Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 23

CAU SONG BE, Vietnam — Lieutenant Albert “Al” Croteau was one of those resourceful, no B.S. officers who have made the U.S. military so efficient during wartime.

On May 14, 1967, he would fly into combat 5 times voluntarily, as doorgunner aboard one of two UH-1D “Huey” helicopters that would rescue more than 100 South Vietnamese soldiers and a U.S. Army Special Forces advisor under fire by a large enemy military force.

Though his official Army job was commander of a communications detachment at Bien Hoa Air Base, Al was no stranger to combat. The night before the May 14 rescue, he had approached Warrant Officer pilot Jack Swickard about flying as gunner aboard his Huey.

Al’s ancestors were French Canadians who arrived in the United States generations earlier to work in the wool mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The French Canadians, largely from Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, began arriving in Lawrence in the 1850s to escape cold farm life to the north.

“I don’t know what year they came from Canada,” Al said. “I can go back to my great-great-grandfather. They moved into the Lawrence area and worked in the Lawrence mills.”

Al’s grandmother, Noel Martineau, arrived in Lawrence around 1890 and found work as a “mill girl.” She had 7 brothers and sisters.

Al’s father, Albert Croteau, also came from a line of French Canadians who had moved into the Northeastern United States.

“His father came from Canada, also, and moved into a town called Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where he had a shoe factory,” Al said. There, Eugene Croteau, manufactured shoes for U.S. soldiers during World War I.

Al was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, when his father was in the Army.

“My father was in the Army during World War II, but he never left the States,” Al said.
“He went in at a very young age, 16 or 17. His last duty tour was Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he was a cook. He was a sergeant, in charge of a mess hall.”

Al’s interest in the military started when he was 8 years old. “We used to play soldier all the time. That was at a time when all the war movies were out. John Wayne was popular. ‘Pork Chop Hill,’ all the leftover Second World War movies and the Korean War movies were running at that time,” he said. “That’s when I decided I was going to go into the military.”

At the time, his family lived in Malden, Massachusetts, outside of Boston.

“I can actually remember playing soldier games with my brother and a couple of friends. I can remember deciding ‘I’d like to do this,’” Al recalled.

He started training with the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps — or ROTC — in his freshman year at Boston’s Northeastern University in 1961. At the time, he was studying chemical engineering.

“In the Engineering College, all engineers but chemical engineers went into the Army Engineering Corps. The chemical engineers ended up going into the Signal Corps,” Al said.

“Northeastern University was a branch school, so you ended up training in your branch,” he said. “Northeastern also had a different program — you didn’t go to ROTC summer camp until after you graduated. In most schools, you went to summer camp before you graduated. So at Northeastern, the day you graduated from summer camp, you were commissioned a second lieutenant.”

After graduation, Al moved to upstate New York, where he worked as an engineer for International Paper Company for about 3 months. He was called to active duty in October 1966.

His first active duty assignment was to the Signal Corps Branch School at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

“It was pretty comical because I already had 5 years of branch school. It was absolutely the same thing, which was tremendous because at that time they were calling up a lot of people and they had a lot of Signal Corps officers,” he said. “At branch school, it was so easy that I had a tremendous amount of excess time because I didn’t have to study anything.”

Al shortly after arriving in Vietnam.
He made the class graduation party his main focus. “I was put in charge of the party committee. This gave me run of the town and the post. I could do anything I wanted. All I had to say was, ‘I’m working on the party.’”

Al also tutored classmates who were having problems in branch school. “So, not only did I have the run of the post, I also had the favor of most of my classmates because I was helping them get through it. I had a very, very pleasant time at branch school. It was a lot of fun,” he said.

He graduated from branch school 6 weeks later, just before the Christmas 1966 holidays. “I didn’t want to make the commute back to Boston, so I decided I would stay on post at Fort Gordon.”

Al remembered how quiet it was at Fort Gordon during the Christmas holidays. With time on his hands, he struck up a friendship with some of the military dentists assigned to the post.

“I told them, I’m going to be here for the Christmas holidays’ and they asked, ‘What are you going to be doing?’ I said, ‘Basically nothing. I don’t have an assignment. I may need to have some dental work,’” said Al, who had hit the right chord.

“They asked, ‘Do you want to be a patient?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’

“So, for the 2 weeks I spent at Fort Gordon at Christmastime, I was in the dental chair every day. The Fort Gordon dentists replaced every filling in my mouth; they did any work that needed to be done.

“And 40 years later, I’m sitting in a dental chair and a guy looks at me and asked, ‘Where’d you get all your dental work done?’ And I said, ‘The U.S. Army.’ He said, ‘My God, this stuff is great.’ I said, ‘Well they had 2 weeks to work on me. No time limits and they were bored stiff.’”

Because Al had done so well in Signal Corps Branch School, the Army gave him a choice of advanced schools. “What was up and coming in the Army at that time was helicopters, so I said I would like to go into avionics,” he said.

At one time, Al thought about applying for helicopter flight training.

Al in jungle fatigues.
“When I was at Fort Gordon, one of my classmates wanted to borrow my dress blues, formal uniform. He told me, ‘I’ll tell you what. If you let me use your dress blues, I’ll take you up for a flight.’ I flew in a Bird Dog.

“That was the first time I was ever in an airplane. I was scared stiff. As long as he kept the airplane straight and level, I was happy. The minute he tried to turn or anything, I was petrified. I had never been so frightened in my whole life, but I knew it was something I wanted to do,” Al recalled.

However, he wore glasses, which disqualified him from attending flight school.

During the 6-week Avionics Advanced Course, Al’s commanding officer was a captain “who, for some reason, did not like me and had it in for me. When I went to the advanced course, I decided to be on the party committee again.”

Because Al was older than most of the other second lieutenants in the class, “I was more mature and not as frightened of people with higher rank. We would be told, ‘We’re going out to the field today, so you’ll have to go buy your meals at the mess hall.’ They’d buy these K Rations or C Rations. But I’d go to the supermarket and buy this great food. I’d go to the field and they would ask, ‘Why do you have the good stuff and we have this crap?’

“I’d say, ‘Why not?’ They didn’t say you had to buy it there, they just said you had to bring your own food because officers have to supply their own food. I used to do this sort of thing and, again, I was helping my classmates.

“Another time, the class was told, ‘We’re going to go out in the field for 3 days and we’re going to live in trucks.’ This is what the Signal Corps does.

“So I said, ‘I’m not staying overnight in the field.’ I was told, ‘Oh, yes you are.’ I replied, ‘Oh, no I’m not.’

“When we got out to the field, I went over to the person in charge and said, ‘I have to go back and work on the party committee.’ Then I was in a truck and out of there. I never stayed a day in the field. I always slept in a comfortable bed,” Al said.

“This sort of irritated the captain who was in charge of our class, but he couldn’t do anything. He was really irritated at me, but he couldn’t do anything because I was No. 1 in the class and I had this party committee. I always had a good reason. He didn’t like me because I was getting away with things all the time. I wasn’t doing any harm to anyone.

“He was out to get me. At the end of the course, we’re in a line for something. He walked up to me and started talking, and I did something wrong, something stupid. He came up and started chewing me out, and I said to him, ‘Guess what? I just put in a transfer from Korea to Vietnam. I’d like to go to Vietnam.’

“And he looked at me and said, ‘OK.’ And the next guy in line he gave 20 pushups. It was a punishment; he was supposed to punish me, but he gave the next guy in line the punishment. I just kept walking.”

Al initially had orders assigning him to South Korea. “I thought, ‘Korea’s cold, it’s wet and it’s damp, and there’s nothing going on in Korea. I don’t want to go to Korea. I’ll end up in some signal company, maybe not in avionics, but some place out in the hills.’

“I said, ‘I’d rather go someplace where it’s warm and where there’s a lot of activity,’ so I put in a transfer to go to Vietnam. And, of course, it was instantly approved because I’d graduated high in my class,” Al said.

“My orders were cut to go to a specific unit, the 198th Signal Detachment at the 118th Assault Helicopter Company. I was a replacement for the detachment’s commanding officer,” he recalled.
Al hamming it up at the officers villa.

Al was promoted to first lieutenant shortly after arriving in Vietnam.

His roommate was Dr. Louis “Lou” Lorton, the dentist attached to the Thunderbirds. “He was a great guy, a great humanitarian. I’d go on medical minivacs with him all the time. We’d go out on the minivacs and he’d have a drill that was pedal powered and I’d pedal for him or I’d assist him. When you’d go into the villages, he did so well with the Vietnamese people. I’d act as security for him, too.”

One night, when the Thunderbird villa on Cong Ly Street came under attack by the Viet Cong, Lorton awakened Croteau.

“I asked, ‘What’s going on?’ Lou told me we were under attack. Here’s Lou in a flak jacket, with grenades hanging from the flak jacket. I don’t know where the hell he got the grenades. He’s got an M-16 rifle. He’s got his helmet. He’s got a pistol.”

“I say, ‘Lou, where you going?’ and he said, ‘I’m going to defend the perimeter. Aren’t you coming?’

“I said, ‘No. No. Lou, I’m not trained, and there’s a unit out there that is trained and they work with each other. The only things we can do are shoot ourselves or shoot someone else, a friendly guy. I’m not going with you.’ He goes out to defend the perimeter.”

Al recalled that one day, Lorton wanted a telephone in his dental office moved.

“I got all these weird requests, where people needed a radio, a battery, or whatever. They’d always end up in my lap. So Lou sent me a request to have a telephone moved. He asked me, ‘Can I have a telephone moved?’ I said, ‘You have to submit the request in writing and it has to go through channels. So, when I got the request, I just walked into his office, picked up the phone and moved it to a different location on his desk.”

Al decided to see as much of Vietnam and the war as he could. His travels by Jeep and helicopter and his combat experiences instilled in him a great admiration for the country and the Vietnamese.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 22

FORT WOLTERS, Texas — When Tom Baca checked in for flight training at Fort Wolters, Texas, he was assigned to a room in the Warrant Officer Candidates (WOC) barracks.

With the room came a lifelong friend, roommate Sterling Essenmacher.

Sterling, a police officer in Whittier, Calif., had been drafted into the military in February 1964. Like many of the other warrant officer candidates, he had taken his Army basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. But Sterling got to flight school by a less direct route than many of his classmates.

After basic, he was sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for training to be a medic. From there, he was assigned to the 563rd Medic Clearing Company at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

“That’s when I found out from another friend that the Army had a program to fly,” Sterling said. “I’ve always been an aviation nut, with an interest in airplanes. I only had a year and a half left in the Army, but I wanted to fly.”

He applied for flight training. “It took me 5-6 months to get my appointment to flight school, going through all the physicals and the flight tests.”

Before helicopter flight training began, each candidate had to successfully complete one month of Preflight, a time when physical and mental stress was inflicted on the would-be pilots. Army Aviation wanted helicopter pilots who would remain levelheaded under stress and work as a team. During Preflight, tactical officers —veteran combat helicopter pilots, themselves — looked for misfits.

Sterling and cameraman Stuart Dunn in 2008.
When the candidates signed in at Fort Wolters, they were promoted to E-5 sergeant for pay purposes. As warrant officer candidates, their status within the Army was considered one rank below an E-1 enlistee.

Tom and Sterling were assigned to Warrant Officer Rotary Wing Aviation Class 66-3.

 “I remember the first 4 weeks in Preflight there was a lot harassment, but wisely, they let up as you got into flight training and ground school, and you got done with the leadership stuff,” Tom recalled. “There was still discipline and you had to make sure your lockers were squared away and on your beds they could bounce a nickel. I don’t really remember being unmercifully harassed a whole lot.

“I do remember having time to trade my old Volkswagen. I sold my old Volkswagen to a guy from Maine. I then went out and bought a new Dodge Dart. I remember this other candidate and I got into a fight,” Tom said. “It was the first weekend I had my new car and I gave it to Sterling to drive to the Texas State Fair in Dallas. I had a brand-new car sitting outside and he was the first one to drive it.”

Sterling remembered that when he and Tom arrived at Fort Wolters, the tactical staff was transitioning from a “strict OCS (Officer Candidate School) atmosphere to a college environment. This was just before the build-up of pilots training to fly helicopters in Vietnam.”

Even with easing up on some of the discipline, “We only had a 50 percent loss out of our company,” Sterling said.

While attending primary helicopter training at Fort Wolters, Sterling had placed a plastic model of a Huey on his desk. He and Tom received demerits from a tac officer because “I didn’t have the rotor blade tied down,” Sterling said. “If he hadn’t written me up for that, he would have written me up for not signing off on the model Huey’s log.”

“We didn’t get the weekend off for it,” Sterling added.

During flight training, each ride with an instructor was graded. On one of these, Tom received a pink slip — a failing grade.

“I had to take this check ride and there was a civilian check pilot nobody ever wanted to get. I’ve got to pass this ride or I’m going to get washed out. I see this guy walk out and I’m thinking, ‘God, don’t let that be him,’ because I’d heard stories about him,” Tom recalled. “This was right at the end of my training, before I was to go to Fort Rucker. But we went out and I gave him a good ride.”

After soloing in a helicopter, the student pilots were thrown by their classmates into the swimming pool at the Fort Wolters Officers Club. In later classes, the solo dunking was in water-filled ditches along the country roads. Eventually, the dunking was conducted in the swimming pool of the Holiday Inn at Mineral Wells.

After completing 4 months of primary flight training at Fort Wolters, the student pilots were assigned to the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

Sterling continued on with Class 66-3, while Tom was held back a month because of a shortage of student pilot slots. He would graduate from Fort Rucker with Class 66-5.

Later, as newly minted warrant officer aviators, Sterling and Tom arrived in Vietnam about the same time. Tom, who had graduated from flight school on May 24, did not take leave before heading to Southeast Asia.

“I was in Vietnam on June 5. Including travel time, it was about 10 days after graduation,” Tom said.

Sterling said he “hit country about May 23.”


In Vietnam, Sterling was assigned to the 281st Assault Helicopter Company at Nha Trang. His unit was assigned to Special Forces, which “had operational control over us.”

He worked a lot with mountain teams in the Pleiku area. “I was only on three combat assaults the entire time I was in Vietnam,” Sterling said. “We were out in individual ships, working mountain camps, whatever Special Forces people needed us to do.”

He worked mainly with Special Forces B Teams in the northeast section of II Corps, far north of where Tom would be assigned.


Like many helicopter pilots, Tom had orders assigning him to the 1st Cavalry Division when he arrived in Vietnam.

Tom flew to Vietnam on an Air Force C-141 transport. He recalled thinking “there was an awful lot of dirt” when the airplane landed at Pleiku.

“We all got offloaded from this C-141 and they had the troops waiting to get on. You know, they didn’t even shut down the engines.” As the C-141 taxied out to the runway with its load of homeward-bound soldiers, a C-130 transport landed.

Tom recalled, “They started calling names out. ‘The following people, step over here on the right or the left. Your orders have been changed.’ Well, the first one called was, ‘Baca, Tom.’ I thought, ‘I wonder where the hell they’re sending me? It’s better than this place.’

“I asked, ‘Where am I going?’ and was told, ‘You're going down to III Corps, to Bien Hoa Air Base.’ I said, ‘Thank you, God.’

“They flew us to Saigon in the C-130. When we got off, we were told to report to Hotel 3, and give the clerk our stuff. I think we were assigned to the 145th Aviation Battalion, not a company, so I went to the Hotel 3 office and reported in.

“I said, ‘I'm supposed to give you this.’ He picked up the phone and said, ‘Wait! Wait!’ Then he got on the radio and said, ‘Thunderbird so and so, hold on a second, will you?’ Then he told me, ‘You’re going where that helicopter’s going. Go out there with your stuff and get on that helicopter and he’ll take you where you need to go.’

“I asked the crew, ‘Where am I going?” and was told, ‘The 145th Aviation Battalion.’ I got on that helicopter. We flew to Bien Hoa and landed at the Birdcage. They came out and said, ‘Yea, you’re going to be flying with us.’

The Birdcage was the landing and maintenance area for the Thunderbirds of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company.

Tom recalled the flight to the Birdcage “was my first 118th ride. That’s how I ended up at Bien Hoa.”


Thunderbird patch
By being assigned to the Thunderbirds, Tom had hit pay dirt on his assignment in Vietnam. Pilots in the company lived in a villa on Cong Ly Street in downtown Bien Hoa. There was a Chinese cook who took pains to prepare an excellent menu, helicopters sometimes were dispatched to the coast to bring back fresh seafood, and the waitresses wore starched, gray uniforms. Each morning, a large platter of freshly made doughnuts was placed near the door so helicopter crews could enjoy a morning snack later at the flight line.

Two pilots occupied each room at the villa. Each room had a private bath with shower. Rooms on the first floor also had Dutch doors that opened onto walled patios where outdoor bars had been set up.

Each night after dinner, pilots would sit at their dining room tables and watch just-released movies or current U.S. television series being projected on a white wall. The favorite was the “Combat” TV series. The only routine distractions were the lizards that lived on the wall, eating insects that wandered or flew within range of their darting tongues.

Jack, Tom, Al Croteau at site of villa in 2008.
The bar in the Officers Club lounge was well stocked, though you were more likely to find a San Miguel beer than a Budweiser and a Myer’s rum than a Ron Bacardi. Duc the bartender was a good drink-mixer, daily traveling by bus between Bien Hoa and his home in Saigon. If you needed a roll of film developed, you gave it to Duc. He handed you photographs the next day.

The pilots, the flight surgeon, the dentist, and the communications detachment commander who lived in the villa were a congenial group. Parties sometimes ran into the early morning.

The 118th Assault Helicopter Company was a great place to be assigned as a pilot.


Tom’s first flight as a pilot with the Thunderbirds was on June 22, 1966. During the 6 months he was with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, Tom flew combat assaults and single-ship combat support missions.

Tom in cockpit of Thunderbird UH-1D.
“The 118th was a solid, proficient and well-led unit. The maintenance was superb and the crew chiefs and gunners were the soul of the unit, as far as I was concerned,” Tom said. “They worked long hours after we left the flight line. We all trusted each other. The pilots, both commissioned and warrants, were mission-driven and fearless.”

Tom served in the Thunderbirds until December 1966, when he was transferred to II Field Force Vietnam.

“Apparently, the IIFFV was about to lose all of its experienced pilots, so they asked III Corps to send some candidates’ names for selection. I understand they wanted pilots who had proven they could work independently and had intimate knowledge or the III Corps area,” he said. “I was selected. I was upset I had to leave the Thunderbirds and all of my friends, but I did as ordered.”

Tom said he flew more hours per day at the II Field Force “than any of us did in the Thunderbirds. I would log 5-8 hours a day, four or five days a week. I enjoyed flying at the 118th and at the Field Force Headquarters.”

On May 14, 1967, with just 12 days left before he completed his 1-year tour in Vietnam, Tom was assigned to fly the II Field Force chaplain to Special Forces camps as Bu Dop, Dong Xoai and Cau Song Be, which recently had been renamed Chi Linh.

“I had already flown about 4 hours that morning. I think we left for Bu Dop about 11:30 a.m.,” he said. “That day would be my highest-time day. I flew a total of 10.7 hours that day.”

Tom met his copilot for the first time when Captain Larry Liss walked up to the aircraft that morning.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 21

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Warrant Officer Tom Baca had a military tradition that stretched further back than the early Spanish exploration of his native New Mexico.

Some historians believe it was Tom Baca’s ancestor, Juan de Vaca, who accompanied Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola in 1540 — 80 years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.

Juan de Vaca’s eldest son, Capitán Cristóbal Baca, helped reinforce the colony Governor Juan de Oñate had established near San Juan Pueblo in 1600, two years after Oñate had declared New Mexico a Spanish possession.

Cristóbal and his family remained in New Mexico, where he and his wife, Ana Maria Ortiz Baca, had a son. Ana Maria died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1620.

The Baca family name was derived from Cabeza de Vaca, a titled bestowed on a hero in Spain in 1212.


On May 14, 1967, Tom Baca was pilot in command of a U.S. Army UH-1D “Huey” helicopter that evacuated six wounded South Vietnamese soldiers and then returned five more times to a landing zone to rescue the survivors of an ambush by 600-700 enemy troops.

Tom commanded one of two helicopters whose main rotor blades were used to cut a landing zone through vegetation in the rescue of 126 Civilian Irregular Defense Group soldiers and a U.S. Special Forces advisor from the ambush.

Jack and Tom at former Fort Wolters in 2010.
By coincidence, the second Huey was commanded by another New Mexican, Warrant Officer Jack Swickard. Like Tom, he had joined the Army in Albuquerque.

Both pilots also flew for the 118th Assault Helicopter Company at Bien Hoa, Vietnam. Months earlier, Tom transferred to the II Field Force (Vietnam) Flight Detachment; Jack would fly with the 118th “Thunderbirds” throughout his 1-year military tour in Vietnam.

The two pilots met four months earlier, though Jack and Tom’s twin brother, Jim, had known each other as news reporters in Albuquerque. Jack worked for The Albuquerque Tribune; Jim reported for KOAT Television, the ABC affiliate in New Mexico.

Like Tom, Jack had a twin brother.


Tom and brother Jim were born on Sept. 6, 1945, in Albuquerque. They have a sister, Carlota, who lives in Santa Fe.

“I grew up in Albuquerque and never lived anywhere else until I entered the Army in June 1963, immediately after high school,” Tom said.

“My dad and my grandfather were both born in Peña Blanca, New Mexico. My ancestors on my dad’s side originated in Spain and were very early settlers in New Mexico,” he said. “The family tree can be traced back to about 1557. I am the 14th generation of the Baca family.”

Tom said as youngsters, he and his brother were called “Los Cuates,” Spanish for twins. “We were severely identical. We looked so much alike, nobody could tell us apart, and my mother insisted on dressing us the same. We always got blamed for what the other did or did not do.”

Growing up in Albuquerque, the Baca twins were educated in Catholic schools. Their mother worked for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and their father was a self-employed public accountant.

“My brother and I were very competitive with each other and fought a lot during our early years,” Tom recalled.

His paternal grandfather’s name was Delfin, which is Tom’s middle name. “My maternal grandmother’s name was Tom. I was named after her. She was adopted and her stepfather was a very good friend of President Harry Truman.

“My mother, whose maiden name was Dixie Sapp, was born in Missouri. She and my dad, Fermin Baca, met in Washington, D.C., during World War II.

“My high school years were a lot of fun. I wasn’t in the clique, but in the end I turned out as successful as most of those people who you knew would do well,” Tom said. “I attribute that to having graduated from high school and gone into the Army at the age of 17.”

Tom was determined to join the Army after being captivated by aviation as a youngster. “I was not particularly a good student in school because I had my head in the clouds most of the time, thinking about flying,” he said. “In high school, I was always trying to figure out how I could get pilot training.”

Tom’s first ride in an airplane was during his sophomore year in high school.

“My mother bought me a round-trip ticket to Phoenix on a TWA Constellation. I was hooked,” he said. “She even paid for a flight lesson in a Cessna later that year. It was ridiculously expensive. I had to find a way to get pilot training. I started talking to armed services recruiters when I was a junior in high school. The Army seemed the quickest way to get into the cockpit.

“My decision to go into the Army was based on wanting to fly. I knew the Army had a program where you didn’t have to have four years of college to be trained as a pilot. Little did I know what I was getting into, and how much I would enjoy military life,” Tom said.

“If you wanted to enlist in the service at 17, your parents had to sign a consent form. My father had a friend who was a lawyer. He prepared the paperwork and my parents signed the parental consent forms,” he said.

When he enlisted in the Army, he had no illusions about going straight to flight school. “I wasn’t mature enough, so I enlisted and trained as an aircraft mechanic,” Tom said.

He was assigned to the aviation company in the 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment on the East-West German border at Fulda.

Tom recalled signing out after completing Army aircraft maintenance training at Fort Rucker, Alabama, on Nov. 22, 1963.

“I was supposed to go to Fort Dix, N.J., and get on a ship and go to Germany. As we were signing out, we heard that President Kennedy had been shot and died in Dallas.   Several of us went AWOL and went to the Kennedy funeral,” he said. “We got off the bus in Washington with our duffel bags and a basic load of Army clothing. We had jackets. And we slept outside near the Washington Monument. There were a lot of people doing that. It was cold. We went to the funeral, then we went to Fort Dix.

“When we showed up at Fort Dix, we had missed our ship. Our punishment was a couple of tours of KP duty in the big, consolidated mess at Fort Dix. That was not fun.”

In Germany, Tom’s aviation company patrolled the East-West German border in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

Several months after arriving in Germany, Tom applied for flight school. He was told he was too young and wouldn’t make it through the rigorous flight-training program.

“However, they said that if I could make it through the 7th Army NCO Academy as a private first class, they would give me a chance and board me to go to flight school,” Tom recalled. “So I went to the 7th Army NCO Academy as a private first class. All my peers in the school were sergeants, staff sergeants, and sergeants first class.”

Tom graduated in the top 20 percent of the class. “That surprised me because I wasn’t a great student, but I was motivated,” he said. “I went to Wurzburg, Germany, and appeared before a board of officers. I guess I did OK because a month after that, I was told I would go to flight school.”

Tom said he still remembers the day he was told. “Captain Benjamin Abramowitz, the maintenance officer in the aviation company, called me in and said, ‘I’m going to have to let you go.’

“I asked, ‘Why? Did I do something wrong?’ He replied: ‘No, you’re going to flight school.’ I remember breaking out of the office door and running around the flight line, jumping up and down, screaming, and telling everyone I was going to flight school.

“Two days later, a guy showed up in our unit. He had just been washed out of flight school. I said to myself, ‘Dang, this guy’s pretty sharp. I wonder what happened to him?’” Tom remembered.

Tom Baca as Army aircraft mechanic.
“I sat down and talked to him. He said he just couldn’t fly. He said academically it wasn’t bad. The leadership training, the harassment, was tough but tolerable, but he just couldn’t fly. He just didn’t have the control touch and couldn’t figure it out,” Tom said.

“That made me realize this was not a free ticket, that there was a lot of work ahead of me.

“I was in Germany for about 18 months, then I was on the way back, to Fort Wolters, Texas. I was 19 years old. We got back to Fort Dix and I only had enough money to get as far as Dallas. I didn’t have enough money to get home, so my dad sent me some money and I flew the rest of the way to Albuquerque,” he said.

After taking leave, Tom headed for the U.S. Army Primary Helicopter Training Center at Fort Wolters in a 1958 Volkswagen his dad had given him. About halfway, near Muleshoe, Texas, the car quit. Tom coasted into a service station. A mechanic found the points were burned. He fixed them in about an hour.

“I asked, ‘What do I owe you?’ He said, ‘You don’t owe me anything, Soldier. Get on to flight school and have a good time.’”

When Tom reported in at flight school, “I was really scared. I didn’t know if I was going to be good enough, from the standpoint of leadership and being able to take the harassment we got during the preflight session. I’d heard horror stories about how they treated you. But I was motivated and wanted those Army aviator wings.”

Tom found the training at Fort Wolters thorough. In Germany, he would hang around the flight line on weekends. “The pilots would always ask me to fly with them in the H-13 or an H-34. Many days we took an H-34 from the airfield over to our casern, and parked it on the helipad. I would do that every night with the duty officer,” he said.

“These officers knew I wanted to be a pilot. Their encouragement was instrumental in my belief I could get through flight school. They provided me with a good, basic understanding of flying a helicopter, so I was used to cockpits, the noise, smells and vibrations before my first hour of official instruction,” Tom said.

Tom in Vietnam as helicopter pilot.
He was at Fort Wolters from late July 1965 through January 21, 1966. Tom spent an extra month at Fort Wolters as a “holdover.” The Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker could not accept all the student pilots who had just graduated from primary helicopter training because of a shortage of training aircraft and instructor pilots.

On arrival at Fort Rucker, the student pilots began a month of instrument flight training in the Bell TH-13T.

“The goal of the instrument training was to provide basic tactical instrument skills that would allow you to fly out of inadvertent instrument conditions — clouds,” Tom said. “The goal was not to make you a fully qualified, standard instrument-rated pilot. There just was not time to fully qualify all of the students with standard instrument tickets.”

Tom found the next training phase the most rewarding — learning to fly the UH-1 “Huey” helicopter.

“I loved the Huey. It was state of the art. We also received formation, gunnery and tactics training. This phase of our 10 months in flight school provided the backbone of our preparation for Vietnam,” he said. “I received my wings on May 24, 1966. I left after graduation and drove to Albuquerque for leave.”


“One of my good friends was a guy named Tom Horan. We went from first grade through high school together. I went in the Army; he went on to college,” Tom recalled.

“After I got back from my first year in Vietnam, he made contact with me. He was a second lieutenant in the Armor at Fort Hood, Texas. He called me while I was an instructor at Fort Wolters,” Tom said. “He wanted to go to flight school and he wanted me to fly down and give him a ride in a helicopter, and see if he’d like it. So I did. A couple of months later he showed up at Fort Wolters and went through training.”

After serving a year in Vietnam, flying scout helicopters, Tom Horan returned to Fort Rucker as an instructor pilot.

“We had another friend in high school named Jim Hicks, who we palled around with. He went to the Naval Academy. He was killed in Vietnam. He was flying an F-8 “Crusader” and they were coming back feet wet from Hanoi. He just dropped out of the formation and hit the ocean. They don’t know what happened to him,” Tom said.

“Jim Hicks, Tom Horan, a guy named Mike Mullane, and I ran around together at St. Pius X High School in Albuquerque. Mike Mullane went on to be a Space Shuttle astronaut,” Tom said.


Tom’s twin brother, Jim, after service in the Air Force and chasing news stories, would enter politics. Jim would serve as mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico state land commissioner, and director of the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Many other members of the Baca family have attained national prominence. They include frontier New Mexico lawman and prosecutor Elfego Baca, New Mexico Governor Ezequiel Cabeza De Baca, poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, composer Daniel Anthony Baca, California Congressman Joe Baca, artist Judy Baca, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, and Lieutenant General Edward D. Baca, former head of the U.S. National Guard Bureau.