Kansas navy veteran to celebrate 100th birthday
By STEVE FRY
Aug. 18, 2017
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — In the days before he turns 100, U.S. Navy veteran Sharitt Baker remembers stanching the flood of ocean water caused by Japanese gunfire that destroyed a section of the side of the destroyer he was fighting aboard.
Baker's destroyer exchanged fire with a larger Japanese cruiser in a nighttime battle in World War II. Baker, a Topekan, was a survivor of the disastrous Battle of Savo Island near Guadalcanal Island and the Japanese attack several months earlier at Pearl Harbor.
During both fights, Baker was a petty officer first class aboard the U.S.S. Ralph Talbot, a Navy destroyer weighing 2,325 tons.
On the night of Aug. 9, 1942, the Ralph Talbot and a second destroyer were on picket duty off Savo Island, a small island just north of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
"They detached us to watch this place for the Japanese (Navy) to come in," Baker said told The Topeka Capital-Journal .
"They came in. They put a spotlight on us and blasted us," Baker said of the seven Japanese cruisers and one destroyer that swept through the area. "I was lying on the deck."
At relatively close range, the Ralph Talbot and other Allied ships exchanged gunfire and torpedo salvos with Japanese ships. The Japanese cruisers were larger than the Ralph Talbot.
During the night battle, the Ralph Talbot and a Japanese cruiser exchanged cannon fire at close range. Japanese gunfire struck the starboard side of the Ralph Talbot's stern, but it didn't just put a hole in the destroyer.
"There wasn't any stern on the starboard side," Baker said of the battle damage.
Baker and two other sailors were "Repair 3," a unit whose task was to make emergency repairs during battle.
From the crew's mess hall, they retrieved two tables 8 feet long and 2.5 feet wide, tied them with heavy rope and placed the tables as a barricade at the battle damage. Then they got bedding from sailors on the ship.
"We jammed that in there" around the tables, Baker said. "It sort of built a shoulder-high barrier."
"What else were we going to do?" he said. "We were lucky to be alive. I thought our goose was cooked on this ship until we got this straightened out."
Overall, the Ralph Talbot suffered four hits during the battle, including damage to the chart house, wardroom and under a gun. Fire had enveloped the bridge, and the destroyer was listing to one side.
Twelve crew members were killed aboard the destroyer.
The Battle of Savo was considered a major loss for the Allies, who lost four cruisers, while the Japanese ships suffered minor damage, according to historian Eric Hammel in "First Battle of Savo Island: The U.S. Navy's Worst Defeat."
The sea battle occurred a day after Marine forces landed on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, the first of the years-long campaign to recapture islands taken by the Japanese in the opening days of the war.
The 75th anniversary of the Battle at Savo Island was on Wednesday. Four days after the battle, Baker turned 25 as the battle-damaged Ralph Talbot returned to the United States to undergo repairs.
In the opening minutes of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Baker heard enemy machine guns and the sound of bullets bouncing off a large metal buoy as Japanese strafed the harbor.
Baker escaped injury at Pearl Harbor which destroyed hundreds of American aircraft; killed more than 2,000 sailors, Marines, soldiers and civilians; and brought the United States into World War II.
The destroyer's captain said two planes fired on by a gunner crashed and a third was smoking heavily. But reports later credited the destroyer with shooting down one plane. The Ralph Talbot fired 150 rounds of 5-inch shells and 1,500 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition during the attack, the captain reported.
The Ralph Talbot wasn't damaged, and none of the crew was killed or wounded that day.
Later in the war, Baker was transferred to duty with 53 patrol torpedo boats in Squadrons 34 and 35, based in Portland, England. The PT boats took part in the Allied invasion at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.
The Navy was a career for Baker, who took care of small craft at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, and retired as a chief warrant officer after serving 20 years. After the war, Baker was appointed as a chief warrant officer, receiving a certificate signed by President Harry Truman.
Baker was raised in the family home at 534 N.E. Wilson in Topeka's Oakland neighborhood, enlisted in the Navy in 1938 and was transferred to the Ralph Talbot in 1939.
On Sunday, Baker will celebrate his 100th birthday at the Legend Senior Living, an assisted living facility in southwest Topeka where he lives.
Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com