Hugh Baynes – Colonel, United States Air Force

14 February 2008:

As an Air Force pilot in the mid-20th century, Colonel Hugh Baynes had a bird’s-eye view of history.

During World War II, he rained bombs on German targets. During Korea and Vietnam, he ferried American troops and equipment high above the jungles. During the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift, he helped keep the city’s 2.5 million residents alive by flying milk, medicine and other supplies around a Soviet blockade.

The former telephone switchboard repairman also flew Dr. Wernher von Braun from Huntsville to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the first launch of a Redstone rocket, daughter Bev Baca said Tuesday.

Baynes retired in 1974, “but, in his heart, he never left the Air Force,” Baca said. “He was happiest in an airplane.”

Baynes died February 3, 2008, at Huntsville Hospital while watching the Super Bowl. He was 90.

A native of Paducah, Kentucky, Baynes was uprooted as a boy when his mother contracted tuberculosis. Seeking a healthier climate, the family relocated to Tucson, Ariz. After high school, Baynes moved to El Paso, Texas, and took a job with Western Electric phone company.

It was a smart move for his love life: Baynes was repairing a switchboard in 1937 when he struck up a conversation with phone operator Betty Jean Hettick. They were married about a year later and stayed together until her death in 1990.

The couple will be reunited March 3, 2008, in Arlington National Cemetery, where Baynes is due a funeral with full military honors. His daughter said he will be buried in his Air Force “dress blues.”

Baynes’ long career flying military planes began by accident. When Western Electric workers went on strike in early 1944, Baynes decided not to join the picket line. He volunteered for the Army Air Force instead, Baca said, and scored so high on aptitude tests that he was told he should become a pilot.

At 28, Baynes was considerably older than most enlistees; his fellow cadets nicknamed him “Pappy,” said Baca, who lives in Madison.

Seven months after volunteering to fight, Baynes was aboard a B-17 bomber flying the first of 51 missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. While he was shot at many times and a piece of shrapnel once landed in his lap, Baca said, Baynes came through World War II without a scratch.

“He had great respect for the B-17,” she said. “He said that if you took care of that plane, it would take care of you.”

Yellowed scrapbooks compiled by Baynes’ wife help tell his war story. Articles from his hometown newspaper. Aerial photos of bombs exploding near a river. A Western Union telegram from Baynes to his wife dated March 9, 1945, two months before Germany’s surrender.

“All well here. Short time then home. Love, Hugh.”

Baynes was especially proud of his World War II service, his daughter said, and was scheduled to visit the World War II memorial in April with Tennessee Valley Honor Flight. Baca, a registered nurse at Huntsville Hospital, and her daughters – Dixie Bailey and Christi League of Huntsville and Denise Burroughs of Cullman – still plan to go and help escort other veterans.

In August 1953, Baynes played a small but important role in the development of America’s space program. Then piloting C-124 cargo planes out of Mobile’s Brookley Field, Baynes got a strange call one day from a man with a thick German accent.

It was von Braun, Baca said, trying to get his new Redstone rocket to Florida for a test launch. The C-124 was one of the few planes big enough for the job.

After landing in Huntsville, Baynes told von Braun he doubted he could get the heavy rocket airborne on the short Redstone Arsenal runway. But von Braun was persistent: He convinced Baynes takeoff would be easier in the cool of night.

While they waited for sundown, Baca said, von Braun treated Baynes and his crewmates to a steak dinner in Huntsville.

Von Braun was right, of course, and Baynes piggybacked the rocket to the Cape. He declined an invitation to watch the historic launch, jokingly telling von Braun that he had no interest in the “little firecracker,” Baca said.

Baynes retired from the Air Force with more than 18,000 flight hours to his credit. He was also hard of hearing from spending so much time in noisy cockpits.

“He used to say, ‘C-124 is my problem, what’s yours?’ ” Baca said.

In the mid-1990s, Baynes’ family began videotaping him to preserve his war stories.

“Anytime he was over, we’d set up the video camera and just let him talk,” Baca said. “And how glad we are that we did.”


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 05/14/1918
  • DATE OF DEATH: 10/09/1990

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