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94-year-old Citrus Heights veteran recalls service in World War II

Richard Baron stands inside his Citrus Heights home, with radio equipment on display behind him. // Mike Hazlip

By Mike Hazlip–
Richard Baron, a 59-year resident of Citrus Heights and veteran of World War II, recalls being eager to serve his country when more than 160,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Northern France on June 6, 1944.

Around eight months prior to the D-Day invasion, Baron enlisted in the Navy while still a senior, along with three of his classmates from Lincoln High School.

“When four of us left, that made quite a dent in the school body,” he said, noting the school’s small size when Lincoln’s population was just over 2,000.

Baron completed basic training in San Diego where he was selected for specialized training and sent to Chicago. By June 1944, his original graduation date, he was already learning radio operations at the University of Chicago.

Radio operations training was rigorous, and Baron said he had little time off while studying for the fast-paced courses. Most of his professors at the university were civilian, but only Navy personnel were allowed to teach the classified subjects he would later use to communicate with ships thousands of miles across the Pacific.

Baron was focused on his studies as events in the European Theater were unfolding. News of the Normandy Invasion came by watching newsreels at the movies, or reading newspapers, and he remembers increased interest as events in Europe unfolded.

Allied troops in the European Theater had already made progress in France after D-Day by the time Baron was assigned to what was then called the Canal Zone in Panama. After waiting 25 days in Norfolk, Virginia, he boarded a transport ship for a five-day voyage to Panama, recalling the sea sickness he endured as the flat-bottomed ship bobbed in rough seas.

“There’s no compassion for a sick sailor,” Baron said. “I’d be lying on the deck, and a sailor would pass me and step over me. I guess there was a reason that I was assigned to a land-based naval facility.”

Baron was assigned to a major radio facility in the 15th Naval District in the Canal Zone, one of only four primary radio communications centers operated by the Navy throughout the world. Baron’s facility at Panama would transmit coded messages to ships throughout the Pacific Ocean.

“We were the communication link for the ships at sea in our geographic area,” Baron said. “Nine-tenths of the communication was one way.”

Baron said he would also relay messages from ships at sea to other radio facilities, eventually reaching the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

Listening to Morse code became almost musical to Baron, who played trumpet in high school band. Using a typewriter to transcribe entire phrases, rather than letter by letter, he recalled being able to “hear” what the next phrase would be, based on the rhythm of the code.

“I’m typing what I’ve heard, but yet I’m ‘hearing’ what’s coming,” he said. “But that’s after a lot, a lot, of practice.”

The messages Baron transmitted were coded, so he couldn’t say what they were. However, there were times he learned of ships returning through the Panama Canal that had been damaged in battle.

“We would know when a ship was coming through that… had been bombed,” he recalled. “We (would) go down and be there for the ship and try to maybe have silent moments for the ship when it came in.”

Baron later learned two of his classmates from Lincoln High were killed in action on one of those ships. Although not the same classmates he enlisted with, it remains a solemn memory.

While Baron remembers the end of the war in Europe in 1945, he feels a greater connection with the end of the war in the Pacific the following year, because he was in contact with ships in the Pacific Theater.

Baron was discharged in 1947 and married his high school sweetheart, Roberta Peach. Peach was two years younger than Baron and they wrote letters back and forth as she finished high school while he was in the Navy.

“I looked at her and I said ‘I’m gonna marry her’,” Baron said of the first time they met.

The newly weds lived in Sacramento while he attended Sacramento City College, and later Sacramento State to get his teaching credential in 1951.

After college, Baron worked as the principal of two schools in Carmel for four years. He returned to Sacramento county to serve as a principal at schools in the Rio Linda Union School District, now known as Twin Rivers Unified.

Baron, his wife, and their two sons eventually settled in Citrus Heights in 1961, which he remembers being a small rural community with oak trees lining both sides of Greenback Lane.

“Citrus Heights was very rural,” he said. “The center of the business district at that time was over off Mariposa and Antelope Road, where Hall’s Furniture happens to be. The original post office was right there.”

While living in Citrus Heights, Baron continued serving as a school principal in the Rio Linda district until officially retiring in 1984, although he continued as a substitute principal at schools in and out of the district for another ten years.

Baron, whose wife of 68 years has since passed away, describes his health at age 94 as “excellent” and has no need of a cane for mobility. He now keeps busy with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and his sons still call him with questions. He also serves on the board for the Arcade Creek Neighborhood Association, known as Area 4.

“If I reflect back on my life, I’ve had a very full life,” said Baron. “I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t regret any of it at all.”

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