LIFE IN THE ARMY – BO BAKER

I started posting these articles in the order in which they were published in The Belle Banner.  This is an exception, at the request of two very gracious ladies in North Carolina, who are part of this story.  This was originally published in The Belle Banner on April 11th and 18th 2018.

Over the past 15 months I have written about many jobs in the Army, some history, and a few people.  This is personal, it is about a former commander and a friend.  It is about a man, a man’s man, and a true legend in the special operations community of the Army.

Major Bo Baker with his Vietnamese Counterpart
Major Bo Baker with his Vietnamese Counterpart

A.J. “Bo” Baker was a big man, over six feet tall, broad shoulders narrow waist, strong as an ox, with a congenial, charismatic personality that made everyone around him want to do what he wanted them to do, a natural leader.  Bo Baker was born July 22, 1930 in Searcy, Arkansas.  He graduated from Searcy High School in 1949 and went on to the University of Arkansas on a football scholarship.  He was an end on the Arkansas Razorbacks team.  Then in December 1950, whether he was bored with college or just wanted more excitement, he enlisted in the US Air Force.  The following December (1951) he went back to Searcy and married his high school sweetheart, Betty Louise Oliver, then in November 1952 their daughter, Terri Lynn, was born.  Bo Baker served in the Air Force until his discharge in December 1953.  It must have been during that time in the Air Force that he discovered his calling in life.  He went back to the University of Arkansas and took Army ROTC.  He graduated in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in Army Infantry.

His first assignment was to attend the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia.  He also completed Airborne and Ranger schools while there.  He was assigned to the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado, as an infantry platoon leader.  He was promoted to first Lieutenant in December 1957, from there it was to the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington.  Then from January 1960 to February 1961 he served in Korea, with the 7th Infantry Division.  He was promoted to Captain while in Korea.  After completing that tour he returned to Fort Benning and worked in the Weapons Department of the Infantry School, then attended the six month long Advanced Infantry Officers Course.

In June 1962 he was assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and given command of Company A, 1st Airborne Battle Group, 325th Infantry.  My company.  He was a different type of company commander.  He frequently talked to the company, and during training he was always in front, doing whatever it was first and better than most.  In August 1962 the army conducted a giant field exercise pitting the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions against each other.  It was called Swift Strike II, and it covered a large area in eastern South Carolina, centered around Florence and Darlington.  I remember being in position about 50 feet off of a road around midnight when Captain Baker stopped to see if we had seen or heard anything.  We were awake and challenged him and told him that everything was quiet.  Our company operations sergeant was an old staff sergeant who was in the back of Captain Baker’s jeep.  He immediately jumped up and told us to get on our feet when we talked to the CO.  Captain Baker schussed him and said, “Never mind that, stay where you are”.  He was always more concerned with performance and function than with formality.  Then in October 1962 I got into trouble, serious trouble.  I could have been kicked out of the Army.  Captain Baker looked me in the eye and said “If you don’t want to be here, we can get rid of you.”  I said, “I’ll try to do better, Sir”, saluted smartly, did an about face and started doing everything to the absolute best of my ability.  I was a machinegunner, and shortly after that the division replaced the WWII .30 caliber machine guns with the new 7.62 mm M-60 guns.  To try to insure that everyone would train sufficiently on the new guns, the division announced a division machine gun competition to be held in the spring of 1963.  Captain Baker decided we were going to win.  For the eight weeks before the competition, the six company machinegun crews did nothing but train on or fire the guns.  On the firing range we used there was a snag, an old dead tree, just past the 500 meter line.  We fired so much that the other gunner in our platoon and myself could bounce six rounds bursts off that old tree alternating up each side.  The competition started with the gun broken down into six major parts.  We had to assemble the gun, move up 50 yards, position the gun, load it and yell “UP”, when we were ready to fire.  We had practiced so much that we could do it in seconds.  We won the competition, and Captain Baker promoted me back to PFC (Private First Class), which had been taken away in October.

Captain Baker left the company shortly after that and spent a year as an instructor in the Airborne Department at Fort Benning.  In August 1964 he came back to Fort Bragg to attend the Special Forces Officer Qualification Course.

I was promoted to Specialist in September, and the following July (1964), I was promoted to Sergeant.  Thank you Captain Bo Baker for the inspiration.

After a few months in the Special Forces Officer course he was assigned to the 6th Special Forces Group, there at Fort Bragg, as a Detachment Commander of an A-Detachment.  Then in October 1965 he was off to Vietnam in the 5th Special Forces Group.  Having been a successful infantry company commander as well as a Special Forces “A” detachment commander and a senior captain close to being promoted to major, Captain Baker was assigned to, at that time, a highly classified detachment within the 5th Special Forces Group.

Detachment B-52 Project Delta, was commanded by Major “Chargin Charlie” Beckwith, who already had a reputation for being out spoken, blunt, in your face regardless of rank, and fearless in combat, and in later years as a Colonel he would organize, train, and stand up Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (SFOD-Delta), the “Delta Force”.  Project Delta’s primary mission was to conduct long range, covert patrols in enemy held areas.  It conducted the most successful deep penetration surveillance missions of the war.  A week after Captain Baker arrived as the B-52 executive officer/operations officer a Special Force A-camp at a place called Plei Me came under intense attack.  The camp consisted of a 12 man Special Forces A team, a 14 man Vietnamese Special Forces team and about 400 of civilian irregular defense group, mostly local Montagnards, and most of them with their families.  An entire North Vietnamese regular Army regiment surrounded the camp with the intention of eliminating it.  Anti-aircraft fire was so intense surrounding the camp that helicopters could not land on the camp.  B-52 landed about three miles away and infiltrated into the camp.  The battle lasted eight days, until the North Vietnamese regiment pounded by air power and reinforcements finally withdrew.  Captain Bo Baker was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action during the siege of Plei Me.  A wounded lieutenant said that Captain Baker slept under the poncho with him one night to keep him warm.

Detachment B-52 became the In-country experts on reconnaissance.  As such, other units were asking them to train their teams.  Bo Baker was promoted to Major in April 1966.  And in May, at the direction of General Westmorland, the MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) Commander, Colonel Kelly, the 5th Special Forces Group Commander, tasked Major Bo Baker with organizing, setting up, and commanding a reconnaissance school.  It became the MACV Recondo School.

In November of 1966 Major Baker returned to Fort Bragg as an instructor at the John F Kennedy Special Warfare Center.  Then in the summer of 1967 the family moved to Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, where Major Bo Baker attended the year-long Air Force Command and Staff College.  After that it was back to Vietnam for a few months in Headquarters, US Army Vietnam.  In November 1968 he was pulled back to the pentagon to work in the Infantry Branch.  He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) in September 1969, and in the summer of 1970 the family moved to the Panama Canal Zone where he was made Commander of the Jungle Operations Training Center, which conducted the US Army’s Jungle Warfare School.  Daughter Terri, graduated from Cristobal High School there in 1971.  In the summer of 1972 they moved back to the states, to Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, where LTC Baker would attend the year-long US Army War College.

In July 1973 they moved back to Fort Bragg where LTC Bo Baker was assigned as the G1 (Administrative Officer) of the 82nd Airborne Division.  There our paths crossed again.  I was working in the Division Command Section, where LTC Baker routinely had daily business.  He was a Lieutenant Colonel and I was a Staff Sergeant, but when no one else was around, there wasn’t any military formality between us.  We were just two soldiers talking about old times.  Like the time we found a mansion in a swamp in South Carolina.  At the time, we wondered if it was Francis Marion the Swamp Fox’s hideaway.  It wasn’t, but it was a typical old southern mansion with front porch columns, overgrown, isolated in a swamp.  Bo Baker was a fun guy, he thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing and always tried to have fun doing it.  The Division Provost Martial, LTC Russell, the Division Adjutant General, LTC Eisenbarth, and the Division JAG, Major Alred, all fell under the G1, but the four of them were drinking buddies at the officers club, after hours.  They would come in the office laughing about harassing a doctor or a pilot, at the club, because his hair was too long.  The division got a new Chief of Staff, who wrote an efficiency report on LTC Baker, which was less than he thought he deserved.  The two of them had words in the chief’s office and I wasn’t privy to the end of the conservation, but the next thing that happened to LTC Bo Baker was him being selected to recruit, train, and command the US Army’s 2nd Airborne Ranger Battalion.

I remember that it was late August or early September 1974 that he was notified of his next assignment.  He was already in good physical condition, he did good PT every day, but his day job was an office job, and in his mind, he wasn’t in good enough physical condition for his upcoming assignment.  The evenings at the club were replaced with exercise or running.  He was 44 years old, and he said that he had to be in the best physical condition of his life to take on a task like he was being given.  He knew better than most that, as I have written in the past, a units entire attitude and personality are set by the boss.

After the move to Fort Lewis, Washington, LTC Baker and CSM (Command Sergeant Major) Walter Morgan screened records and their memories for good NCO’s (non-commissioned officers) (Sergeants).  LTC Baker was given access to records, and his pick, of Infantry lieutenants and captains.  Then they toured the country, visiting many Army posts, interviewing NCO’s and officers for possible assignment to the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

Peter S. Parker enlisted in the Army in February 1975 with a guaranteed unit of choice of the 2nd Ranger Battalion.  He wrote the following account of his first meeting with LTC Baker and CSM Morgan, while he was in basic or AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at Fort Polk, Louisiana in the spring of 1975.  “. . .a message came down that anybody going to the second Ranger Battalion had to go to a meeting after hours.  So one night I reported to the company headquarters building where shortly thereafter a jeep arrived and picked me up to take me to this meeting. …I was surprised at how few people were there.  Including the Jeep driver there were only eight people total in the room.  Five privates, the jeep driver, Sergeant Major (CSM) Walter Morgan, and this huge bear of a man LTC AJ “Bo” Baker.  Although LTC Baker was very tall, big, robust, and intimidating, he spoke with a soft yet serious voice.  Col Baker briefed us on the formation of the unit, the standards for the physical training that would be expected of us. …Col Baker told about the new Ranger unit, and said that one of the things that they were doing on Fort Lewis was that they had this word, and they were saying this word everywhere they went. And that they were getting a lot of attention from this new word.  It was a Vietnamese word that meant “Yes”…. At the end of the briefing LTC Baker asked if we had any questions.  When no one else ask any questions, I raised my hand.  LTC Baker called on me and I asked “What is the word?”  Col Baker looked at CSM Morgan, looked back at me and said in a soft and normal voice “Oh, the word is Hooah”.  Hooah said softly does NOT convey the meaning nor the significance of the word!  Us newbies all looked at each other with puzzled looks on our faces.  Nobody understood, yet.  We would later when we got there”.

I was a Rifle Platoon Sergeant in the 509th Airborne Battalion Combat Team in Vicenza, Italy, in 1977 and 1978.  We had several what we called “ranger rejects”.  They had been kicked out of the 2nd Ranger Battalion.  Overall they were well trained and good troops, but if they got into any trouble for drugs, drinking, or disturbances, they were immediately reassigned out the ranger battalion. The Ranger Battalion was in “train up”, it refused to deal with disciplinary problems.  I had one Staff Sergeant assigned to me as a Squad Leader.  He had been kicked out of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, and I fully understood why.  He was a very good Squad Leader, but on the weekends he would have too much to drink and pick fights at the clubs.  He told me about his reassignment.  He said; “I reported to LTC Baker in his office, and remained at attention in front of his desk.  He looked up at me and said “Sergeant … I’m reassigning you to the 9th Infantry Division, down the street”.  I said, “I don’t know if I want to be assigned to the 9th Division or not.”  Then that big SOB slammed his big fist down on that desk, stood up in front of me and said; “Sergeant. . .  you get your bags packed and get your butt down the street to the 9th Division or I will kick it all the way down there.”  I saluted and said, “Yes sir”.  I turned around and got out of there”.

LTC Bo Baker completed his tour and presented the 2nd Ranger Battalion to the Army, as complete and combat ready in June 1976.  The citation inducting him into the Ranger Hall of Fame in 2009, reads in part; “His personal charisma, tactical competence, physical strength, courage, and genuine love for his Rangers and their families set an example that would be emulated for decades to come.  Of note, out of the initial cadre under his command, 12 general officers, six division commanders, three 75th Ranger Regiment commanders, one Delta Force commander, one U.S. Army Special Forces commander, one commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, 15 command and staff Sergeants Major, and 13 full Colonels were produced for the Army.  These leaders ….proved to be instrumental in transforming and leading our Army and the U.S. military for the next 30 years.  Col Baker was an extraordinary team builder who left a lasting imprint on each of the Rangers he coached and mentored.”

After turning over the Ranger Battalion, they moved back to Fort Benning where he spent a year in charge of the Tactics Department of the Infantry School.  He was promoted to full Colonel in February 1977.  In July of that year they moved to Germany where he worked for a year as the US Army Europe Liaison to the US Air Force Headquarters at Ramstien Air Force Base.

Then in July 1978 Col A.J. “Bo” Baker was made Commander of the 10th Special Forces Group and the Military Community at Bad Tolz, Germany.  He died there of an apparent heart attack on March 24th, 1980.

He is buried at Oaklawn Cemetery in Searcy, Arkansas.  He was a member of the First Baptist Church of Searcy, a Mason, Shriner, and a charter member of the Searcy Chapter of the Order of DeMolay.  He was a loving husband and father.  His wife Betty and daughter Terri live in the Fayetteville, North Carolina area.

In 1980, Germany and the U.S. Army renamed the air field at Flint Kaserne, Bad Tolz, Germany as the “A.J. “Bo” Baker Army Air Field.

In 1981, the A.J. “Bo” Baker Chapter XXX 10th Special Forces Association was organized in New Orleans.

In 1983, Bo Baker Post 350 of the American Legion was formed in Searcy, and the National Guard Armory in Searcy was renamed the A.J. “Bo” Baker National Guard Readiness Center.  The Bo Baker Ranger Base chapter of the Ranger Association is at Olympia, Washington.

Searcy, Arkansas High School awards the “Bo Baker Award” each year to the outstanding athlete.

4 thoughts on “LIFE IN THE ARMY – BO BAKER”

  1. Sir, my name is Becky Harrison. I am the youngest of Bo’s sisters. Betty Baker, being my only sister-in-law since Bo was the only boy in our family with his seven sisters, is such a sweet lady and I thank you so much for writing this article about Bo for her and Terri. I have always been so extremely proud of Bo’s accomplishments and loved how you put them in an orderly fashion for us. In my eyes and my sisters, he was our hero. I’m thankful to hear from someone who knew him personally. He has been loved and missed dearly. Thank you again for sharing your article so Terri could share with us, too.

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  2. Odd: I was in Co E 1 ABG 325 Inf when COL Baker was CO of Co A. But I was too busy to even know the names of other CO’s then. I was finally assigned to SFD(A)E at Bad Toelz in ’77, got to know COL Baker there quite well. When he died, the entire installation (really just one big community) went totally into shock. Not a lick of work got done; everyone just wandered around shaking their heads for the next day or two.

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  3. Thank-you for this memoir of COL Baker. I commanded a company “down the street” from the 2nd Battalion at Ft. Lewis. I came to work for him at Ft. Benning.

    I went to Ft. Benning in July 1976 to attend the Infantry Officer Advanced Course. I was in the course for two days and got pulled out to “Develop a new program of instruction for the Infantry Officer Advanced Course based on the soldier’s manual for platoon sergeants. The 2nd Lieutenants would be the primary instructors of their peers”. COL Baker was the Director of Tactics and LTC Hal VanMeter was his principal OIC.

    While the class was comprised of officers commissioned thru NG, USAR, ROTC, The majority was the USMA class of 1976. There are two USMA classes recognized as “The Class the Stars Fell On” 1919-WWII and 1976-GWOT. The cohort from POI 7-B became our senior commanders as multiple 4 and 3 star generals.

    One USMA Lt did not meet his standards. The Lt could not or did not want to zero his M-16 after three tries and extra coaching. COL Baker said the Infantry doesn’t need a Lt/platoon leader who cannot zero his weapon. Following a board action the Lt was decommissioned and commenced to his obligation as a Specialist-4.

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