Mo Baker was born in 1932 in Morehouse, Missouri, the middle child of five. His dad was an insurance salesman and a master mason, and his mother raised the family. A flight in a Piper Cub as a boy convinced him that he wanted to be a pilot, and he seized the opportunity to join the Air Cadet program while he was a student at the University of Missouri. He enlisted in 1952 and was commissioned in 1954 in Laredo, Texas. His first assignment was with the Air Defense Command, serving for two years in Alaska and eight years at Langley Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C., flying the F-102 and F-106. The mission of the Air Defense Command was to intercept Soviet bombers when they crossed into American air space, and as part of their training, the pilots frequently tried to intercept U-2 planes as they passed over the east coast, pushing their aircraft to the limits of their capabilities. On one such mission, Mo’s plane (an F-106 Delta Dart) reached its limits, and he began falling back towards earth when his engine reignited and he laid a sonic boom over the White House, startling President Kennedy (resulting in a no-fly zone being created over D.C.). After a decade in the Air Defense Command, he transferred to attack squadrons and transitioned to the F-105 Thunderchief (commonly known as Thud). It was designed to support NATO with the mission of delivering a nuclear bomb to Moscow. As such, it was “fast on the deck,” capable of supersonic flight at low altitudes. In Vietnam, it was the “go-to bomber,” used to destroy railroads, airfields, and bridges with a bomb load greater than a WWII four-engine bomber. On August 23, 1967, while bombing a bridge in Bắc Giang, Mo’s plane was hit and he was forced to bail out. He later learned that his captors’ nickname for him was Cầu, the Vietnamese word for bridge. The force of the ejection broke his left femur in two places and he was captured immediately when he landed. A “medic woman” arrived and splinted his leg; she was “kind but not friendly.” As he was moved from village to village, the peasants took turns beating Mo and twisting his broken leg. After arriving at the Hanoi Hilton, he underwent sustained interrogation, during which his leg was often a target for torture. After three weeks, the torture ended, and eventually a Vietnamese surgeon operated on his leg, fixing it by tying the bones together with silver wire and inserting a pin through the marrow of the femur. Mo then spent 30 days in the hospital. He recalls that the Vietnamese referred to the American POWs as the “blackest criminals,” and treated them accordingly. Once the prisoners were moved into larger rooms, they began teaching each other classes to occupy their time because they were “hungry for information.” At one point, one of the prisoners convinced Mo to build a radio receiver so they could listen for news of the war. After enough parts and materials were obtained, Mo fashioned a crude receiver. When the guards finally discovered it, Mo earned 90 days in solitary, which he said was alright because, “I needed time to myself anyway.”
In this interview, he talks about his childhood, serving in the Air Defense Command, his Vietnam experiences, and his life as a Prisoner of War. He describes air defense missions, including partnering with Army Air Defense units in a yearly training exercise. He shares an interesting story of hunting MiGs near Thud Ridge one day and closing in on what they suspected to be enemy aircraft when one executed a barrel roll, and the Air Force pilots realized, “Oh hell, it’s the Navy.” He recalls Tom Hayden’s visit to North Vietnam, but admits that one good thing to come out of it was that his wife received a call from one of the clergy letting her know that Mo was alive. He shares his memories of leaving Vietnam on March 14, 1973, and ends by reflecting on what his service means to him.