Base honors Enid hero with tribute

  • Published
  • By Jim Malachowski
  • 71st FTW Historian
In the spring of 1941, the Enid Chamber of Commerce opened a letter from the War Department outlining a long list of requirements to have a flying school built here. At the top of the list were: a substantial tract of land; right of way for the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railway Company; electric power; water; natural gas; and an all weather road connecting the proposed base with Highway 81.

More than 100 leading citizens approved a plan to obtain a flying school and appointed several committees to make it happen. Joe Champlin of the Champlin Refinery Company, L.L. Lovell, the owner of the Marshall Bank, J.M. Gentry of the Gentry Lumber Company, and Ray E. Williams, a local real estate agent, made up the Procurement Committee. It was their job to obtain 1,000 acres of Garfield County's best wheat land.

Mr. Williams walked and drove over thousands of acres suggested as possible sites before the committee finally settled on land 3.5 miles southwest of Enid. The area was ideal for the government and the most economical for the city to install public utilities.

Mr. Williams was directed to secure 90-day options on the properties as the committee prepared to invite the government's inspection team to Enid. With high hopes and a mission in his heart, Williams contacted the first landowner, who eventually agreed to sell if the other landowners agreed to sell too.

Unlike the first landowner, the Baker family lived on their farm and Mr. Earnest Baker refused other offers in the past for his land.

Hoping for the best, Williams journeyed out to the Baker farm; arriving at about 6:30 a.m. Baker was already hard at work in his wheat field inspecting what would soon grow into a great crop.

The farm was home to the family since 1905, and seven children, including son Ralph in 1919, were born in the farmhouse. Ralph grew up here, graduated in the class of 1936 from Enid High School and attended Phillips University. Ralph had just left the farm in February for Army basic training as the nation prepared for war.

When Williams explained what the city proposed to the War Department, Baker agreed to give them a 90-day option on his land contingent on the Army accepting the proposal and building the flying school. Otherwise, the property was not for sale.

"If our government needs the land, they could have it," Baker said.

With Baker's option, Williams quickly obtained options from the other land owners, including Lee Kisner, Francis Richards, John McGill, William Kisner and Pearl Baker. In just a matter of days, the city had their proposal submitted to the government. 

Army Air Corps General G. C. Brandt and the inspection team arrived in Enid around May 5, 1941. It had rained steadily for several days and the entire countryside was flooded.

Leaving the cars just off Highway 81, the general suggested they walk across the site. After about a mile in the ankle-deep mud, the general stopped, placed his hand on Williams' shoulder and asked, "could it be possible there is some misunderstanding? We are interested in locating a flying field, not a duck blind."

Enid's proposal was accepted and the government agreed to build the flying school. In the meantime, the city held a $300,000 bond issue to raise funding for the land and improvements required by the government. To save time, the landowners agreed to sign their deeds over to the city without any of the purchase price being paid.

Their noble act was appreciated by the city and subsequently, the bond passed with an overwhelming majority and they received payment for their land.

By the end of June 1941, the area was inundated with trainloads of materials, construction trucks and machinery. Between the cloud of dust and the heavy traffic on Highway 81, travel south of Enid was practically impossible. Buildings were going up and runways were being bulldozed into the rich farmland.

Soon, the Enid Flying School was operational, but the pace of construction did not slow. Facilities were built at a rapid pace, but often the expansion or improvement lagged behind the actual need for them.

The grading on the landing field left the ground bare of vegetation and the Oklahoma wind created a terrific dust hazard. Flying was called off repeatedly because of dust conditions.

A new group of students arrived in one of these frequent dust storms. Off a bus stepped Flying Cadet Ralph Baker. His childhood home where he and his four sisters fed chickens and milked cows had been completely transformed.

"It's all quite confusing," he told his classmates. "When we rolled up to the gate and I saw the planes buzzing around up above, it gave me a funny feeling...before long I'll be flying a plane off runways where the wheat used to grow."

After earning his wings and commission, he served in the Army Air Corps as a pilot. He flew more than 70 missions over "The Hump," in the China-Burma-India Theater during 17 months, even having to bail out once over China.

Baker was credited with the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster and Air Medal with oak leaf cluster. After World War II, Lieutenant Baker left the Army Air Corps and returned to Enid where he married, raised a family, and remained active in the community until his death in May 2006.

Ralph Baker, like his father before him, exemplifying the highest ideals of the Air Force, put service before self. It is a fitting tribute in honor of 1st Lt. Ralph Baker's historical significance to Vance, his faithful wartime service to the U.S. Army Air Corps and his lifelong service to the Enid community, the industrial gate at Vance will be named the "Baker Gate."