Son revisits father's WWII Navy uniform in Sitka

By Craig Giammona

Daily Sitka Sentinel

Published: Thursday, July 21 2011 6:35 p.m. MDT

In this Thursday, July 14, 2011 photo, Dennis Baker speaks in Sitka, Alaska. On his first visit to Alaska, Baker saw a World War II Navy uniform worn by his father as the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Sitka Historical Museum. Baker donated his father's uniform about a year ago.

Daily Sitka Sentinel, Lione Clare, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SITKA, Alaska — Dennis Baker knew exactly where he wanted to go when he left the M/V Oosterdam for the short boat ride to Sitka Thursday.

In Alaska for the first time, along with his girlfriend Norma Jean Harstvedt, Baker walked over to Centennial Hall, where a World War II Navy uniform worn by his father is the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Sitka Historical Museum.

Owen Baker was a seaman first class who served on the USS Sitka, a navy attack transport ship.

The reunion with the service dress blue uniform, known as a "crackerjack," was an emotional one for Dennis, himself a Navy veteran.

The uniform had hung in the "military room" of his Florida home for 25 years, alongside his own Navy uniform.

But about a year ago, Baker, 57, decided to "downsize," his euphemism for getting rid of his belongings, selling his house and hitting the road in a Toyota Highlander.

He knew he had to part with his father's uniform, and wanted to find a fitting place for it to rest.

He got on the internet and quickly found the Sitka Historical Museum. Neither Baker nor his father had ever been to Alaska, but Baker said his father knew of Sitka and its connection to the "attack transport" ship he had served on in the Pacific during the 1940s.

Baker made a call to Sitka. He had good timing. That day, in the summer of 2010, museum staff members were involved in a discussion about how to expand their collection. They needed a World War II Navy uniform.

Prior to sending the uniform north, Baker said he laid it out on a bed in his home to "spend one last night with it."

He told his mother he had found a home for his father, brushed off the uniform, "molded the hat and straightened the neckerchief."

"We both knew that he was going to live on forever for many to see, his spirit within," Baker wrote in an article for a newspaper in the upstate New York community where he grew up, and where his mother still lives. "The choice to let him go early was a wise one as he will be looked at every day, not stowed in the dark, alone."

The next day, Baker put the uniform in the mail, along with medals, a boatswain pipe and a few other items.

When Jacqueline Fernandez took over as the museum curator in February she inherited the Baker project, which had hit a standstill. The World War II items were in Sitka, but Fernandez was not quite sure how to appropriately display the uniform.

She started corresponding with Baker, who eventually agreed to buy a $400 mannequin for his father's crackerjack.

The mannequin arrived in town last week, and Fernandez got the new exhibit up Wednesday, just in time for Baker's arrival in Sitka.

Fernandez said she's not quite sure how long the Baker exhibit, which is highlighted by the Navy uniform, will remain up at the museum. She gave it a prominent spot at the museum in part to honor Baker's donation, and also because she thinks it will draw visitors into the museum.

Fernandez said Baker got in touch with the Oosterdam's captain prior to the ship's arrival in Sitka Thursday, explained the situation and asked if he could be on the first lightering boat.

His request was granted, and Baker made a beeline for Centennial Hall.

He said he was extremely pleased to see his father's uniform on display in a case at the entrance to the museum.

"He knew of Sitka, he was very proud of that ship," Baker said, as he worked to control his emotions.

"This is the right place."

The USS Sitka, built in Mississippi, was launched in 1944 and sailed through the Panama Canal to the Pacific theater, where it was a heavily armed "liberty ship" used to transport troops and supplies to places like Pearl Harbor, Guam and Japan. The ship was decommissioned in 1946 and was a mercantile ship until being scrapped in 1976.

Owen Baker served on the ship in 1945 and 1946. After retiring from the Navy he operated a dairy farm in New York's Catskill Mountains until his death in 2002.

Baker's mother, who is 82 and still farms, was too ill to make the trip to Alaska, but Baker said he was eager to show her pictures of the exhibit.

He said the trip to Sitka would also have pleased his sister. She passed away not too long ago, and had always wanted to visit Alaska. Thursday was her birthday, Baker said.

As Baker spoke to museum staff Thursday, he revealed two items that he wanted to add to the new exhibit: his parents' original wedding bands from 1947.

Baker said his mother asked him to take the rings to Sitka and place them in the front pocket of his father's uniform.

"He'll never be alone," Baker, explaining the ring ceremony.

Information from: Daily Sitka Sentinel, http://www.sitkasentinel.com/

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