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December 21, 2014

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Henderson man’s efforts pay off for Iwo Jima hero

A forgotten hero of Iwo Jima will finally get a Bronze Star this week thanks in part to the efforts of his skipper, 86-yea r-old Henderson resident Raymond Whalin.

Paul Baker, an 82-year-old former corpsman in the Navy, will be honored Friday in a ceremony at the Naval Armory in his native Rochester, N.Y., where he will be presented - 62 years late - with the citation and medal.

The Bronze Star is the fourth-highest combat medal for bravery and the ninth highest of all U.S. military decorations.

During the World War II amphibious invasion of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, Baker, riddled with shrapnel, bound the wounds of eight to 10 Marines aboard the USS LSM-70, a tank transport.

Whalin, a retired Navy lieutenant commander who has been a Southern Nevada resident for 16 years, had recommended pharmacist mate 1st Class Baker for a Silver Star shortly after the battle and thought that Baker had received a medal decades ago.

Five years ago, however, Whalin learned in a casual conversation with his old shipmate that Baker had not received any medal for his heroism aboard the vessel, nicknamed "Hogan's Goat," an old Navy expression referring to assignments that stink.

Baker's actions were credited with saving the lives of the men he treated while the ship was being fired upon by Japanese defenders.

Whalin, a father of five, grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of three, began writing letters and sending evidence to a New York congressman and the Defense Department in 2002.

Baker credits Whalin's letter-writing campaign and a Feb. 18, 2005, Las Vegas Sun story about the forgotten honor for helping to speed the process in getting him the medal.

For the past five years, Baker feared that if the medal was finally approved, it might be awarded posthumously, a concern heightened last November when the longtime cigarette smoker was diagnosed with cancer in both lungs.

But the news that Baker received this week from the Pentagon told him he will be able to enjoy the award ceremony with his family.

"I am so grateful that my children and grandchildren will be at the ceremony with me, as well as some of my shipmates," Baker said. "That means a whole lot to me. I'm really looking forward to it."

Whalin was modest about his role in getting his friend the medal.

"I hope it did something," he said.

Whalin, who will be unable to attend the medal ceremony in upstate New York because of complications from his advanced age, complained mildly about the award his shipmate was awarded.

"I put Paul in for the Silver Star and I believe that is the medal he should have gotten," he said. The Silver Star is the military's third-highest award for valor.

Baker's congressman, Rep. Jim Walsh, R-N.Y., spent the past four years trying to secure any type of heroism medal for Baker.

"It becomes more difficult as time passes because witnesses die and documentation becomes harder to get," Walsh spokesman Dan Gage said. "The military doesn't just give these medals away. They are very careful and require a lot of information. And that takes time."

The storming of the beach of Iwo Jima in the South Pacific was one of the costliest attacks in American history. During the 36 days it took to capture the island, more than 6,800 U.S. Marines and sailors died and 18,000 were wounded.

Whalin said as his ship approached the small island, at least five Japanese shells hit the vessel.

While overseeing tank deployment, Whalin said he was moved to see a bloodied Baker on deck, going from downed Marine to downed Marine, binding their wounds with bandages and pieces of cloth.

After the battle, Baker waited until all of the wounded Marines were taken off the ship before he sought medical treatment for shrapnel lodged in his legs, chest and right eye, Whalin said.

"You don't think about your wounds at the time because your adrenaline is flowing," Baker told the Sun in 2005. "All I knew on that day was that there were wounded Marines who needed help and I was the person who was trained to help them."

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