The light show of war had a strange air of beauty for Boiling Springs native Jim Baker.
“It would look like rain almost ... like fireworks at night,” the Air Force veteran recalled. “We put out a lot of lead.”
The rate of fire was so rapid from each of the four mini-guns that the tracer rounds made the hail of bullets appear like a solid mass washing over the enemy.
Forty-five years ago, Baker was a navigation and communications officer flying close support missions in an AC-119 Shadow gunship in the skies over Vietnam.
Most times Baker was seated in the cockpit with the pilots where he maintained a radio link with Marines or Army soldiers on the ground. His job was to help direct the fire from the quartet of Gatling-style guns mounted on the left side of the plane.
The position of the weapons required the pilots to tilt the aircraft and to fly it in circles around patches of ground where enemy soldiers were concentrated and engaged in firefights with friendly forces.
This low and slow flight path made the Shadow vulnerable to ground fire, so all of his 150 missions were flown at night where the cover of darkness added protection to the aircraft painted black.
“We only flew at 2,500 feet,” recalled Baker, who served in Southeast Asia from January 1971 to February 1972. “Anytime there were troops in contact, we supported them.”
The typical day began around supper time when Baker rolled out of bed. From there, it was off to the flight line and a briefing on the location of trouble spots for that night.
The Shadow would then take flight and loiter over a region of territory until called to action by a Marine or Army unit engaged in battle with the enemy.
“Once we got in the area, they would talk us through it,” Baker said. “They would direct us from the ground. We would zoom in, unload, go back, refuel and rearm.” There were many nights when he went out on two missions.
“The VC would attack our fire bases,” Baker said referring to Viet Cong guerillas. “We would keep them from being overrun.”
Seated behind Baker, in the main fuselage, was a second navigator tasked with monitoring the situation on the ground with night vision equipment. There was another crewman toward the back of the plane whose job was to release flares on cue.
Each flare would descend slowly on a parachute, turning day into night. It was on such occasions that Baker saw the enemy soldiers clearly, often on the run from the incoming mini-gun fire.
Other times friendly troops would mark the target for the Shadow with a well-placed round of “Willie Pete” or white phosphorus. Every so often, enemy soldiers would fire on his plane and put bullet holes through its fuselage. Baker could not recall any casualties. “We had no Purple Hearts on that plane.”
Most of this ground fire came from rifles, but there was at least one occasion when the enemy opened up with anti-aircraft artillery. “It would be a bright flash of light like a blossom,” Baker said. “We never got close to being hit.”
He recalled one mission where his Shadow was called in to provide close air support for 15 to 20 US Army soldiers separated from their unit and surrounded by hostile forces.
His plane was one in a sequence of aircraft that attacked the enemy who were trying to destroy this small pocket of American infantry. “They had several wounded and were traveling,” Baker recalled. “I don’t think they would have gotten out without our assistance.”
There were also missions that took his Shadow over the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply route of the enemy. With the night vision equipment, the air crew could easily spot trucks and other vehicles on the move.
Off-duty time was often spent listening to audio tapes from his family. An Air Force captain, Baker had a wife and two small children living in an apartment in south Texas during his tour of duty in Vietnam.
“It was a scary thing,” Baker said of their time apart. “It was tough for the kids.” But the recordings also kept his spirit up.
There were married men in his unit who had lived in south Texas prior to their deployment overseas. Their wives got together to form a Waiting Wives Club to provide mutual support.
A 1954 graduate of Boiling Springs High School, Baker graduated from Shippensburg University where he earned a teaching degree in English prior to enlisting in the Air Force in 1962. For eight years starting in high school, Baker was in the Navy Reserve.
Prior to Vietnam, Baker served in an air/sea rescue stationed in North Africa. After Vietnam, he served in California as a flight school instructor before transferring to Alaska where his third child was born.
He retired from the Air Force as a major in 1981 – the same year he returned to Boiling Springs. He then taught English full-time at Big Spring High School until 1999.