts had finally accounted for his remains.
According to the DPAA, remains of U.S. service members involved in the attack who couldn't be identified were initially buried in a cemetery in Ploiesti. After the war, those remains were disinterred for identification. The American Graves Registration Command, which led the search for and recovery of fallen personnel, still couldn’t identify about 80 of the Unknown service members. So, those remains were reinterred at Ardennes American Cemetery and Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, both of which are in Belgium. They weren't touched again until 2017, when the DPAA started to exhume the 80 Unknowns who were believed to have been associated with Operation Tidal Wave.
Back in the U.S., scientists used anthropological analysis, circumstantial evidence, and mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome DNA analysis to positively identify Baker's remains. After nearly 80 years of being lost, it took DPAA experts one year, eight months and 17 days to positively identify Baker.
"At 36 years old, Lt. Col. Baker was the oldest unaccounted for service member, and this is a trait that could be used to help identify him," said Dr. Megan Ingvoldstad, a DPAA anthropologist and the Operation Tidal Wave project lead. "In this case, the forensic anthropologist assigned to Baker's case noted an older skeletal age. Not only was this consistent with Lt. Col. Baker, but it was able to exclude all other reasonable Operation Tidal Wave candidates, making his identification even stronger."
Thirty-six of the 80 individuals who were unaccounted-for from Operation Tidal Wave have been identified to date, Ingvoldstad said.
Baker, who was 36 when he died in 1944, was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 12. While Baker had no children, several of his descendants attended the ceremony, and they recently joined Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the Pentagon for the annual National POW/MIA Recognition Day commemoration ceremony. According to ANC historian Kevin Hymel, a few of those descendants were named Addison to honor the hero in their bloodline.
"Out of respect for our mom and her family, we named our son Addison," said Joshua Greenberg, a great nephew of Baker's. "He grew up hearing stories about [Uncle Addison's] childhood, but also his heroism."
Baker's name will remain on the Wall of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery, with one notable change; a rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he's been accounted for.
This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday" in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.