is a freelance writer in Philadelphia
At this time of year, Philadelphians should remember Hobart Amory Hare "Hobey" Baker, a hometown hero of World War I who died four days before Christmas 95 years ago, at the age of 26.
Baker, Philadelphia-born and -reared, was a charismatic character right out of The Great Gatsby, though his story was told in another book, The Legend of Hobey Baker, by John Davies. Baker was a bon vivant product of Philadelphia high society; a Princeton man; a sports and war hero; and so handsome, with his wavy blond hair and sea-blue eyes, that his golden-boy aura was burnished even more.
Baker entered the U.S. Army in May 1917, just after the United States declared war on Germany. Three months later, he was sent to France, where, after superb marks in aerial gunnery training, he was accepted into the fabled Lafayette Escadrille, a combat pilot unit that later became the 103d Aero Squadron.
With an insatiable spirit for adventure, Baker was a natural at flying planes, maneuvering them as athletically as he did his body when dodging tacklers on the football field at Princeton. In college, which he attended from 1910 to 1914, he was the most decorated football player in the United States, known everywhere as "the blond Adonis of the gridiron." Baker is the only athlete elected to both the College Football and Hockey Halls of Fame, but he always credited his accomplishments to teamwork.
As a combat pilot, Baker had scraps in the sky with enemy gunners that resulted in three kills. After each one, Baker observed the code by which combat pilots lived: He honored his fallen foes with a toast of cognac. Baker was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for gallantry and was cited by Gen. John Pershing, the American Expeditionary Force commander, for distinguished service. At home, newspapers heralded him as a war hero.
When the war ended, in November 1918, Baker felt a sense of loss. He loved being a pilot and simply had not had his fill of flying and fighting. On Dec. 21, the day he was scheduled to leave Toul for Paris and then return to civilian life in the United States, he told his airmates he was going to go for "one last flight."
Capt. Baker took off during a heavy rain. At 600 feet, the engine quit. Instead of trying to crash-land, Baker, with his typical I-can-get-through-this mind-set, tried to bring the plane back to base. But he didn't have enough altitude to regain flying speed and pull the nose of the plane back up. He crashed, nose down, near the air-base hangar. His air mates freed him from the wreckage. Minutes later, he died in an ambulance.
Baker is buried at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd. On his grave is this inscription:
You seemed winged, even as a lad,
With that swift look of those who know the sky,
It was no blundering fate that stooped and bade
You break your wings, and fall to earth and die,
I think some day you may have flown too high,
So that immortals saw you and were glad,
Watching the beauty of your spirits flame,
Until they loved and called you, and you came.