Dec 03, 2008 - Claremont, Calif. -
He was presented with the medal—the third highest military decoration awarded for gallantry in action—at an elaborate Veteran’s Day celebration Nov. 11 at St. Thomas Academy, the military high school he attended in St. Paul, Minn., where he was expecting to receive an award for his contributions to the school.
“It was one of the greatest shocks I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Baumgaertner. “I went to St. Paul to receive the first annual Flemming Award from St. Thomas Academy. When that grand ceremony was over, they called me back on stage ‘to correct a 63-year-old error.’ I couldn’t believe what happened next. It was very moving.”
Mike Depuglio, a retired lieutenant colonel who oversees the school’s military program as the commandant of cadets, was instrumental in securing the Silver Star that Baumgaertner was awarded in 1945, but never received. It was Baumgaertner’s son, Jim, however, who initiated the search several years prior.
Jim was in the process of retracing his father’s World War II service route for a trip he planned to take with his own son when he learned that a Silver Star had been awarded. Unfortunately, Baumgaertner could not find the medal in his army footlocker.
“Jim was the one who pushed me,” explained Baumgaertner, who was also awarded three Bronze Stars Medals for bravery and meritorious service during the war. “He said, ‘You’ve got to find it, dad.’ I just figured I had lost it or never actually got it. Nobody paid much attention to decoration. After the war, the name of the game was getting on with your life. You wanted to forget what you had just been through.”
Upon writing a local congressman about the matter, Baumgaertner learned that the records that could have verified whether the medal had been awarded or not had burned in a fire. “So, you can see how receiving this medal was such a shock,” he said.
In January 1943, six months out of military high school, where he graduated as a United States Army second lieutenant, Baumgaertner was called to active duty, following the attack on Pearl Harbor. There, he was assigned a platoon of 47 men, which included a high school history professor who had taught Baumgaertner the previous year.
“It was a time of great unity where everyone was willing to serve,” he explained. “September 11 was the only time since World War II where I’ve seen the country come together like that.”
At the young age of 20, Baumgaertner was promoted to first lieutenant.
“Many of the first lieutenants had died, since the average life of an infantry lieutenant in combat was 30 days,” he explained. “I was assigned the job of company commander, leading an infantry company of 187 infantry soldiers and three lieutenant officers."
Under the command of General George Patton, Baumgaertner led his troops onto Utah Beach—one of the five beaches designated for the D-Day landings in June 1944—and through France and Germany, where they crossed the Saar River at high-flood stage and scaled a cement wall in heavy fog in an unexpected attack on the Germans.
“Patton’s unique and unconventional battle style really saved us,” said Baumgaertner, whose first language of German came in handy when interrogating prisoners or tricking German enemies into believing he was one of them. “He signed the order for us to cross the Saar River and attack, knowing that nobody in their right mind would ever do such a thing without previous reconnaissance. He knew that the Germans would never be expecting us. And because of that we had fewer casualties.”
Upon returning from the war in January 1946, Baumgaertner headed back to college to pick up where he had left off when he was ordered to active duty.
In 1948, he graduated from St. Thomas College with degrees in mathematics and physics, and immediately went on to the University of Minnesota for studies toward a master’s degree in electrical engineering.
His first job out of school was with Honeywell, a manufacturer of civil and military avionics and other aerospace products.
As chief engineer, he spent 17 years at the company’s plant in Minneapolis, Minn., before he was transferred to its West Covina, Calif., plant, where he was director of engineering for another 17 years.
It was during the latter part of his career at Honeywell that Baumgaertner became familiar with HMC.
“I was trying to hire young engineers and learned that a local school called Harvey Mudd College educated some of the best engineers.”
He soon became involved in the college’s engineering Clinic Program, first sponsoring a computer software project and then 11 more projects over the years.
Upon retiring from Honeywell in early 1985, Baumgaertner’s colleagues at HMC suggested he come and work at the college. Determined initially to actually be retired, he turned down multiple offers.
But by the fall of 1985, he had begun working with the development office, selling Clinics to companies.
After a year, he began teaching a Clinic and later an electronics class—the two things he continues to do today on a part-time basis.
“I absolutely love the students and the college,” said Baumgaertner. “The most rewarding thing I’ve done has been here at Mudd because I’m in a position to help others. Unlike some friends I have who are professors at other schools, I am fortunate because the kids here actually want the product you have to give.”
Baumgaertner attributes his good life to luck.
“Wonderful things fell into place and I just happened to be there,” he said. “Luck happens to those who prepare for it.”
Thinking back on the war, Baumgaertner says it was definitely a “growth experience” for him.
To those of his students who may never have to experience war, he offers this advice: “Take life a day at a time. Do the best you can do every day. Have confidence in yourself, in others and in God.”