A little family history: Being the youngest of my siblings, I have no memories of either of my uncles Gerard and Barney Baker. The author of the letter below, Barney, died as a somewhat-young man, but my mother idolized her older brother and spoke of him often, so I’ve always considered it a great loss that I never got to know this man whom my mother, and others, spoke so highly of. All I have are some old family photos that include him, and a couple of stories, but now this letter gives me a little insight to his personality, and the way he tries to support and uplift his younger brother with advice, while still not being too easy on him, speaks volumes to me about the kind of man he was. Words my mother used to describe him with were “reliable, likable, easy-going with a great sense of humor” and in a home with an absentee father my mother looked up to Barney as more of a father-figure than an older brother. Born in 1924, my ever-anxious mother was especially sensitive to the stigma of that time period of not having a father in the household, and Barney was her rock. Barney always made everything okay. Their mother, my grandmother, depended on him a little too much. There is a funny story told by my family that on the day of his marriage to Marie, his mother called him and in drama-queen fashion threatened to jump out the window if he got married, and Marie, listening in the background, said “tell her to go ahead–she’s on the first floor” — or something to that effect. Marie was a no-nonsense sort of woman with a wicked dry sense of humor. Grandma lived, Barney and Marie did marry, and had 4 sons — cousins I’ve had little contact with over the years and mostly see on Facebook now, but the familial bond is still there and I will be contacting them to see whom I should send the original letter to. I’m sure one of them would want it, and there are also grandchildren and great-grandchildren now and I’m sure one of them would like to be the keeper of the family history.
About the letter: My sister Peggy Facetimed me yesterday to tell me that she had found a few boxes of personal items left to me after my Aunt Eleanor O’Connor (mother’s sister) died. A few days after Eleanor passed away my sister and I started cleaning out Eleanor’s house and Peggy had forgotten that these boxes were stored in an unused closet in her house. As she started going through one of the boxes she came across this typed letter from my uncle (my mother and Eleanor’s brother) Barney Baker to younger brother, Gerard Baker, dated August 27, 1944, written while aboard the USS Princeton while in port. Just 82 days after this letter was written the USS Princeton was lost in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Uncle Barney survived the battle, but not before spending a bit of time in the water awaiting rescue, but that story will be in another blog post.
Below is a transcript I just made of the letter. The photos of the original letter are below the transcript.
(Handwritten, upper left corner):
Princeton Down Nov. 1, ’44
Sunday 27 August 1944
Received your letter of July 18th the other day and was glad to hear from you. At the moment you have me and a number of my shipmates beautifully confused. In your letter you say that you’ve finally got a ship. A letter from Mom dated August 14th informs me that she had a phone call from you from Norfolk. Now, salty, just what is the score? How about letting me in on the know – I’d appreciate it. Until you get settled in one place I’m going to address all your letters ℅ Mom and let her forward them to you.
So you don’t know what to strike for now– well, for once you’ve got me. It’s hard for me to tell you just what to strike for. I don’t know what you can do. Signalman sounds like a good bet but then you might find it monotonous after a while. If you were aboard the Peerless “P” I’d have you in the “S” Division and have you rated 3rd Class in less time than it takes to skin a cat. When I got through with you you’d be a darn good Commissary Storekeeper. I’ve got three strikers and a 3rd class working for me and not one of them is worth a nickel. I tell them to do something and an hour later I find that they fouled the job up and I have to do it myself anyway. You, I’m sure, could at least follow a few simple instructions.
We’re still in port enjoying a good rest. We’re being provided with plenty of recreation. A section of the hangar deck was marked off and a pair of baskets rigged up — so now we can have basketball games every day. We also have Volley Ball games daily and swimming is permitted over the side. There are several trips a day to the beach but I’m not too interested in the beach because there’s nothing to do over there but walk, swim or sleep. You can do all of that on the ship without going over to beat up an old Island.
We now have a boxing team and it is quite a good team. Our team has competed with the teams from 3 other ships and we have won all three matches. The boys are trained by an ex Golden Glover whose name is Buddy O’Dell. He deserves a lot of credit because he has done a fine job – there are four fellows on the team who never had boxing gloves on before they joined the Navy. They couldn’t fight before, but you should see them now. There was one fight about a week ago that no one who saw it will ever forget for a long time to come. One of our boys, a fellow named Shaefer, was matched with a fellow from another ship. It was a three round bout and Shaefer had the other fellow hanging on for dear life from the opening bell, but just before the end of the round the other fellow took a wild swing – a hay maker right from the deck — and surprised himself and everyone else by connecting with it. That roundhouse caught Shaefer right on the eye. The round ended in Shaefer’s favor but in the rest period between rounds Shaefer’s eye went up like a balloon in spite of all the work his seconds did on it. The Captain wanted to stop the fight because Shaefer’s eye really looked bad. Shaefer begged to be allowed to continue the fight and was granted permission. All through the second his opponent kept popping away at that bad eye and Shaefer lost the second round on points because he spent most of the round trying to protect his eye. When the third round started the fight was all even and the third was to be the deciding round. Both boys went to work with a vengeance and they stood toe to toe slugging for all they were worth and even though Shaefer had a bad eye he more than held his own against the other fellow and the round & fight ended in a draw. Shaefer got an ovation he, or anyone present, will ever forget. The Captain made a speech — he had his arm draped around Shaefer’s shoulder and said Shaefer had shown him the finest display of sheer guts he had ever seen. Yes sir, it was quite a scrap. There will probably be a writeup in the next issue of “Tiger Rag” and as soon as it comes out I’ll send you a copy.
Three of the ships have sent their orchestras over to entertain us and believe me those fellows can play. One swing band was so good that we almost wrecked the ship. A lot of the fellows in the bands were professionals before the war. They came from Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and all the other named bands. One ship has Tommy Dorsey’s arranger aboard and does that outfit have a band. Jerry would like to be in that outfit I’ll bet. We’re getting up a band of our own and the boys haven’t shown much promise. Seven musicians (?) have been located aboard. We call them the Princeton’s Putrid Seven. Maybe they’ll improve — they had better or they’ll be tossed off the fan-tail some night.
That’s all for now, salty. Keep your chin up and don’t get discouraged. All rates are closed now and it might be a while before they open up again. So work hard and someone is sure to notice you and when the rates open up again you’ll be the first guy to get rated. If, on the other hand you get a reputation for always hiding when there’s work to be done you’ll be a seaman as long as you’re in the Navy. I know, because I’ve seen seaman on my working parties who have been in the Navy longer than I have. And from the way they try to chisel I can see why they’re still seaman. So let’s get on the ball, salty. Admiral Nimitz didn’t get to be an Admiral in the day, a month or a year, so don’t get the idea you’re going to run the Navy in a short time. Get some time in, you boot. All the best to you from Barnacle Barney and his shipmates.
Your sea weary brother,
Pictured below is Barney in later years, with wife Marie and sons, and I believe that’s my sister Peggy in the front. This photo was most likely taken by my father, the “Jerry” mentioned in the letter, because he was the photographer in the family at that time — a beloved hobby he stuck with his entire life. He also continued to listen to big-band swing music his entire life.
Also found in the box was this photo that Peggy and I have never seen before. On the couch starting on the far left is Marie, my grandmother Maggie (who threatened to jump out the window) and my mother Estelle holding Peggy on her lap. In the front left is Barney, and my dad Jerry King (mentioned in the letter) and my brother Jimmy (James King). I’m not sure which of the small boys is whom, except that has to be my cousin Jim Baker as a baby in his mother’s arms. I’m not sure whose house this was taken in, but it was most likely Brooklyn, NY.
Update from Jim Baker The picture on the sofa was likely Grandma Baker’s apartment.
Baby me in Marie’s lap. Tommy Baker next to us. Larry Baker with his finger in his mouth. Billy Baker sitting in front of Marie, sporting a dashing bow tie. “Bow ties are cool.”