Bill Baker: From Air Force cop to Voice of the Huskies

Retiring NIU play-by-play announcer spent four years in the Air Force, including a year in Da Nang during Vietnam

Bill Baker, U.S. Air Force veteran and Northern Illinois University's radio announcer, speaks during a broadcast as NIU takes on Tulsa University on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Voice of the Huskies. Radio legend. Goodbye, Toledo.

A lot of different images pop up when people think of Northern Illinois University play-by-play broadcaster Bill Baker. Most, however, probably don’t think military cop.

Baker served in the U.S. Air Force between 1969 and 1973, working almost entirely as a security specialist in South Dakota, Indiana and Da Nang, Vietnam. He served at Da Nang Air Base from July 1970 to July 1971. He said he did everything from serve as tower lookout with a 50-caliber machine gun (50 cals) and security patrols to running the security desk and flying UH-1 Iroquois helicopters (Hueys).

“You’re a cop in the Air Force, except the difference was I was on Da Nang Air Base,” Baker said. “We did everything a regular police patrol would do. Patrol the base, break up fights, take theft reports, accident reports. You were the law enforcement, just like you would be at home, but with one exception: There was a war going on.”

Bill Baker, U.S. Air Force veteran and Northern Illinois University's radio announcer, speaks during a broadcast as NIU takes on Tulsa University on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

Before Da Nang, Baker had experience working security at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. That led his commanding officer to put him in a similar job in Da Nang.

During his time there, he learned to fly the Hueys. Baker said they had something called the second seat program, and it was the one time he was actually asked by the Air Force to do something.

We did everything a regular police patrol would do. Patrol the base, break up fights, take theft reports, accident reports. You were the law enforcement, just like you would be at home, but with one exception: There was a war going on.”

—  Bill Baker

Baker said they needed people to run the 50-cals since they were short on pilots for the Hueys. They also provided an extra set of eyes should something go wrong.

He ended up flying almost 100 missions, mostly within 4 or 5 miles of the base, watching for potential attacks on the base, which was a frequent target for the North Vietnamese military and Viet Cong.

“We weren’t designed to pick a fight with anybody,” Baker said. “You watch the newsreels, and you see the UH-1s landing in the rice paddies and these guys running off with their M-16s and everything else. That wasn’t us. That was the Army. Bless those guys. I respected those guys for what they did and what they flew into, but we had nothing like that.”

Baker said he only once took fire on a mission – when they had to pick up someone 20 miles off base. He said there were a couple of things he won’t talk about, and that was one of them.

The base was attacked about 100 times during Baker’s time there, he estimated. He said there were probably about 40 or 50 casualties during those attacks, among them three people he knew very well.

He said Da Nang was a tempting target because it was only about 50 miles from the demilitarized zone, close to the South China Sea and by the North Vietnamese supply trail.

“When the siren goes off, you heard it,” Baker said. “I don’t care how deep of a sleep you were in, you heard that siren and you were out of your bunk and you were under that bed because that meant a rocket attack.”

After he graduated from Lane Tech in January 1966 – Chicago used a staggered school year based on birthdays at the time – Baker knew he wanted to get into broadcasting. He said he wasn’t a very good college student, ending up at Illinois Teachers’ College Chicago North even though he had no interest in becoming a teacher.

He said he knew that if he dropped out, he was going to be drafted before long anyway. So he talked with his brother Larry, who had served in Vietnam, was injured and came back with a Purple Heart. Larry’s advice was for Baker to find a branch that would teach him something he wanted to learn.

Baker knew about armed forces radio, so he joined the Air Force. And although broadcasting wouldn’t work out in the military, he ended up finding something he said he enjoyed.

Upon training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, he became a security specialist.

After Texas, he got sent to South Dakota and the missile silos. An alarm would go off, and a specialist would have to go down and see what the issue was. They’d also have to take security with them, which is how Baker got to get up close and personal with an intercontinental ballistic missile.

“I had a very atypical experience in the Air Force. I really did,” Baker said. “There were times I’d go on a maintenance thing, there’d be maybe two or three of us security people, they would take us into the hole. One at a time you’d stand there on a little catwalk, and you could touch an ICBM [missile]. And you look up and just think what this thing can do.”

After Da Nang, Baker spent two years at Grissom Air Reserve Base just outside Kokomo, Indiana. When his commanding officer found out about his experience in Da Nang, he put him on the desk at Grissom.

“He told me, ‘If you could run Da Nang, you could run this one with your eyes closed,’” Baker said. “And actually, I probably could have. And for the next two years, that was my job. Every now and again I’d put myself on patrol, just get out there with the guys, do an eight-hour shift giving traffic tickets.”

The position allowed him to spend most weekends commuting to DeKalb, where his girlfriend at the time [and later wife] Karen was a student at NIU.

He said he enjoyed his time, and when it came time to reenlist, he seriously thought about it. Reupping would have earned him a promotion from staff to tech sergeant, but in the end, he decided against it.

“I knew the answer before I asked, but I said, ‘All right, guys, I’m interested, but what are the odds I can live out my life here at Grissom Air Force Base?’” Baker said. “And the guy laughed. He said, ‘You know it doesn’t work that way. There will be deployments, there will be overseas assignments. You could be gone for two years, you could be gone for one year. You go to Germany or some places, you could be gone for four years. You can take your family with you to certain places, and to others you can’t.’ And that ended it right there.”

He and Karen were married about six weeks before he left the Air Force in September 1973. He moved to DeKalb, got a job driving a beer truck in Sycamore, and before long finally got into broadcasting with a sales and on-air job at a radio station.

Last month Baker was named a finalist for the Armed Force Merit Award, presented by the Football Writers Association of America, to honor individuals and groups with a military background who have had an impact on college football. Baker was one of 11 finalists, with the winner scheduled to be announced Nov. 9.

Baker’s first game with NIU was Sept. 5, 1980. He’s retiring at the end of this season, his 44th. For 39 of those years, he’s worked alongside Mark Lindo for football broadcasts.

Lindo said it’s awesome that Baker, or anyone else, has served the U.S. through military service, and he’s heard a lot about Baker’s experiences in Vietnam. He said it’s impressive what Baker and other veterans have done.

“He is always prepared, he’s always disciplined, and he’s always early,” Lindo said. “As a former coach, I’m always on coach’s time, always early, and the military sets you up with that – being on time, having things in order. Bill is always prepared, and it’s always impressive. I’ve always been impressed with his ability to stay ahead of the game with calling so many NIU events.”

Baker said he was proud he was able to continue his family’s history of military service. His grandfather, William, served in World War I. His father, Wilbur, had served six years in the Navy before World War II, then reenlisted for four years in the Navy during the war.

He had an uncle serve in Oahu, Hawaii, after the Pearl Harbor attack. He had a couple of cousins serve in Korea, and his wife’s father and godfather both served in World War II.

His grandson, Zachary, is expected to graduate from U.S. Marine Corps boot camp Nov. 21.

“I was very proud of what I was able to accomplish in the military,” Baker said. “I did my job. People tell me that I did it well, and that’s all I could ask.”

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