On July 31, 2010, the Interstate 280 bridge connecting Iowa and Illinois was dedicated and renamed the Baker Bridge in honor of Medal of Honor recipient John F. Baker Jr.
Many recipients of the nation's highest military honor have roadways, streets and buildings named after them. But, as of the date of this dedication, Baker was the only Medal of Honor recipient to have a bridge named after him.
There were oonly 88 living Medal of Honor recipients when the ceremony was held in Rock Island. The Medal of Honor is awarded by Congress for risk of life in combat beyond the call of duty. Baker's Medal of Honor citation credits him with "selfless heroism, indomitable fighting spirit and extraordinary gallantry" in saving the lives of fellow soldiers while his company was under intense enemy fire on Nov. 5, 1966. Baker is credited with knocking out several enemy bunkers and killing four Viet Cong snipers.
At the time of the ceremony, Baker lived in Columbia, S.C., with his wife of 27 years, Donnell. The couple met in Hawaii where Baker was stationed with the Army and she was working for entertainer Don Ho.
Family friend Col. Drew Meyerowich, who accompanied the Bakers to the dedication said: "He's not a super man, and he's not a star athlete. He's a man who performed extraordinary actions under extraordinary conditions." Three members of Baker's unit who were with him on that fateful day in 1966 also attended the bridge ceremony - Mike Marcukaitis, 64, of Kankakee, Ill.; Tom Donovan, 62, of Oxford, Ohio; and Roger Schoonover, 63, of Waterloo, Iowa.
John F. Baker Jr. was born Oct. 30, 1945, in Davenport, where he lived for eight years. He then moved to Moline, Ill, and attended the Moline High School from 1963 to 1966, where he was a gymnast. He dropped out of school before graduating to join the Army. Baker spent his career in the Army, retiring in 1989. He is the only Medal of Honor recipient from the Quad Cities.
Baker entered the U.S. Army in Moline, Ill., serving as a private in A Company, 2nd Battalion of the 27th Infantry, 25th Division. In Vietnam, he took part in Operation Attleboro, a search-and-destroy operation, which began in September 1966 . Part of his role in that operation was serving as "tunnel rat", a soldier who enters the Viet Cong-held tunnels searching out the enemy and destroying their weapon and supply caches and ability to fight.
On Nov. 5, 1966, Baker and his unit were called to assist another squad who were taking enemy fire. En route, A Company began to take fire and lost their lead soldier. Together with two other soldiers, Baker took over the head of the column and assisted in destroying two enemy positions. There were moving to take two others when a hand grenade knocked Baker off his feet. With the two other soldiers wounded, Baker "single handedly" destroyed another bunker before recovering his comrades. Despite taking further fire from enemy bunkers and snipers, Baker continually fell back to replenish ammunition and take back several wounded. For these actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, along with Captain Robert F. Foley.
At a White House ceremony, President Lyndon B. Johnson conferred the award to Baker and Foley. These are the President's remarks: "The battlefield is the scarred and the lonely landscape of man's greatest failure. But is a place where heroes walk. Today we come here to the East Room of the White House to honor two soldiers, two soldiers whoin the same battle and at the same timemet the surpassing tests of their lives with acts of courage far beyond the call of duty. Captain Foley and Sergeant Baker fought in the same company. Now, together, they join the noblest company of them all. They fought because their Nation believed that only by honoring its commitments, and only by denying aggression its conquest, could the conditions of peace be created in Southeast Asia and the world."
Baker is quoted as having said this about his heroic actions that day: "I just did what I had to do. I was trying to help my fellow soldiers the best I could. We don't win the Medal. We are caretakers of it, and we receive it by doing what we are supposed to do."
Baker's career in the military eventually lead him to the rank of Master Sergeant.
Larry Foster of Council Bluffs Parks and Recreation was with the project since its beginning and he told a local newspaper just prior to the bridge's opening that he'd never take the view for granted. "In some ways, this could almost be thought of as the bridge that almost never was," he said.
Foster said there was serious concern at that time that the original bids came in as to whether the bridge could be built at all. He said his team took a big step back, deciding to spend a whole year to figure out a new way to get the project done. He said the team never lost hope and eventually found the right plan at the right price.
Foster said a team of architects, engineers and contractors worked together to create a bid for the project. That approach, known as a design-build process, was used for the first time in Nebraska history on the pedestrian bridge.
A six-member bridge naming committee recommended the structure be named the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. The recommendation was sent to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey and Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan, and both city councils approved the name in September 2008.
was born in Lincoln, Lancaster County Nebraska, born August 27, 1943; attended the Lincoln public schools, including Lincoln Northeast High School; graduated from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1966, with a degree in pharmacy; during his senior year at Nebraska he was a member of the Society of Innocents, the chancellor's senor honorary; served in the United States Navy SEAL special forces unit, 1966-1969; wounded in Vietnam, losing the lower part of one leg in combat, and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life"; operated a chain of restaurants and fitness centers 1972-1982; Governor of Nebraska 1983-1987; elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate in 1988; unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992; reelected in 1994, and served from January 3, 1989, to January 3, 2001; was not a candidate for reelection in 2000; chairman, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (One Hundred Fourth Congress); president, New School University, New York City, since 2001; member, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (9-11 Commission) 2003-2004.
Senator Kerrey was known by political observers for his independence, candor and tireless determination. While in Congress, Senator Kerrey served on the Finance Committee, Agricultural Committee and Appropriations Committee, and was vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.