By Christopher J. Lynch with contributions from Daniel Baldwin and Randal Baldwin
The first time Daniel, Michael, and Randal Baldwin heard their father speak of being in the war was when they were huddled around the black and white TV in their living room watching the iconic show, “Combat.”
Until that evening, Thomas Baldwin had remained stoically reticent about his time spent serving his country. This time however, he couldn’t keep his opinion to himself.
“Street fighting is one of the dirtiest, filthiest things I’ve ever seen in my life,” he told his sons bluntly.
Randal, the youngest of his sons, gestured to the violent scene playing on the TV and probed deeper. “So, how real is this?”
Tom Baldwin smirked and said, “Eh, it’s okay…it’s TV.”
TV was a long way from becoming a ubiquitous commodity when in 1923, Tom, then only one year old, and the rest of his family travelled by Conestoga wagon to escape a Cholera epidemic in Kirkland, Washington and return home to their native Minnesota. Tom rode in a basket seat on the back of the wagon while the other children walked some 1,500 miles. The trip took over a year.
After settling in St. Paul, Minn. Tom’s teen years during the Great Depression were taken up with trying to find employment of any stripe. He set bowling pins among other jobs – such as hauling beef hides, and eventually got a job as an apprentice butcher at Hormel. He was working at Hormel when he married Betty Flynn in June 1940.
Thomas enlisted in the U. S. Army some time in l942 – 43 and spent boot camp at Ft. Leonardwood, Mo. before being assigned to the 28th Infantry Division-110th Infantry Regiment (Known as the Bloody Bucket Boys to the Germans). He was shipped to France six weeks after the D-Day invasion of Europe in July, 1944. Sergeant Baldwin served in Normandy, Northern France, Belgium, the Rhineland, and the Ardennes in Central Europe before being wounded in the Hurtgen Forest, the longest battle on German ground during World War II and the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought.
Sergeant Baldwin had luck on his side that day. Peeking up from a foxhole just shoulder high, he raised his head just enough that a sniper who would have had his head in his sights pulled the trigger and missed the head-shot. The bullet left a scar on the underside of his chin and entered his left arm.
He was evacuated from the front and returned home. As he recovered from his wounds stateside, the German’s lost the war and he was offered an ‘opportunity’ to serve in the Pacific in exchange for getting a bump in rank to 2nd Lieutenant. Since he had recently lost his brother fighting in the Philippines and had enough points to retire, he left the service in 1945 as a highly decorated Staff Sergeant.
Thomas and Betty moved from Minnesota to So. California in l967 along with their three children, eventually settling in Gardena. For years he suffered from severe headaches due to his wounds suffered in battle. He also had bouts of – then undiagnosed or understood, PTSD, sometimes hearing a plane fly overhead in the middle of the night and dragging his wife off the bed while covering her and screaming, “Incoming!”
His headaches were eventually diagnosed and he lived pain-free until dying quietly from arteriosclerosis while at the Los Angeles Airport on February 11th, l984.
Besides his ailments, he did return home from the war with some souvenirs: a German Luger Pistol – that unfortunately got stolen from his sea-bag, and this poem from his time spent in battle:
A Letter to Mom
Brought home by Tom Baldwin from the Battle of the Bulge
I’m down in a hole made by a shell
The guns around me are making it hell.
With the flash of a gun I can see a lad,
who should be home with his Mom and Dad.
By the flash of another, I can see his face
It’s white and drawn, as if made of paste.
He’s coming my way now. It’s he or I.
Neither one of us want to die.
I shot him Mom. He fell with a scream.
This war is worse than my craziest dream.
I’m praying to God to give me strength,
through this terrible war that has no length.
He was a good-looking boy. About twenty-one
It was I who killed him! Lord. The harm being done.
I was trained to do so, there’s a war to be won.
Author and Gardena resident Christopher J. Lynch is the author of the award winning One Eyed Jack crime novel series which is set in the South Bay. If you know of a Gardena veteran – living or deceased, to be featured in the Gardena Valley News, you can contact Christopher at www.christopherjlynch.com