New Mexico & the Vietnam War:
Portrait of a Generation
Edited interview transcript
(Note: this is the full transcript of the Baca interview, edited only for readability)
About 1957, I was at Albuquerque’s Our Lady of Fatima Elementary school and I saw my first helicopter. And, I started dreaming about helicopters. There was a television program called ‘Whirlybirds’ in the late 50s and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz produced this series. I just got hooked on these helicopters. I would go out to the airport and wait for a helicopter to land, which was very rare here in Albuquerque back in the 50s. And sometimes army helicopters would come in, and I would just glue myself to those guys.
In high school at St. Pius, I got my first ride in a helicopter. And I was sold. I said "I am going to go into the Army, and I'm going to be a helicopter pilot. This is when I'm about 15 years old. I graduated from high school in 1963. I was a really good "D" student. And I had to have permission to join the Army, my parents had to sign paperwork. I went ahead and joined the army on June 14th, Flag Day of 1963, and went to Ft. Polk, Louisiana for basic training.
The Baca family's military history dates way back to the 1600s and so, maybe 1700s, and I'm very proud that they helped settle this land. My ancestors came up the King's Highway, Camino Real and I have names and dates in a very detailed family biography. You can go back each generation and every generation had a mention of military service. I'm absolutely proud of the lineage of the Baca family. I mean, when you read what they accomplished and back hundreds of years ago, how difficult it was to just live. To just find food. To find shelter. We really don't have a clue in our generation how hard it was on those folks. And, the extreme conditions they had to work with. The illnesses, the weather, the starvation, the wars.
"The army was, to me, a way to get what I wanted. And, after I got in, I loved it."
The army was, to me, a way to get what I wanted. And, after I got in, I loved it. But am I proud of the lineage I learned about? Yes. Absolutely. I have an uncle, for instance, he's still alive. He's 93 and he was a waist gunner on a B-24 in the Second World War. I have so much respect for my uncle, what he went through.
I didn't really go in the army to go in the army. I went in the army to learn how to fly helicopters, and was that selfish? Well, something has to motivate you to do something. But, once I got in the army, I loved it. I loved what it stood for. I love what it did for me. What it did for my wife and my children. And, what it did for the American people during my tenure in the army. I'm just very proud of all of it.
THROUGH THE LENS
Photos of and by Tom Baca
Tom Baca's correspondence letters to his wife during the war