James Bond had “Q.”
SOG had Baker. Ben Baker.
During the Vietnam War’s eight-year secret war conducted in Laos, Cambodia and N. Vietnam under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (SOG), the Green Berets turned to Counterinsurgency Support Office (CISO) Deputy Commander Conrad (“Ben”) B. Baker for everything from new highly specialized equipment and weapons to indigenous rations. Based in Okinawa, he frequently traveled to Southeast Asia to meet the warriors he served.
As more Green Berets began serving in Vietnam and in the secret war, they often submitted unique, specific supply requests to CISO, for items that weren’t available in routine military supply channels.
“Because of the clandestine nature of the secret war, CISO and SOG had top priority for anything from air conditioners to SOG knives to weapons,” said Baker, during a May 21 telephone interview. “Sometimes we’d piss off people, like the Marines, for example. We had a situation where some of the (Special Forces) A Camps down south in IV Corps needed air conditioners for their commo sheds. We requisitioned them from the Marines for those teams. Believe me, they weren’t happy but SF had top priority.”
Former OSS agent (Ret) Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, who served two years as Chief SOG – the officer in charge of SOG from Aug. 1966-68 – described Baker as the critical, behind-the-scenes player in SOG’s secret war. “He was a supply wizard,” Singlaub said in an April interview conducted in Tennessee. “Whether we needed High Standard 22s with silencers or special equipment for our indigenous soldiers, Ben would get it for us, one way or the other.”
Retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Gene McCarley, who ran SOG top-secret recon missions out of FOB 2 in Kontum and in September 1970 conducted one of the most successful SOG Hatchet Force missions deep into Laos, knew Baker and marveled at his prowess in obtaining critical and crucial supplies and weapons. “I had the honor of meeting Ben a few times. He wouldn’t remember me, but I can say that he provided us with a lot of things that we needed that weren’t available through routine supply channels. He cared about the troops. If we needed things he’d find them. If things weren’t available, he’d invent them.”
Baker told SOFREP, “We did a lot of little things to help the men of SOG and other agencies. For example, in the early days of the war, SF used the HT-1 radio, but those radios used BA-30 batteries, the old lead-acid battery that was highly inefficient. We changed to alkaline batteries and we purchased the best, which were made in Japan at that time. We had no ‘must buy American’ mandates. Our job was to get the best supplies needed for our troops, plain and simple.”
Within SOG annals, Baker is a legend for many reasons, including his unique inventions and items he purchased and/or helped to refine, which include:
- Inventing indigenous rations: “Early in the war,” Baker said, “the Montagnards were getting the runs from U.S. rations. So I went over to Nam, Laos, talked to some key nutritionists there and put together indigenous rations, which consisted of precooked rice placed in a plastic bag, shaped like a tube. The rice I laced with Vitamin B because the ‘Yards had a vitamin deficiency.” Baker went to Taiwan, got pre-cooked rice, then developed several rice seasonings, beef, fish, squid and mutton, to name a few. When he went to the Navy Laboratory, “they told me it would take two to three years to produce it. That’s nuts,” Baker said. He went to a company, placed an order for 30,000 meals for “about a buck a piece.” By the end of the Vietnam War, Baker estimates that CISO had sent at least 66 million individual indigenous rations that were used by U.S. allies in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and other locations. Highly respected 5th Special Forces Group Commander Col. Robert Rheault “estimated that we may have used more than 80 million…. I’m not going to argue with the colonel,” Baker said.
- Inventing “Eldest Son” ammo that exploded when used by enemy troops in their AK-47 or 81 mm mortar, killing or maiming the enemy. “Also, we had old PRC-10 radios,” said Baker. “Instead of getting rid of them, we packed them with C-4 and would leave the battery in it and drop it in enemy territory. When an enemy would squeeze the talk key, it would explode.”
- Inventing the first SOG Knife: “The first model of it, I used a spring from a Jeep, due to its metallic strength. However, I didn’t like it and threw it into the ocean,” Baker told SOFREP. “I used the stacked leather handle on it, that was an idea I got from my father’s Marbles Gladstone Skinning Knife…. My design of the first seven-inch SOG Knife had a tilt upward edge to the blade for maximum penetration…. I designed it so the weight and balance made it a good throwing knife too. I believe (Green Beret Medal of Honor Recipient SGM) Jon Cavaiani told me he threw the knife at an NVA soldier and it killed him.” The first order of 1,300 SOG Knives went to Yogi Shokai, the Japanese trading company CISO worked with at that time.
- Indig Rucks: “We invented the Indig Rucks because the things the CIA were using at that time were too big for the indigenous troops working with SF and the agency,” Baker said. All SOG teams used those rucks throughout the war.
- Improved the jungle boots: “(At CISO) We tried to think ahead, we took trips to Southeast Asia to talk to the men in the field. We believed that it should be the man in the field who should determine what their troops need, not some fat-assed bureaucrat sitting behind some a desk at DoD or the White House. When they came out with jungle boots we put the metal plate in the bottom due to the gosh-awful punji sticks the SF men and their indig were encountering in ‘Nam – punji sticks that had been dipped in human excrement, to worsen the infection.”
Baker made more than 80 visits to SEA during the Vietnam War. “Sometimes, it was the little things that counted,” Baker said. “If they needed socks, we’d send them bundles of socks. If they needed black berets, we got them. When they asked for black rain gear that wasn’t too long, we got it for them.” Today, those black pullover SOG rain jackets are collectors items valued at hundreds of dollars.
And, there was a practical side to Baker too: “At one point, every team wanted 12 or 13 Rolex watches, the Oyster model I believe. They got Seiko watches instead that cost $6 or $8 apiece.” The Seiko watches were among the first self-winding watches with a luminous dial, and had the day and date on it. The luminous dial was so bright SOG recon men had to cover it with gloves or black electric tape at night.
Also, there were times that Baker or his staff would send experimental weapons to SOG recon teams for testing and opinions. For example, during 1968 at the top-secret SOG base, FOB 1 in Phu Bai, CISO staff sent a gyro pistol with explosive projectiles and a large pump shotgun that fired the 40 mm round used in the M-79 grenade launcher. The gyro pistol was turned back, and the experimental pump was turned back after ST Idaho carried it on one mission. It had a bad habit of jamming while extracting the empty cartridge. When it worked, five rounds could be fired in less than a minute, which gave a six-man recon team a lot of firepower, but a lot of extra weight to carry in the field.
Last, but not least, “My name is on that damned Bolo Machete,” Baker said, spitting the words out of his mouth. “That’s a hunk of shit. Some damned general somewhere ordered someone to make it, they did, and because I put the wooden handle on it, my name is on it. That’s one I’m not proud of…. We went out and got better stuff like the Survival Ax Type (produced by Frank and Warren Inc.).”
Baker Honored by SF Regiment
Because of his dedication and due diligence over the years, Baker was formally inducted into the Special Forces Regiment as the 12th Honorary Member on April 27 by Colonel Nestor A. Sadler, Commandant of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
Baker is a WWII veteran who served briefly in General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters staff before putting his organization and logistics skills to work with Field Engineers. In 1963 he was working in Okinawa when Special Forces Capt. David E. Watts put together the Counterinsurgency Support Office (CISO), with Baker leading the development of the new office. CISO supplied clothing, weapons and equipment to Special Forces, some federal agencies and to indigenous forces operating in Vietnam and denied areas. Baker served as deputy CISO commander from June 1963 to October 1972 where he traveled up and down and the width and breadth of Vietnam. His travels included more than 80 trips to forward base camps in Vietnam while providing Special Forces Soldiers and Vietnamese allies with support not available through normal channels.
He conducted many of those missions with Special Forces Legend SGM Walter L. Shumate at a time when Baker was instrumental in organizing and executing classified operations that had a significant positive influence on the Special Forces mission, including providing unique and experimental weapons tested by SOG Recon Teams and other top-secret operations.
When Baker’s name was mentioned to living spec ops legend, (Ret) Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, the legendary OSS agent pulled out his official two-star, major-general stationery, and wrote a congratulatory note to Baker, which SOFREP Correspondent John Stryker Meyer read aloud during a luncheon honoring Baker on April 27 at the Basque Cultural Center, in South San Francisco. Singlaub’s doctors wouldn’t let him fly at that time.
Singlaub’s note to Baker read:
“Dear Ben, I just want to add my feelings to your recent honor and to thank you for spending so many years providing your special skills and ideas to the whole Special Operations Community in the Western Pacific. We all benefited from your activities and years of service.
“Please accept my most sincere thanks and congratulations. John K. Singlaub, Maj Gen, USA (Ret).”
Baker’s face broke into a large smile when he received Singlaub’s note. “He remembered me? That’s amazing,” Baker said, as he read the note out loud to his wife Shirley and members of the Special Forces Association.
In recent months, there have been media reports about ammunition that explodes when used by enemy troops. With a sparkle in his eye while reflecting on his Vietnam War creation of “Eldest Son” enemy ordnance, Baker said, “We had an impact on the enemy’s psyche then and I’m glad to see it’s still happening today.”