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Frank Gray

Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Fred Baker, who spent most of his career working on top-secret projects, is finally able to talk about his role in building devices used to track submarines. The same device was used to track a missing Malaysian aircraft.

Top secret no more: Sub tracker surfaces

For years – and years and years – Fred Baker couldn’t talk about what he did for a living.

Then, about three years ago, the Navy put out a book explaining the type of work he was involved in, and he finally felt free enough to speak up.

But let’s go back to the beginning, during Baker’s silent period.

Baker graduated from Tri-State University around 1940 with a degree in radio engineering, but couldn’t find an engineering job. So he settled on a position with a company in Michigan calibrating radios. Then he was put to work on transformers and helped develop AM and FM radios.

When World War II started, he got involved in producing goods for the war.

It was a tough time, he said. He’d go to a barbershop near where he worked. No one would talk to him. No one could understand why a healthy young guy like him wasn’t in the military like everyone else.

Baker couldn’t explain why. He had a security clearance but he couldn’t tell anyone what he did.

The war eventually ended, but Baker still couldn’t talk about what he did for a living. It was top secret.

In 1960, Baker went to work for Magnavox and was responsible for setting up a new plant in Fort Wayne. Years later, he set up another plant in Illinois, but he couldn’t tell people what he did.

It was an irritating time, he said.

“It was a rough go,” he said. “I’d be working on something like this, and I couldn’t tell my neighbors about it.”

“My wife didn’t like the neighbors being talked to by the Secret Service” about him and his family as they periodically reviewed his security clearances.

In 1976, Baker finally retired as vice president of manufacturing for Magnavox, and then spent 15 years working for SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which gives free advice to budding business owners.

Baker eventually retired altogether.

Then that book by the Navy came out.

For nearly all of his career Baker had been involved in the production of sonobuoys, those gadgets you drop in the ocean that listen for noises, radio signals or just about anything else.

They were first used in World War II to locate German submarines. Later they were used to track Russian submarines.

People have known for a long time what sonobuoys were and that they were made locally, but Baker finally felt he could talk about his then-secret career.

A year or so ago, Baker sent an essay to the newspaper, talking about how, during the Cuban missile crisis, Magnavox’s management, union and workers put everything aside, working day and night in Fort Wayne to crank out sonobuoys – back then called jigs – and ship them south to deal with theshowdown with the Soviet Union.

Finally, Baker was getting to tell a little of his story.

And then the Malaysian airliner, MH370, disappeared, and as the weeks dragged on, searchers started dropping sonobuoys to listen for pings from the plane’s flight recorder and possibly find the airplane.

Those are the jigs that were made here in Fort Wayne, he let us know. In fact, the ones being used might have been made in Fort Wayne, though the plant that makes the instruments is now in Whitley County.

The technology he helped pioneer back when the military still had biplanes is still in use, and in the news.

“It relieves my mind” to be able to talk about it, he said.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.