Lt. Vernon Baker, living World War II Medal Of Honor hero died, 90. Baker, died due to cancer at his home in St. Maries, ID.
Baker received the Metal of Honor in 1997 along with 6 soldiers posthumously because of racial discrimination in the Army in late 1940’sl. Baker receives the award from then President Bill Clinton after a an extensive investigation of the US Army denying African-American and minority servicemen the Metal of Honor. From Spokane Spokesman-Review:
This recognition finally came 52 years after Baker led a suicidal assault that helped the Allies breach the Gothic Line and drive the German Army out of northern Italy. His white commander deserted him and his men during that battle.
Baker became a symbol of the selfless sacrifice and courage of black soldiers who fought valiantly both to defeat the Axis powers and to gain full citizenship in the United States, which would not pass the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act for another 20 years.
“They were denied the nation’s highest honor, but their deeds could not be denied,” Clinton said during the White House ceremony. The president made a point of quoting Baker’s personal creed, which kept the Wyoming native going during World War II and through his distinguished military career. “Give respect before you expect it. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Remember the
Baker receive the honor for his service in Italy battle:
Baker was wounded in the arm on a night mission in October 1944 and hospitalized near Pisa. He returned to the front in December to find the Allied army still bogged down along the Gothic Line. Stretching the width of northern Italy, the Gothic Line was a series of bunkers, artillery batteries and machine gun nests woven into the natural fortifications of the Appenine Mountains.
Because his unit was held in reserve, Baker watched other detachments from the 92nd Division slaughtered when they were ordered to make a series of daylight assaults. Much of the focus was on a 15th-century fortress called Castle Aghinolfi that gave the Germans control of the western end of the Gothic Line. The castle remained impervious to Allied bombing raids and ground assaults.
Baker and his men were allowed to join the fight in early spring. Well before dawn on April 5, 1945, Baker and his heavy weapons platoon managed to slip through mine fields, barbed wire and other German defenses and get within sight of the castle. Baker single-handedly took out three machine gun nests, two observation posts and two bunkers in addition to helping take other enemy positions. He also discovered and destroyed a network of telephone lines that connected the German positions.
Once the Germans woke to the presence of U.S. troops in the terraced olive groves below the castle, they pummeled them with mortars and machine gun fire. Baker’s calls for artillery support were disregarded for several hours because American officers didn’t believe he and his men were so far behind enemy lines. As the battle intensified, the white company commander left, taking the only radioman and telling Baker he was going for reinforcements. Instead, he reported that Baker’s platoon had been wiped out.
Baker fought for several more hours, losing 19 of his 25 men before deciding to withdraw. The next day, Baker was order to lead an all-white company back to the castle. They reached the fortress without a shot being fired. Germany surrendered a month later.
Baker’s fellow soldiers nominated him for the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest honor for battlefield valor, well aware that the white Southerners the Army purposefully put in charge of black troops would not approve the more justly deserved Medal of Honor. White officers, meanwhile, nominated the captain who deserted Baker’s platoon for the Medal of Honor. That captain ultimately didn’t receive it.
Baker stayed in the Army until he retired in 1968.
Vernon Baker was born in Cheyenne, WY December 17th 1919. His Parents were killed in a car accident when Baker was 4 years old. Baker and his sister lived with their Grandparents Joseph W. Baker who was chief breakman for the Union Pacific Railroad in Cheyenne. The elder Baker was a his role model.
He had a difficult relationship with his grandmother and he was sent to Boys Town in neighboring Nebraska for a few year. He return home to graduate high school in Clarinda, IA. Baker joined the Union Pacific Railroad as a porter for 3 years. He left taking a variety of jobs from sweeping barber shops and shining shoes.
In 1939 he joined the US Army. At first he denies entry by a racist recruiter who said to Baker “The recruiter told me, ‘We don’t have any quotas for you people,’” Baker said. He returned to the Cheyenne recruiting office a few weeks later and a friendlier sergeant signed him up. “I said I wanted quartermaster,” Baker remembered. “And he put down infantry. But I didn’t say anything because I was going to get in.”
During his early years in the Army Baker faced racism and mistreated by fellow African-American soldiers jealous of his advancement:
Despite such episodes, Baker said his first memorable encounter with racism came when he got off a train in central Texas and boarded the bus for Camp Wolters and basic training. Baker took the seat directly behind the driver. The driver turned and yelled, “Hey nigger, get to the back of the bus where you belong.” As Baker prepared to punch the driver, an old man grabbed his arm, led him to the back, and explained the rules of Southern living.
“I don’t regret joining the Army,” Baker said. “I do regret being assigned to places like Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana.”
Baker endured abuse from all sides. Illiterate black enlisted men who had been trapped in menial jobs for years resented his rapid advancement. Three black soldiers jumped him one night at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. “They whipped me up because I was the smart nigger,” Baker said.
In 1944 the US Army created the all black 92nd Infantry Division which was one of all black to see warfare. He and his fellow troops were sent to Italy:
“I learned lessons from him in battle that sustained me the rest of my life,” said Maj. Gen. James F. Hamlet, who was then a 2nd lieutenant. “Vern was the finest combat leader I saw in World War II. And I haven’t seen too many in the Korean War or my two tours in Vietnam that were any better.”
After the War he remained in Europe joining an Airborne division jumping out of planes until 1947 when Baker was shipped back to the states. When the Army desegregated he became the first African-American to command an all white platoon.
Baker met, fell in love and Married his first wife Fern Brown. They raised three children. Fern died in 1986. He moved to Northern Idaho after her death. In 1989, he met his second wife Heidy Pawlick a tourist from Gernany at the Spokane International Airport. They married years later.
IN 2004 Baker develop brain cancer which almost killed him. Baker gave up his favorite hobby hunting , which his grandfather taught him. He continue to read voracious, avid photographer, collected stamps, fountain pens and watches.
When he turned 90 Baker remarked on the election of President Barack Obama “I never thought I’d see this day.”
Baker to be buried at Arlington National Cemetary, in Arlington,VA with full military honors. There will be a local memorial service in St. Maries but a date not announced.
Vernon Baker you sir are a true American Hero. A Grateful Nation thanks you for your service. I am sorry American Army treated you poorly. I am glad the Army and Federal Government corrected this injustice. God Bless your soul.