MCCRACKEN COUNTY, KY — Nine local veterans are experiencing the trip of a lifetime. Honor Flight Bluegrass is taking them to Washington, D.C., to see the monuments and memorials built in their honor. Charles Baker is one of them, and his son, who is also a veteran, is accompanying him on the trip.
Meet Marines Charles and Rodney Baker. As they say, like father like son.
“The first four weeks of boot camp they do everything they can do to convince you that you are lower than dirt,” Rodney said. “That last four weeks they convince you that if you work as a team, there's nothing you can't do.
They're no strangers to our airwaves. You met them back in June, when Charles flew on this B-25 "Mitchell" bomber.
“I rode that thing about 45 minutes up in the air," Charles said.
Now, they'll fly to D.C. with Honor Flight Bluegrass.
“I think the trip’s going to be great. It's going to be a long day, but I think it'll be worth it," Rodney said. "I think it'll be something he and I can share that we both did together that had to do with the service."
Charles served in World War II and Korea as an air traffic controller.
“They would take off and you'd say, 'you lost the right gear. One wheel, roger.' Just kept going. He didn't even talk," Charles explained about the pilots he'd radio to. "His voice didn't voice like he was going to Sunday school. But boy, them guys really fought.”
“I graduated in ‘68. By December of ’69, I was in Vietnam," Rodney, a Vietnam veteran, explained.
“The first thing I got into, I wrote Dad a letter,” Rodney said. “I said, 'Dear Dad, this is just like a John Wayne movie,’ because all of the action I was involved in. We transported troops in. We transported troops out. We hauled ammunition and other things. And so, we weren't there all the time. And um, so, it looked like a John Wayne movie. Well then I started picking up medevacs, and I saw the results of all that. And I wrote Dad back a letter and I said, ‘Dad, this is no movie. This is the real thing. People are dying.’ And it became very real then.”
“I wanted to be part of a group of men that represented our country. You know, nobody ever joins the service, nobody ever becomes a policeman, nobody ever becomes a fireman thinking ‘I'm going to die,'" Rodney said. "It's just not what you think. You think you're going to be part of something.”
He was — including three crash landings. One, he shouldn't have walked away from, but did.
“Those pictures you have in your hand, they were actually the investigation," Rodney said. "So I pop the door off, flip the thing over, got the pilot out, crawled down in the inside, got the copilot loose and got him out.”
Charles didn't hesitate either to think of others in his own brush with death. He grabbed a live grenade and threw it back.
Some would say that’s quite a heroic act. But he said “there was people that did more heroic.” That response is about what you’d expect from the greatest generation: humility and duty to country. Their experiences may be different, but they do share that.
“Twenty-something years separated us, but now this will be a same moment thing, so it'll be good," Rodney said.
Rodney shared his experience walking away from a serious crash while he was in Vietnam. The following are his own words about that crash.
“We had a full load of troops, and we had a full load of fuel. And we were in a 2,000-foot zone, so the higher you get the thinner it gets and it's harder to get lift. So, the pilot was trying to nurse it over the edge of the ridge line so that we could pick up air speed and jettison fuel. And if we could have done that, we could have flown the thing back to Marble Mountain, where I was stationed and nobody would have been hurt. But as it was, we lost power and one of the blades hit the ground and flipped the plane back up on the ridge. And it was still turning and burning. Snapped all six blades off," he recalled.
“There's an indentation in the dirt right there. I told you my pilot was trying to nurse it up over the ridge, ‘cause we had started falling backwards straight down. And he tried to get it picked back up. We actually did get up and level, and started to move forward, but our nose gear hit that dirt and stopped our forward air speed," he said. "Well, when we lost our forward air speed, we didn't have enough power with one engine to keep it in the air. So, that's when we started falling backwards the second time.”
“We walked away from something we shouldn't have," Rodney said. "When we started falling backwards, the first thing that popped into my mind: ‘Well, this is it.’”
“If you look at the very first part of it, you'll notice that it looks like a ledge there. That's because it's like a 2,000-foot drop from there straight back," he recalled.
“And fortunately, it flipped over on the opposite side of where I was stationed. So I was able to grab a hold of the crew door and hang from the crew door. And I was just like a dong in a bell, just swing me back, slam me into one wall, and then slam me into the other. But my head was between my arms," Rodney said. "My pilots, on the other hand, sat in an armored plated seat. And they didn't have any idea where they were when it finally kept beating itself to death because their heads had taken such a beating.”
“So I pop the door off, flip the thing over, got the pilot out, crawled down in the inside, got the co-pilot loose and got him out," he said.
“I was still thinking straight. And everything I did was not heroic," he insisted. "It was instinct. It was ‘Get out while you still can. Get out.’”
That’s something you’ll often hear from veterans like these.
“Well, that's the truth,” Rodney said, laughing.
It’s also true that looking out for others during life or death situations is heroic.
“Right, but my job as a crew chief was my plane, my crew and those that I hauled,” Rodney said.
“Amazingly enough, there was only one serious injury," he said. "Everybody else got off the plane. I mean, I was. I didn't even have a scratch on me, but the next day, I was black and blue from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head where I was bruised up. But not one scratch. Not one broken bone. Isn't that amazing?”