U.S.S. Little Rock Association
ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
Interviewee: Robert M. Baker
Interviewer: Don Schuld
SCHULD: I’m Don Schuld and I will be interviewing Robert M. Baker, who served on board the USS Little Rock, CLG 4. This is Tape 1. We are at the 16th annual reunion of the USS Little Rock Association, at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Buffalo, New York. Today is July 21, 2007. The purpose of this interview is to get to know Bob and from his recollections learn more about life and duty as an officer aboard the USS Little Rock, CLG 4, during his tenure of service from May of 1969 to July, 1972.
Bob, for background purposes, would you summarize your early life, education, and work experience, if any, before joining the Navy?
BAKER: Well, first of all, let me preface it by saying this —in your introduction, I was not an officer aboard the Little Rock. I was an enlisted man during my tour there. But, in any event, regarding my background., I was born and raised in Western Maryland, a the little town of Smithsburg in Washington County. Most folks never heard of Smithsburg but if I tell them it’s right near Camp David they’ve heard of it. As the crow flies it’s about ten miles from Camp David. I grew up there with my parents and three sisters, and graduated from high school there.
As far as work experience - after I graduated from high school, — college, I guess, was not an option for me for financial reasons immediately after school. So I went into the work force and I had a variety of jobs. They were all fairly menial tasks, none of them very interesting, and I guess I decided early on that, gee, this isn’t what I want to do with my life. So that kind of summarizes what I had, as far as my work experience.
I grew up in Western Maryland. There it’s a fruit growing region, so I had a lot of experience from the time I was ten years old with fruit packing, picking various kinds of fruit and vegetables.
SCHULD: It wasn’t a family business, was it?
BAKER: No, not a family business. - Not at all.
SCHULD: Where and when did you join the Navy?
BAKER: Well, after, I guess, about nine months of this working various jobs, I had a friend from high school who said he was going to join the Navy, and he was after me to join with him on the “buddy plan.” I thought about it because, you know, the I guess I had always considered the Navy was always an option for me and I’m not sure why. But even if you go back and look at my high school yearbook one of the things it said about me in there, it said “U.S. Navy” and it was for future plans. Because even then I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But anyway, he was after me to join with him, so he actually got me down to see the recruiter and the recruiter said: Well, of course we can put you both in the Navy and we can give you whatever assignment you wish, and we’ll send you off to boot camp together and you’ll be stationed together. I thought about it and thought about it and I said, okay, I’ll do it. That was in March of 1968.
We both went and got sworn in the delayed entry program. And we were supposed to both go then to boot camp in July of that year. As it turns out, it didn’t happen that way. I got a call from the recruiter and said, “I’m going to take your friend and he’s going to go,”— this was actually in May, I guess —“I’ve got an opening for him and he agreed to go now.” And he says, “I don’t have an opening for you.” So it turns out my friend went in May. He got his choice of assignment. He wanted to be an aviation rating and he actually got that. It turns out he was an aviation structural mechanic. I didn’t go until July, and even though I was, quote, "guaranteed" an aviation rating, when I finally got to boot camp and went through testing and all they said, “We’re going to make you a radioman.” And I said, “No, no, no. You don’t understand. My recruiter said I was going to be an aviation rating.”
SCHULD: They probably said, “No, you don’t understand.” (Laughter)
BAKER: Exactly. “You don’t understand. You’re going to be a radioman.” And as it turns out I was a radioman. Those were my orders after boot camp. So I went to boot camp in July, 1968, at Great Lakes, Illinois.
SCHULD: Could you describe a little bit of your experience in boot camp?
BAKER: Well, some of it’s kind of foggy after all these years. I can remember a few of the shipmates there, at least their names. I still have my, I guess, yearbook or cruise book from that. From time to time I go back and look at pictures. It didn’t have all the names in it. But I remember particularly my company commander. He was a Chief Shipfitter by the name of Gonzalezs. He was tough but he was fair. I guess my impressions of boot camp, is that it was one meaningless task after another. For some reason I didn’t make all the connection between, you know, fire-fighting, and tying knots and handling lines, and telephone procedures and all that.
SCHULD: They were preparing you for shipboard life.
BAKER: Exactly. They were preparing us for ships. But at the time I didn’t realize that. I didn’t put it all together. But it seemed to pass quickly. I didn’t find it particularly difficult. And I guess I was glad when it was over.
SCHULD: Tell us a little bit about the schools that you attended prior to reporting on the Little Rock.
BAKER: After boot camp—I guess I graduated from boot camp in September of that year, and I went home for about a week. I actually got a week’s leave. And then I went back to Great Lakes for about eight weeks of basic electricity, electronics school.
SCHULD: Me too.
BAKER: And then following that, I went to "A" School, Radioman A School. It was in Bainbridge, Maryland, which was great for me because I grew up in Maryland and it was only a couple hours bus ride from home, so I could get home fairly often from there. And that was about fourteen weeks. I started there right before Thanksgiving and I got out of A School in, I think it was mid-March.
And then I had a follow-on school after that. When I went to Radioman A School they were still teaching Morse Code. In fact it was a requirement of the school that you learn Morse Code to the speed of ten words a minute to be able to graduate. And for some of the folks that was pretty difficult because you had to not only be able to copy the code, you had to be able to type it. And if you couldn’t type that made it even more difficult. I had had a typing course in high school so I’d already learned how to type, so for me it was easy. But anyway, they found that I had a knack for code and they sent me and a few others to International Morse Code School, down at Fleet Training Center in Charleston, South Carolina, which was another, I believe it was eight weeks there.
That was a good school because it was self-paced. We went in and we copied code all day long and we kind of worked at your own pace, increasing speed. You had to qualify at twenty words a minute, I think, to graduate from there. By the time I left there I was doing thirty-two words a minute. But in any event those were the schools I had.
As a little interesting aside anecdote or sidebar.... Two two of the guys that I went to A School with, we ended up going to Code School together, and we also had orders to the Little Rock together. So we all ultimately reported to the Little Rock.
SCHULD: Well, that brings us to the next question of when and where did you report to the Rock?
BAKER: Well, I went home for leave again after Code School, and I met my friends at Kennedy airport in New York and we flew from there to Rome, and then from Rome to Naples. And the Little Rock at the time was in Gaeta. It was the Sixth Fleet flagship.
When we got to Naples we went to the Naval Support Activity and they said: "Ah, the ship’s at sea; you’ll have to stay here for a while." So they put us up in a bunk. Gave us, you know, linen and all that. And we decided, well, we’re going to take a nap. And no sooner had we done that till they came and woke us up and said: "Ah, no, you’re going to the ship." We said, well, we thought the ship was at sea. Well, no, it’s not there yet. So they packed us away on a train and told us where to get off the train, a little town called Formia. Of course, this was all a new experience for all of us, being in Italy and a different language and culture. We found out later that there were different trains that ran the route from Naples to Rome. Some of them were express trains that didn’t stop at all, and others were the local trains. Well, it turned out we got on the right train and we got off in Formia.
And, of course, then we were lost, because Formia is a little town that’s down the coast a little ways from Gaeta, so we had no clue where Gaeta was or where the ship was. And it turns out we got off the train and we were kind of standing there looking dumbfounded, and this sailor came by and he said, “You going to the ship?” And we said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Come on. I’ll show you where to go.” So he showed us what bus to get on, and we rode the bus down from there to Gaeta. He showed us where the fleet landing was, and we got off, reported to the Shore Patrol officer at the fleet landing and said: “We’re here.” Well, by then it was about, I guess, eight o’clock at night. And the whole time that we were homeported in Gaeta there the ship was moored to a buoy out in the roadstead, so it never went pierside as most ships do now. Even now, in Gaeta, they go pierside. But it was moored to a buoy so we had to ride a liberty boat. So we waited for the next utility boat run and rode it out and reported aboard the ship right around, I guess it was close to taps that evening. So we reported aboard and I can recall very vividly Master Chief Colflesh, who was the Chief Master-at-Arms—he was the one at the Master-at-Arms shack—issued us linen and showed us where our compartment was and all that, and said, “Report back up here tomorrow morning first thing.” And that was, I guess, my first impression of the ship.
I recall standing down in the boat, the utility boat, as we came along the accommodation ladder, looking up, and I guess my impression was of size, how immense the ship seemed. I had been around ships. When I was in Charleston I had gone to visit a few of the ships down there. But mostly down they were minesweepers and destroyers. Nothing near as big as the Little Rock. So I guess my initial impression was it was just a huge, huge ship.
SCHULD: Well, that actually covered the next question, and that’s very typical, that people were always impressed with the size of the ship. What was your division and department assignment, job and watch station and battle station. Tell us a little bit about that.
BAKER: Well, at the risk of exposing something. At the time, the radioman when the flag was aboard—and, of course, the flag, Sixth Fleet commander was aboard at the time—radiomen were assigned temporary additional duty, that is TAD, to the flag division. They were TAD to the flag. So we were not ship’s company at the time. So my initial division assignment was F2 Division, Flag 2.
SCHULD: I’ll be darned.
BAKER: And watch assignment, you know, my first watch assignment—in fact the whole time I worked there—was in radio. First started out in main communications—we called it Main Comm —Message Processing. And I guess my very first job was running a ditto machine. Of course, now they use Xerox machines and whatnot. But we ran a ditto machine, using a thermofax copier. And actually the very first one we had was a hand-crank. Then we graduated to an electric one. Just making multiple copies of messages so they could be slotted into pigeonholes to be distributed throughout the ship was a big job.
That was the very first job I had. And then I worked from there into other aspects of message processing, what they called in-routing, out-routing, write-up. I worked in teletype with message processing in there. And for a while I worked in what they called “radio central” tuning and patching as transmitters. Transmitter man was one of the jobs., Aand I even did a little bit in what they called “circuit control.”
SCHULD: So were you working alongside of ship’s company radiomen? Or in a separate...?
BAKER: There were no ship’s company radiomen. All the radiomen were flag radiomen.
SCHULD: Is that right?
BAKER: Even if you reported to the ship you were TAD to the flag as long as the flag was embarked.
SCHULD: My goodness.
BAKER: And it really drew the ire of some of the, I guess, other crewmembers, because as flag watchstanders — that’s what we were — we had watchstanders’ liberty. And we stood what were called "eve-day-mid 32". So the eve watch, which was from, I guess, 1600 until midnight. And then you were off. You worked the next day from 0700 in the morning or whatever until, you know, 1700. And then you worked that night as a midwatch all night long. And then you were off for thirty-two hours. And that’s the only time we had off. During that thirty-two hours off, that was time to sleep, eat, do whatever else we wanted. Including liberty. So we would come off of the midwatch at eight o’clock in the morning and if we were in port we could hit the beach. And I can recall many, many times walking out onto the deck there to go catch the liberty boat and, you know, 2nd Division was out there holystoning the decks. We’d get all kinds of comments about flag pukes and whatnot. So that’s why I hesitate to say I was flag, but I was, initially. As long as the flag was embarked.
SCHULD: Do you suppose that rule existed all through the life of the Little Rock as the CLG 4? Because I had friends that were radiomen.. I was a radarman, as you know. And I have no recollection ever of them being TAD to the flag. And, obviously, we had a flag on board all the time. That really surprises me. That’s something I never knew.
What happens during your battle station?
BAKER: Well, that was my watch station. Battle station, again. Mine was in radio central as a transmitter man, for general quarters and all that.
SCHULD: Okay. Maybe you could describe for us the ship’s cruises and operations while you were aboard.
BAKER: Well, that was one of the interesting little things about that. The day after I reported aboard, which was the last day of May,. the next morning the Master Chief told us to report up there. I reported up and I can recall we were standing outside the Master-at-Arms office and I noted the ship kind swinging a little bit. I said to somebody who was there in the department, I guess one of the 2nd Division guys, I said, “It feels like we’re moving.” He says, “Yeah. We just got underway.” I didn’t know we were getting underway. We were underway. We were en route to Rhodes, Greece. And Rhodes was my very first liberty port several days later.
But anyway, we operated in the Mediterranean there, doing various exercises. But a lot of it was just show-the-flag port visits. I have to say that that was a great experience, for all of the ports that we visited. If I had to pick a favorite it would be tough, because I can’t really think of any that I didn’t like. And that was one of the attractions of the Navy.
SCHULD: Rhodes, Greece, was obviously one. And others?
BAKER: Rhodes, Greece. Later on, of course, we came back and we went to—I think we stopped in Athens. In Piraeus, the port of Athens but of course you get to Athens. And we went to Athens a number of times. during the time— I was there with the Sixth Fleet embarked. We also went to places like Malta. I can recall we took what was called the western swing in, I guess it was the following spring, and we went out to Tangier, Morocco. We went across to Gibraltar. We went actually out the Strait and went up to Lisbon. We came back in and went to Valencia, Spain. And we went over to Monaco, and then back to Gaeta. We were gone for about, I don’t know, six weeks or so, just one port visit after another.
Other places that were great: I think we were the first Navy ship to visit what was then Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. Of course, now I think it’s Dubrovnik in, I think it’s what is Croatia. now. But that was a beautiful city. And the people were just so welcoming. Like I say, they hadn’t seen a U.S. Navy ship for—I think there hadn’t been a U.S. Navy ship there in twenty-five years. And I recall that we had literally thousands of visitors to the ship during our time there. And it was a beautiful city. Of course, I haven’t been back there since, and I hope that all the war they had there didn’t destroy the city itself.
But there were lots of places like that. We visited up north, in La Spezia. And, of course, from La Spezia we got over to Pisa and Florence.. You know, we had a lot of experiences that the average person just wouldn’t have. For example seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or actually going to the top of it. And when we were in Gaeta the chaplain made arrangements for a papal visit, that is an audience with the Pope. And we actually went to the Vatican, a group of Little Rock Sailors there in uniform, and had an audience with the Pope. And that was, I think it was Pope Paul at the time. And that was, again, a unique experience.
SCHULD: Yeah, you’re not the only one. I published—oh, I don’t know, it was several years ago—a photograph of some Sailors and Marines from the Little Rock during a papal visit.
BAKER: They're some of the eexercises we did. The only one I can really recall by its name—because, you know, we saw the ups and downs in terms of the messages we processed on a daily basis, you know, that were associated with the exercise we were involved in. But one of them was Exercise Dawn Patrol. That was a major NATO exercise that we did.
SCHULD: Sound like a movie. “Dawn Patrol.”
BAKER: Dawn Patrol. But I can recall Dawn Patrol in ’70. We were part of that exercise and we were actually involved in a collision at sea, which, I guess, wasn’t publicized too much. Of course, there was no satellite communication or CNN or anything like that. But we were....
SCHULD: Was that with an Italian ship...?
BAKER: It was with a Greek destroyer.
SCHULD: A Greek destroyer, yes. I recall that. In fact, as you know, I published photographs of that in the LitComs within the past—maybe a year ago.
BAKER: Right. But I was aboard at that time. In fact I was on watch when it happened. One of our Association members, as it turns out, was my department head at the time, John Conjura. He and I reported aboard the same day. So we were shipmates together for a number of years.
SCHULD: Tell us a little bit about the living conditions on the ship. You know, the quality of food, the ship’s services, the barbers, laundry, onboard recreation, that type of thing.
BAKER: Well, the living conditions, I guess, could best be described as adequate. Our berthing compartment was right above—I think it was on the third, second deck—it was right above the after fireroom, so the deck in there really got hot. You couldn’t walk around on the deck in your bare feet. And, of course, the temperatures in there were, a lot of times when we were steaming—and, of course, the ship was steaming all the time—got quite warm. On the other hand, radio was air conditioned.
SCHULD: For the equipment.
BAKER: Yeah, where they keep the equipment. So, that was, as you know, going on watch was a welcome thing to do. And there were a lot of times you’d go hang around in one of our working spaces even if you weren’t on watch, just to escape the heat.
SCHULD: I know you could walk into CIC from the summertime and open the door and go in, and it would be freezing in there.
BAKER: Mm-hmm. Many times it was really...
SCHULD: That’s for the electronics equipment. What about the quality of the food?
BAKER: The food, I never really had a complaint about the food. I mean, occasionally they had something that you didn’t care for too much. And there were times, you know, that if you’d go to sea for a while you’d run out of fresh milk quite quickly, or you ran out of...
BAKER: ...potatoes, or eggs, or whatever. I can’t remember many times having powdered eggs, but I can remember the powdered milk and, of course, I didn’t care for that at all. But as far as the other food is concerned, I thought it was really good. As a matter of fact there were some dishes that were some of my favorites. I had a friend—it turns out that he and I went to high school together—and he ended up on the ship and he was as one of the ship’s cooks. Back then they called them commissarymen. He was a night baker. So I used to go see him if I had the midwatch and, you know, he’d give me a tray of cinnamon buns or doughnuts, or whatever they were making, and then we’d take them up to radio. We had a good time with the food.
SCHULD: It’s interesting, and I’ve done a number of interviews, even fellows from the CL 92, and every time you ask the question about the chow no one has ever said that they found it foul or distasteful. Everyone has pretty good memories about the chow on board the ship.
Let’s talk about some of your close buddies and colorful characters among your shipmates. What are your recollections there?
BAKER: I remember a lot of names and faces. And to some degree we’ve kept in touch over the years, or in recent years we’ve tried to get back in touch. John Conjura, of course, was my department head at the time. He was a lieutenant then; later made lieutenant commander. The two friends I reported that I went to A School with and went to Code School with and then we reported together were Kirk Revitzer; he was from up in Northern Michigan. And John Gillespie; he was from up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Actually, I haven’t seen Kirk since—I’m not sure which one of us left the ship first; I think it was him. I think he got transferred in ’71. But I did run into John Gillespie. I made it a point to see him a few years ago in Las Vegas. He now lives in Henderson, Nevada. I looked him up and even after thirty-some-odd years it was just like old times talking to him.
SCHULD: Do each of these, or any of them, belong to the Association?
BAKER: Yes. John Gillespie does. I believe Kirk, as well, is a member of the Association.
SCHULD: Oh, good.
BAKER: Cliff Wilson, of course, one of our new board of directors, he was aboard at the same time. He was a radioman with me. And he has taken it upon himself to try to track down, and I think over the last, we’ll say six or seven years, he has tracked down about fifty former radiomen that served with us at one time or another. And we’re after a lot of them to come to the reunions, and we’ve had very, I guess, limited success in getting them to do that. A few of them, I believe, are members of the Association, but very few have come. We get promises but nothing else.
SCHULD: Well, we’re used to that, I’m afraid.
BAKER: But some of the names I remember. My 1st Division Officer was Lieutenant Brinn. And he left and was replaced by an Ensign Seiler. Later on the 3rd Division Officer I had was a warrant officer, Allensworth.
There’s an interesting story about Allensworth. When my enlistment was up I was checking out of the ship and I took my checkout sheet to him and he said, “Well, Baker, what are you going to do with yourself now?” I said, “Well, I’m going to go to college.” He says, “Oh, you’re going to go get a degree and then get a commission and come back as an officer.” And I just, “Hah, yeah, that’ll be the day.” And ironically, as I guess we’ll get to here eventually, that’s exactly what happened.
I ran into Allensworth a few years later, a number of years later, in Little Creek, Virginia, and he was a limited duty officer, an LDO lieutenant then, and I was a lieutenant commander. And I said, “Do you remember me?” I had to tell him who I was and kind of refresh him. “Oh, yeah. I recognize you. You’re the one that said, ‘That’ll be the day.’” Right, here it is, it’s the day.
SCHULD: He remembered, huh?.
BAKER: He remembered.
SCHULD: And you were one click up on him, huh?
BAKER: Others—there was a Senior Chief Bronston when I initially got there. Senior Chief Ken Milks was really a great guy. He has, I guess, recently passed away, within the last five years. Had a Chief Lowell. I keep in touch with a Chief Lowell. He’s come to at least one reunion, I think. I think it was the one in Philadelphia when he attended.
And then there were a number of other names. Mike Woods, Joe Runcshy, Dave Higgins. I could go on and on naming names and faces. And, as a matter of fact, if you go over to the ship now, our berthing compartment is still intact. It’s one that they use now for, I guess, sea cadet berthing aboard. And some of the lockers there still have the names on them of shipmates that I had thirty-some-odd years ago.
SCHULD: That’s nice that they left the names on. Can you recall any moments of tremendous excitement or even fear on your part while you were aboard ship?
BAKER: I guess the only time I can say I was afraid of anything, or fear, was about a week after I reported aboard. We were actually in port in Rhodes, Greece, and I was assigned to go clean antennas. I went with the LPO, first-class radioman—and I can’t recall his name—and he got us this safety climb harness affair, and I said, “What’s that for?” He says, “Well, we’re going up the mainmast.” I said, “Well, I don’t like heights.” And he says, you know, “Liking’s optional,. get up the mainmast.” So up the mainmast I went, and I can recall that I was up there on the platform right below, I guess, the SPS-40 antenna, whatever the air search radar is up there, but one of the top platforms on the mainmast, up there, and laying down. He was holding onto my legs and I was reaching out over the edge of the platform to wipe these antennas. And the ship, of course, was at anchor and we were kind of rocking back and forth. And for someone who didn’t like heights, that was a moment of fear.
SCHULD: I’ll bet it was.
BAKER: And later I found out, when I talked to the senior chief, he says, “I thought you didn’t like heights.” He says, “You didn’t have to go up there.” And I said, “Well, he told me to get up there, and I followed the orders.” He said, “Well, you could have said you’d do something else.”
SCHULD: That kind of surprises me, too.
BAKER: Well, I think that there were probably plenty of others that liked to do things like that, and they could have gotten them to do it.
As far as excitement, well, there were a lot of exciting times. Going back to the operations, we were in the Mediterranean from the time I reported aboard until the following September, I think September of ’70, and then USS Springfield showed up and relieved us as Sixth Fleet flagship. And, of course, we were going back to the States . And that was an exciting time because we went back and then we filled the fantail with vehicles. We had privately owned vehicles. And we took dependents.; We had wives and children, and dogs and everything on the ship going back, and it was kind of like a picnic. You know, we’d have cookouts for the kids and movies on the mess decks and things like that.
SCHULD: Something I never experienced, and something many people never experience, having relatives and so forth on the ship.
BAKER: And we got back to Newport. That was our new homeport, Newport, Rhode Island, and we were there for a short time, and then we went to an overhaul in Boston, the Boston Naval Shipyard, and that was over the winter. It was really nasty weather, but I learned to like Boston as a city.
And then, of course, after that overhaul period we did a shakedown cruise, went down to Guantanamo Bay and did Culebra Island for gunfire support and refresher training and all that. And then we were ready to deploy again, and that time we were a regular deployer. This was in—I guess by then it was fall of ’71. And we deployed again to the Mediterranean, but not as a flagship. So we were just a regular deploying ship.
Interesting part about that deployment is that we were about four months into a six-month deployment and we got this message in the middle of the night that said: Make best speed to Rota, Spain; top off with fuel and provisions; and proceed proceed to Norfolk at best speed.
SCHULD: What year?
BAKER: This was in ’72. April of ’72. And it turns out they had taken the Newport News, which was the Second Fleet flagship, and sent it to Vietnam to the gun line, and they needed a Second Fleet flagship. So they called us back from our deployment early, which, for us, was an exciting time. We missed some of the good ports that were scheduled, but we got back and took over as Second Fleet flagship.
Another excitement, of course, was the collision at sea. And of course, after that happened we had to pull out of the exercise we were in and we went down to Malta, to the shipyard there, and had a big patch put over the bow. So we got two weeks unscheduled liberty in Malta. At least, from the deckplate sailor, that’s how we looked at it. You know, there’s more liberty for us.
SCHULD: For the purpose of this tape and record, why don’t you briefly describe the involvement of the Little Rock with the other ship and name the ship for us?
BAKER: As far as the collision? I don’t know what the Greek destroyer’s name was. As I recall—and, of course, I didn’t have very many details at the time....
SCHULD: The CO was then?
BAKER: The CO at the time was, I believe it was Captain—well, we had Captain Little and then we had Captain Nagler, Gordon Nagler, and I’m not sure if this was before or after the change of command. I think it was Captain Nagler. But in any event, we were involved in an exercise and we had just transited through the Strait of Bonifacio, between Corsica and Sardinia. And there was a destroyer there that was patrolling an area and, of course, as the fleet flagship we were part of the exercise for monitoring but we were not really an exercise player. And this destroyer’s job, as I understand it, was to patrol its sector..
SCHULD: The Greek destroyer.
BAKER: The Greek destroyer.... and not let anyone into the exercise area. And I’m not sure if it resulted from human error. I suspect there was, and I’m not sure on whose side it was. I never heard the bottom of that. I know that I was on watch and we initially heard initially an alarm go off. And it was early in the morning. It was on the midwatch, and it was still dark outside. And it was the chemical alarm. And we said, well, it must be the boatswain’s mate kind of leaned on the alarm panel up there and set it off. Well, then you heard the GQ alarm, and then the collision alarm. And we thought, well, they’re just trying to shut it off, because they kind of go in sequence. And about that time you could feel the ship turning, you know, turning rapidly to starboard. And, of course, the ship—you could feel it—they must have gone all back emergency or whatever. You could hear the whole ship shuddering as it used to do when it backed down. And all of a sudden, just CRUNCH.
We were on watch and we ran outside to look, to see what was out there. And, of course, it was dark. We couldn’t see anything.
SCHULD: Was it enough to knock you off your feet?
BAKER: Oh, no. No. It was nothing like that. There were also Soviet ships in the area at the time monitoring our exercise and we thought, well, maybe we hit one of those. So there were all kinds of rumors running rampant. I can remember the Chief of Staff at the time, the Sixth Fleet Chief of Staff, come tearing into radio, and he wanted to talk to somebody in London, at Commander, Naval Forces, Europe (ComNavEur). Of course, back then we didn’t have any direct voice circuits that were secure. All we had was teletype. And he says, “Well, I want to talk to the watch officer at ComNavEur, however you get him.” So we set him up on a teletype circuit. And, of course, we had to have an operator there and he was standing over the operator dictating to him, and watching what was coming back from the watch officer, and describing this incident.
Later on we discovered that it indeed was a Greek destroyer, and we hit them—I guess it was kind of a glancing blow—but we hit them just forward of their bridge, right up by their gun mount, and did a good bit of damage. But there were no injuries. There were no injuries with on either ship. I guess both ships dropped out of the exercise and went to get repairs.
As far as what kind of press it made back in the States, I don’t know that there was much made about it,. because probably they didn’t want to publicize that the Sixth Fleet flagship had rammed one of its allies’ warships in an exercise.
SCHULD: That’s not the kind of PR that we really need.
SCHULD: Where and when did you detach from the Rock?
BAKER: Well, it was after we got back into Norfolk. We took over as Second Fleet flagship there in April of ’72 and I detached in July, in Norfolk, Virginia. And I think I described already my parting shot at the division officer, because I really did. I had plans to go off to college. I guess I left and didn’t really look back. I guess I left with no regrets, and it was more looking forward than looking back.
SCHULD: So when you left the Little Rock you were actually leaving the Navy as well?
BAKER: I was leaving the Navy. My four years active duty was completed.
SCHULD: Okay, good.
BAKER: And when I left I had no intention of ever coming back.
SCHULD: And immediately upon leaving the Navy did you seek a civilian job?
BAKER: Well, no. Actually I went home to western Maryland, in Hagerstown, and I enrolled in a community college there. I got an associate’s degree. And I transferred then to American University in Washington, D.C., the School of International Service. I discovered during the travels, all the places that I visited, that I might like to do this as a career. Not necessarily travel, but I was looking at foreign service, with the State Department. I thought I’d want to become a foreign service officer. So I went and actually majored in international studies at the School of International Service, with the intent of joining the State Department and working in an embassy somewhere.
After I got my degree, a few years later I had taken the foreign service exam and I passed the written exam. I never got invited to an oral exam. There’re several stages you had to go through. But the competition was really keen at the time. And I also looked at the promotion opportunities for foreign service. You think you want to do something like that it’s, well, you’re going to go someplace neat like Moscow or Paris or London and all, but that’s not really how you start off. You start off in places like El Salvador or whatever. So I decided, well, I don’t really want to do that.
I looked at other opportunities, and by then, after four years of straight school I was tired of school and I didn’t want to pursue that any longer. So I said, well, could I do the same thing in the Navy? Because I looked back on my four years in the Navy and my days on the Little Rock and said it wasn’t a bad time. So I applied to Officer Candidate School. And when they accepted me I went ahead and went before they realized what their mistake was. At least I like to look at it that way.
So anyway, even though I left the Little Rock, left the Navy, in 1972 with no intent of ever returning, as it turns out about four and a half years, five years later there I was in Officer Candidate School.
SCHULD: When did you actually return to the Navy?
BAKER: It was in January of ’77 I reported to Officer Candidate School.
SCHULD: And left in?
BAKER: Well, I graduated from Officer Candidate School and I was commissioned in June of 1977.
SCHULD: And when did you actually leave the Navy? You retired from the Navy, right?
BAKER: I retired from the Navy. I spent the next, yes after spending sixteen years as a commissioned officer, I retired in 1993.
SCHULD: What month?
BAKER: February of 1993.
SCHULD: February of ’93. Can you tell us a little bit about—and of course I don’t expect you to do the next sixteen years, but some of the ships that you served on and in what capacity?
BAKER: Well, my first job was—I had asked for it because I’d been a radioman, familiar with communications—I asked for a communications officer job and I got it. I was communications officer and later navigator in USS Trenton, an amphibious ship, LPD 14. That was a three-year tour and I followed that up with a tour ashore as an instructor at Officer Candidate School—celestial navigation, piloting, and naval warfare. And I guess that’s when I decided, or I discovered, that I really liked the classroom. I really liked the educational environment. And I thought that, you know, after the Navy that could be an option for me, to go into teaching.
For jobs after that, I had department head job assignments, mostly in operations. I was an operations officer. I commissioned a new frigate, USS Taylor. I was a pre-commissioning plank-owner on that ship. Later, I was operations officer on another LPD. I was operation and plans officer for an amphibious squadron staff. I worked at ComNavSurfLant as a unit training officer; that was a shore job. And then my last major sea tour I was as XO on USS Raleigh, another LPD, and that was during Desert Shield / Desert Storm. And I did a short tour after that with the MidEastFor Commander, Middle East Force flagship over in Bahrain, the USS LaSalle, which at the time was the only ship in the Navy had tthat was painted white.
SCHULD: Oh, my. Do any of the ships that you served on, do they have associations and reunions that you know of?
BAKER: The USS Trenton, as a matter of fact, is having a reunion this very day in Norfolk. It’s the second reunion for them. I did not go to the first one. The association, they don’t really have an association. It’s kind of a loose—it’s still in the organizational stages, shall we say.
SCHULD: The other ships, have you ever investigated to see whether or not they have associations?
BAKER: The Taylor’s still active, and the USS Raleigh does not have one, to my knowledge. I was on a number of other ships at various times when I was on a staff but I was not ship’s company, so I’ve never really run those down to see if they have any kind of associations.
SCHULD: How did you come to find out about the Little Rock Association?
BAKER: Well, it was shortly after I retired. When I retired we moved from Virginia Beach where we were living at the time to Annapolis. I guess I was doing a web search or something and I ran across—I don’t know if it was the web site at the time, but something about a Little Rock reunion. And that was the one coming up that was in Norfolk. And I thought to myself, well, why would I want to go to a reunion in Norfolk? I just came from Norfolk. I think that was in ’94. It was the year after I retired.
SCHULD: That’s right, it was.
BAKER: And my wife and I decided, well, we’ll go. And I said I probably won’t know anybody and, you know, I won’t be enjoying myself. But on the whole we went and I guess we ran into John Conjura there, the first I had seen him for a number of years. And another guy I’d served with that had been a warrant officer at the time, and later on he and I served as instructors together at Officer Candidate School, a guy by the name of Frank Gates. We ran into both of them at the Omni, I guess it was, down there in Norfolk. And that was our first experience.
And, of course, we meet a lot of other friends at the time, including you. We haven’t been to every reunion since then. I think we missed Little Rock and we missed Charleston, but we’ve been to every one since then. And we keep going back. And I hear a lot from some of the members saying, well, I don’t want to go there because I don’t like where it is, or what they’re doing. And to me, we kind of schedule our time around the reunion, and that’s part of our vacation every year. So we look forward to it every year.
We’ve made lots of friends here that I never served with, but they’re none the less shipmates.
SCHULD: Exactly. And I wonder, was your wife a little hesitant on attending your first reunion, figuring, perhaps, that, well, there’d just be a bunch of Navy guys there and she wouldn’t know anyone. Or did she go willingly?
BAKER: She went, well, I guess she probably had some hesitation, apprehension, about it too. But, again, she’s found a lot of friends too.
SCHULD: Precisely. As a matter of fact, I would say, it’s been my experience, which is considerable, with the Association, that the wives look forward to the reunions as much as the men. They’ve developed some wonderful relationships over the years.
SCHULD: And every time I see a new fellow arrive without a wife I ask, and sometimes they will respond, well, my wife felt she wouldn’t know anyone. And I say, well, you’re only strangers once, and I promise you if she comes once she will come back for sure.
BAKER: We weren’t married in my days on the Little Rock. I was single back in those days. We actually got married after I finished college, right before I went to Officer Candidate School. So she wasn’t familiar with the Little Rock back then, but she heard me talk about it so much. And I guess the Little Rock was special because it was the first ship. Even though among all those ships and places that I served after that, Little Rock was unique.
SCHULD: Yeah. Well, that’s another phenomenon. There are many career people here that, during their careers, served on three, four, five ships, and yet there’s a fondness for this organization and its reunions.
You left the Navy in February of ’93. Talk a little bit about what you’ve done since.
BAKER: Well, actually, I retired from the Navy, but I have yet to really leave the Navy. I took a job as a naval science instructor at Annapolis High School with the Navy Junior ROTC program, and I just completed my fourteenth year there. So I still wear a uniform to school on a daily basis. I’ve kept in touch with the Navy. I still visit Navy ships from time-to-time. We take our cadets on trips.
SCHULD: Is a uniform a requirement?
BAKER: Yes, it is. It’s required.
SCHULD: It is? And even though you’re really not on active duty with the Navy you’re still required to wear that uniform as you teach a class, huh?
BAKER: That’s correct.
SCHULD: Interesting. What lessons and outlooks and values did you take away from your Naval service that you’ve used in....
(End of Side A)
(Start of Side B)
SCHULD: ..... Bob, let’s pick up where we left off on Tape 1. We were talking about some of the lessons and values that you took away from your Naval service.
BAKER: Well, I think sometimes, perhaps, when you think about that, it’s really hard to quantify and put your finger on it, saying, well, “This is something I’ve learned.” But I think that for all of us, or many of us, those were our formative years and we were influenced far more than we realized—and we didn’t realize it until years later—by what we did and those around us. Our leading petty officers, our chiefs, our officers, were our mentors. They were our mom and dad, if you will, at the time.
I guess some of the there were things that I learned, and some of the things that I sought.... I guess I was seeking independence, and I found it. Some of the things that the Navy did instilled—and, of course, in my time aboard the Little Rock, (which was essentially, with the exception of the training, my whole enlisted tour:) were self-reliance, self-discipline, and attention to detail. Promptness. I think that’s one of the things I picked up from John Conjura; he was always on time for everything.
Other things that you take with you.... Also, I discovered, I guess, that I could really be good at something, so I found some self-confidence. I was probably more adept at the aspects of message processing than most of the folks we had. I was appointed as Main Comm supervisor when I was a third class petty officer. Later on they made me a traffic checker, which is one of the detail jobs — you checked all of the incoming and outgoing messages and made sure they were all processed completely. And I remember some of the watch officers we used to have, which were actually officers. As a matter of fact, Ray Mabus, who was later Governor of Mississippi and ambassador to Saudi Arabia, he was one of those watch officers. But I can remember the watch officers coming to me and saying, “Baker, was this handled correctly?” They looked to me for doing the right thing. So I guess I discovered that, yeah, I’m really good at something and I can be a success.
And, of course, some of those same things, the values I guess I took from there and developed them and honed them throughout the years, and they’re the ones I try to instill and imbue in the cadets I have now in the Navy Junior ROTC program.
SCHULD: Tell a little bit about your family.
BAKER: Well, Carol and I have been married now, we just celebrated thirty years; we’re coming up on thirty-one, I guess, in November. We have one son. I have two older stepchildren, a boy and a girl. Our son is a Marine, stationed in Quantico. Ironically, even though he went through the program as one of my students in Navy Junior ROTC, he choose the Marine Corps. Enlisted in the Marines. We live in Annapolis. We’ve lived there now for, I guess, about fourteen years since I retired.
SCHULD: Any community involvement?
BAKER: Well, I’m a member of a number of things, but most of our community involvement is with the church. I’ve served on a number of boards. Chairman of the board of trustees, and the financial committee, and the church council. A… a variety of capacities within our church.
One of the things that Carol and I do is we sing with a community group. Not associated with any one particular church, but we sing a lot of church-based or gospel music. We practice for a few weeks and then we go around the community and sing at various churches, but here in the last couple of years we’ve actually taken our show on the road. Last year we were out in Lake Tahoe and Sparks, Nevada. And just last month we were down in St. Augustine, Florida, singing. So that takes up a lot of time with all our rehearsals.
SCHULD: That’s all paid for out of your own funds?
SCHULD: Yeah, yeah. Now, how long have you been a member of the Association? It’s been...
BAKER: Since 1994, when I went to that first reunion in Norfolk. So it’s thirteen years now.
SCHULD: You talked about you’ve been to...
BAKER: All the reunions except for two.
SCHULD: That’s about thirteen years, so you’ve been to about eleven reunions. Wouldn’t that be so? It asks if you were an officer in the Association—describe your involvement. Of course, that’s pretty recent, isn’t it?
BAKER: Just last year I was appointed to the Board of Directors. I’ve been involved with the Scholarship Committee for about four years now, the selection of awardees for the scholarships for the Association. And I guess for the past three I’ve actually gone and made presentations. Went to Old Dominion University, I went to the University of Virginia, and just this past year I went to Auburn University.
SCHULD: And how about your experience on the Board? How has it been thus far?
BAKER: Very positive.
SCHULD: Good. You have me to blame if it was bad, of course, because I’m the one that dragged you into it.
BAKER: Well, the Board is not without.... Well, I credit folks like you that actually got this organization going and set it on such a firm foundation. So you can pat yourself on the back for that. But the board—I’m glad to be involved with the Board of Directors, and it’s interesting to see all that goes on behind the scenes to make reunions like this the resounding success that they are. Without the board and the volunteers that man that board it wouldn’t happen.
SCHULD: Do you think you’ll be going on the cruise next year?
BAKER: We’ve already submitted our check.
SCHULD: Wow. Okay.
BAKER: And that’s something— Carol and I, we say that wherever the reunion is, we’re going to go, as long as we’re able.
SCHULD: That’s pretty much been my attitude and, of course, the attitude of many here. Over the years I’ve been approached by people who have said: Well, I’m not going back to Buffalo; we’ve already been there. And I said, “Well, we’re not going there just for Buffalo. We’re going there for you and I to be together and do some things and talk and so forth.” So I think you have the right attitude for an Association member, for sure.
Well, any final thoughts or observations?
BAKER: Well, there are probably lots of things that I want to, or should, say, and I’ll think about them as soon as we walk out the door. (Chuckle) But no, I have nothing really to add.
SCHULD: Okay. Well, Bob, we want to thank you very much for your participation in thise Oral History Program. And as you well know as a board member, why this tape will be transcribed and reduced to writing and available for all to see for all time. Thanks again for participating.
BAKER: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.
I’ll also say that I was a little bit surprised that I was selected for this. I told Kent that I’m flattered. There are probably many others that should be interviewed before me, that would have more interesting stories. But that’s my story.
SCHULD: Well, actually, just to continue for a moment, your story is quite interesting inasmuch as you were an enlisted man who subsequently left the Navy, gained a college education, and returned to the Navy, and even after retiring from the Navy your Navy involvement continues, both in your private civilian life, and it continues here as a board member of the Little Rock Association. So once again, thank you very much. Appreciate it.
BAKER: Thank you.
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