Vincent Baker readied himself to step into the chaos of Omaha Beach on one of history’s most momentous mornings.
But he never got to take that step.
A German mine took care of that.
Hurled from the ramp of a landing craft by the mine explosion, the 22-year-old Kansas man landed in the cold, churning water of the English Channel and wondered if D-Day would be his last day on Earth.
The weight of sea water filling his clothes left Baker foundering and unable to move.
“I couldn’t swim and I couldn’t walk,” Baker recalled recently. “I was stuck. It was a hell of a place to be.”
Then he saw the face of a young sailor peering down at him from the stricken craft.
Now 90 years old and 67 years removed from that awful day, the Lee’s Summit resident vividly recalls that sailor’s calm demeanor amid the carnage unfolding around them.
“He looked like some kid on Sunday after church down at the corner soda fountain,” Baker said.
The sailor called out to Baker.
“You need some help?”
He threw down a rope, hauled Baker back aboard the craft and then handed the waterlogged and shaking Army lieutenant a small bottle of bourbon.
“It was the best drink I ever had,” Baker said.
But in those intense moments Baker forgot to ask an important question.
Who was that sailor who saved his life?
“I wondered since June 6, 1944, who in the hell it was,” Baker said recently.
This fall, quite unexpectedly, a man from New Hampshire called Baker and provided an answer.
That sailor’s name: Walter Antonivich. His nickname: “Toaster.”
The caller was Scott Antonivich, who had heard the story of how his grandfather, Walter, who died four years ago, had plucked a soldier from the English Channel after their landing craft hit a mine.
While doing research on his grandfather, Antonivich came across a link on the website of Baker’s wife, Fran, an author who had used her husband’s World War II experiences in a novel, “Once a Warrior.”
She had even found a photograph of LCT-29, the landing craft her husband had been so rudely thrown off, and posted it on her website with this caption:
Omaha Beach, France, near Vierville exit, at high tide
D-Day, June 6, 1944
My husband, Capt. (Ret.) Vincent E. Baker, was aboard this craft.
Scott Antonivich knew that his grandfather had steered LCT-29 onto the beach that morning.
“I was pretty psyched to call him,” Antonivich said of his decision to reach out to Baker.
As Baker shared his story, the younger man realized how similar it was to what he knew of his grandfather’s experiences. The clincher for Antonivich came when Baker mentioned the sailor’s gift of whiskey.
“My grandfather loved to drink,” Antonivich said.
Unfortunately for Antonivich, one thing his grandfather didn’t like to do was talk about his time in the war.
Everything he knew about his grandfather’s service was what he had heard secondhand from others in the family.
“I never got to talk to him about the war,” Antonivich said.
Hearing Baker’s words was a somewhat surreal experience, he said.
“In my head I was trying to envision that day,” he said. “As I was hearing his voice, it was like I was above them in the sky looking down.”
After D-Day, Walter Antonivich ended up in the Pacific Theater as crewman on a minesweeper. He worked his entire postwar career at a Vermont steel mill.
Baker fought his way across Europe as a forward observer in an artillery unit. Gen. Omar Bradley once called it “the best damned artillery unit in the U.S. Army,” Baker recalled.
He earned decorations for valor and was wounded.
After the war he went to law school, became active in Missouri politics and served as an associate circuit judge in Jackson County until retiring.
He is glad to know the name of the man who helped him out of a bad fix so many years ago. But Baker wishes he had gotten the chance to talk to him before he died.
“I would have given him a big thank you — and a drink,” Baker said.