WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — An alumnus of Peabody was one of the first people to see drones used during the Vietnam War.
Jim Baker signed up for the Navy with some high school buddies. He said he thought the Navy sounded like a great place to ride the waves, but he ultimately ended up right on the front lines with his toolbox.
KSN talked to him as he was studying a display of Army division patches at the Chase County Historical Society Museum. A Fort Riley major started the collection that dates back to WWII.
“Look at all the companies it took to maintain our freedom today,” Baker said. “Anything military, you know, is interesting to me.”
He especially loves military history, and he’s part of it.
Baker said he worked on DASH, which stands for Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter. He called it a predecessor of the modern-day drone.
“It was an experimental program, basically in ’66,” he said.
Baker said Vietnam was the first time DASH was used in military service.
“They would plug a cord into it and start it up and then unplug it and fly it by remote control off the ship,” he said.
The DASH had about a two-hundred-mile radius and was armed with torpedoes and a flotation device just in case it went down.
“The floater never worked, so they always went down to the bottom,” Baker said.
The helicopters were flying on and off a destroyer.
During an intense search for a missing submarine, Baker and the other sailors once spent 37 days straight at sea.
“We were called out from Norfolk, along with other ships, to search for it,” he said.
They were hunting for the USS Scorpion, a nuclear submarine that vanished.
“Never found hide nor hair of it,” Baker said. “We searched areas that we were designated all the way over to the mouth of the Mediterranean and back.”
He said the same people who found the Titanic claim to have found the Scorpion in pieces.
When Baker finished his two years in the Navy, officials asked him to reenlist and go to Vietnam.
“Go over there and do 90 days of offshore artillery. I said, ‘No, I don’t believe I want to,'” he said.
Instead, Baker went back to work for Boeing and even kept his seniority. He worked on B-52s, repairing sheet metal.
“There was holes in these panels…different size holes. These had been in Vietnam, you know,” Baker said.
But he said the enemy didn’t do the damage. It was hail damage.
Baker eventually got laid off from Boeing. Then, he spotted an ad in the paper for a company called Lear Siegler. The company was recruiting helicopter mechanics. He got the job.
“Kept them flying. That’s the motto,” Baker said.
He said contracts through the Department of Defense took him to Vietnam multiple times and all over the world.
“I was always kind of adventurous,” Baker said.
He said it was quite the adventure, five guys piled in a home away from home that they lovingly called “The Swamp.”
Their working conditions weren’t much better since he said he didn’t even have a hangar for a shop.
Baker said the base they were working in Vietnam was a busy place.
“The GIs, they had them flying every day and running around out in the boonies,” he said. “They didn’t want to come home at night and work on helicopters. That’s what we were there basically for.”
Baker was on a Cobra gunship damage team.
“Shot up, replace blades, whatever, some of them never came back, you know,” he said.
Baker said the enemy was always after the choppers.
“They wanted to stop them helicopters that were hauling soldiers out to the field.”
It was a constant battle to keep helicopters in the air.
“Some mornings you would get up and walk out, and the helicopter you were working on the day before would be damaged again with shrapnel from rockets,” Baker said.
He said they worked 10 hours a day, six days a week.
Baker said they would often fly to a helicopter salvage yard to get parts to repair the choppers.
“Just repair the damage and get it back up to flying as soon as you could,” he said.
Baker’s contribution was vital in the war effort, and then he went on to spend many decades in the aviation industry.
His career spanned 50 years, but the history lessons he continues to share go back even longer than that.
Before he headed home from Vietnam, he shipped a ton of pictures home.
“I figured, boy, this will really be something for somebody to see from now on,” Baker said.
But the pictures never made it. So he is trying to find pictures to replace those. If anyone has photos they would let him make copies of, especially those dealing with helicopters, he would love to have them. Contact Baker at 316-217-6527 or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to see the display of Army division patches, visit the Chase County Historical Society Museum, 303 Broadway, Cottonwood Falls, Kan.