Baca was born on January 10, 1949, in Providence, Rhode Island. He was raised in San Diego, California. Baca was drafted into the United States Army on June 10, 1968.
By February 10, 1970, he was stationed in Vietnam as a Specialist Four with Company D of the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. On that day, in Phuoc Long Province, he was serving on a recoilless rifle team when the lead platoon of his company was ambushed. Baca led his team forward through intense fire to reach the besieged platoon. When a fragmentation grenade was tossed into their midst, he “unhesitatingly, and with complete disregard for his own safety,” covered it with his helmet and then laid his body over the helmet, smothering the blast and saving eight fellow soldiers from severe injury or death. Baca survived his wounds and was formally awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard M. Nixon on March 2, 1971. Two other soldiers in Company D, Allen J. Lynch and Rodney J. Evans, had previously earned the medal.
In 1990, Baca returned to Vietnam with ten other soldiers of the Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project. The group spent eight weeks working alongside former North Vietnamese Army soldiers building a health clinic in a village north of Hanoi.
Baca rarely speaks publicly about the events for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. However, he prefers to recall an event that occurred on Christmas Day, 1969, when he was walking ahead of his unit, acting as “point,” and surprised a young North Vietnamese soldier sitting alone on top of an enemy bunker in the jungle. He saw that the soldier could not reach his rifle quickly and, not wanting to shoot him, yelled in Vietnamese for him to surrender. Not only was he able to take his “Christmas gift” alive and unharmed, the young man, twenty years later, was among the Vietnamese that Baca worked with building the clinic in 1990. Baca remains active in social causes, particularly related to Vietnam veterans issues and the plight of the homeless.
In 2002, a park was named in his honor in Huntington Beach, California At the park’s dedication on April 27, John read the following poem he penned for the occasion:
It’s a playground for the young, a walk for the dog,
These grounds will be blessed by the rain and the sun, free from the smog.
A refuge for the birds vacationing south, “Let’s visit Baca’s Park.”
Soon it won’t be long for all to enjoy their song! My buddies and friends have joined me for this delight.
Some unknown evenings I may be sitting upon my bench enjoying the quiet of the night.
What is a park? A site of beauty, a place to rest.
A place to stay, leave one’s worries, also leave behind their stress of the day.
A solitude visitor can be still, enjoy the quiet of their thought.
One can hear the voices in the breeze, trees are clapping their hands, with the movement of the leaves.
All humanity can find a space. All are welcomed to a safe, you might say sacred place.
These grounds will be a witness for families, lovers and friends who picnic, play, hold hands and maybe embrace.
It will be filled with harmony and song and the smile of God’s grace.
One last thing before I depart and be on my way,
I sat on the bench and a swing in the park that was dedicated in my honor and in my name on this beautiful day.
— John Philip Baca
After living in Orange County, Baca moved to Julian, California, enjoying the relative solitude.
Medal of Honor citation
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sp4c. Baca, Company D, distinguished himself while serving on a recoilless rifle team during a night ambush mission. A platoon from his company was sent to investigate the detonation of an automatic ambush device forward of his unit’s main position and soon came under intense enemy fire from concealed positions along the trail. Hearing the heavy firing from the platoon position and realizing that his recoilless rifle team could assist the members of the besieged patrol, Sp4c. Baca led his team through the hail of enemy fire to a firing position within the patrol’s defensive perimeter. As they prepared to engage the enemy, a fragmentation grenade was thrown into the midst of the patrol. Fully aware of the danger to his comrades, Sp4c. Baca unhesitatingly, and with complete disregard for his own safety, covered the grenade with his steel helmet and fell on it as the grenade exploded, thereby absorbing the lethal fragments and concussion with his body. His gallant action and total disregard for his personal well-being directly saved 8 men from certain serious injury or death. The extraordinary courage and selflessness displayed by Sp4c. Baca, at the risk of his life, are in the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the U.S. Army.
//Richard M. Nixon// President
John Baca was out of the Army and starting college when he was informed that he would receive the Medal of Honor. President Richard Nixon presented it to him at the White House on June 15, 1971. Baca returned to Vietnam in 1990 and worked for two months alongside former enemy soldiers to build a United States-Vietnam friendship clinic.
John Baca appreciates the simple things in life. So it makes sense you’ll find him living in Julian, where a slice of country living is best served warm with ice cream.
The 65-year-old Vietnam veteran moved to the small town east of San Diego, Calif. for a slower pace and quickly became friends with Debbie Gaudette, owner of Apple Alley Bakery.
Gaudette’s pie shop is a local favorite, and Baca is her best customer, sometimes ordering 10 pies a week.
Baca says he doesn’t own a television anymore or a computer. Instead, he spends his days talking with people. He listens to their stories and occasionally he shares his.
John Baca is a recipient of the Medal of Honor, one of only 77 still alive.
He says he should have died in Vietnam on Feb. 10, 1970. Baca, a 21-year-old soldier, found himself in the middle of a gunfight and watched a grenade land in the middle of his patrol.
“I saw my whole life flash through me. What do I do? Do I pick it up? Do I throw it? Where did it come from? It’s not supposed to be here, and do I run from it? Somebody is going to get wounded,” Baca said. “All these thoughts went through my mind.”
He covered the grenade with his helmet and then covered his helmet with his body, saving the lives of the men around him. He remembers praying to Jesus and feeling as if an angelic presence was holding him as he lay bleeding on the battlefield.
44 years later, Baca continues to be a giver.
The apple pies are proof. They aren’t for him, but for strangers all across the country: Wounded warriors who’ve lost limbs and families who’ve lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s just a delight doing this. Making some people happy, people we’ve forgotten about. But, pies…everybody likes pies,” Baca said.
“He is the most generous man I’ve ever met in my life. I don’t think he wants to own anything in this life. He wants to give it all away,” said Mike Murray, a friend and a veteran himself also living in Julian.
Thank you letters and pictures pour into Apple Alley Bakery every day from people around the country who have been touched by this unique gesture of kindness and comfort.
“It’s all just pretty amazing and overwhelming sometimes,” said Gaudette, who helps with the efforts.
So the next time you walk down Main Street in Julian, keep your eye out for a war hero on his way to the post office, a man more American than Apple Pie.
This will be our last article for 2015. Will be returning early in 2016. Would like to wish all a Happy and Holy Christmas.