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.

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