An Air Force captain cooked up a way to help fellow POWs survive the Cambodian jungle (George Wanat)

On June 27, 1972, U.S. Air Force Capt. David E. Baker flew his O-2 Skymaster over Cambodia in an attack on North Vietnamese supply stashes. As a forward air controller during this Vietnam War mission, he traveled low and slow, marking targets and coordinating airstrikes in his prop-driven plane.

The North Vietnamese, using a heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missile, struck Baker’s plane. He parachuted from the plummeting Skymaster only to land amid enemy fire. Using the sole weapon he had on him, a .38 caliber pistol, he temporarily held off the opposing forces, finally succumbing when a shot through his leg from an AK-47 perforated his femoral artery.

“When we first saw him, he was in what I call a North Vietnamese ambulance — two bicycles with a vertical pole on each one, a hammock slung between them and David in the hammock,” says retired Army Capt. George Wanat, who had been held with six other American soldiers in five-by-seven foot tiger cages deep in the Cambodian jungle for several months when Baker joined them. “We weren’t allowed to talk or signal anyone at that point. All I could do was give the thumbs up when he made eye contact.”

North Vietnamese medics had stemmed the arterial bleeding, Wanat recalls, but Baker was clearly in agony. No one expected him to survive. After five months of captivity in isolation, Wanat and Baker were moved into the same cage. “It was like heaven,” Wanat recalls. Forget the cramped space, the leaky leaf roof, the inadequate bamboo-and-gourd that served as a toilet, and the triple canopy jungle that blocked the sky. “I hadn’t talked to anybody in five months. It was great. We just started talking and didn’t stop talking for the next five months.”

The seven Americans knew they were probably being kept alive as pawns who might be traded in a prisoner exchange, Wanat said, but conditions were brutal: “We were on a Russian prison diet, with just enough calories to keep us alive. Barely.”

Other Books You Might Be Interested In

Contact Us