19 July 2010

RIP: Vernon Baker

Vernon J Baker
17 Dec 1919 - 13 Jul 2010

ZUI this article from the Spokane (WA) Spokesman-Review:
Vernon Baker, the only living black World War II veteran to receive the Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest commendation for battlefield valor – died at his home south of St. Maries, Idaho, Tuesday. He was 90.

Baker died after a long battle with cancer, family members said.


Baker captured that nation’s heart in 1997 when President Bill Clinton draped the Medal of Honor around the tearful soldier’s neck. 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.


Vernon Joseph Baker was born in Cheyenne, Wyo., on Dec. 17, 1919. His parents were killed in a car accident when he was four. He and his two older sisters were raised by his grandparents. His grandfather, Joseph S. Baker, was chief brakeman for the Union Pacific Railroad in Cheyenne and the most influential figure in Vernon’s life. He taught his grandson to shoot a rifle and tasked the young Baker to help feed the family with rabbit and other wild game.

Those hunting skills served Baker in battle and saved him at home. While elk hunting in Idaho in the mid-1990s, he turned to find a mountain lion stalking him. In the receiving line after the Medal of Honor ceremony, President Clinton asked Baker about the fate of the cougar. “Why, it’s in my freezer,” Baker replied. “I’m going to eat him.”


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.

Gen. Ned Almond, commander of the 92nd Division, summoned Baker to headquarters after the Distinguished Service Cross nomination reached his desk. Almond ordered Baker to write a detailed report about the battle with the intent of discrediting him. Baker, by then a 1st lieutenant, still received the honor and at the end of World War II was the most highly decorated black soldier in the Mediterranean Theatre with the Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, the Italian Cross of Valor of War and the Polish Cross of Valor.


The Army commissioned a study to learn why no black soldiers received the Medal of Honor in the early 1990s. Baker was skeptical when researchers from Shaw University called. “I just figured it was one of those things somebody dreamed up that would go away,” Baker said, recalling earlier promises to recognize the heroism of black soldiers in World War II.

The deeds of a dozen black World War II veterans were forwarded to an independent Army review board after the study was completed. The panel affirmed the Medal of Honor for seven black soldiers in 1996. By then, Baker was the only survivor.

He was invited to return to Italy in April 1997 by the Italian government on the 52nd anniversary of the battle for Castle Aghinolfi. In village after village, people turned out to honor Baker and celebrate the black soldiers who freed them from the brutal Nazi occupation.

Baker was also reunited with Emelio Bertilini, a teenage partisan who had been wounded while on a mission with Baker in early 1945. The two men embraced in the town square in Monticello. “This is my man,” a joyful Baker said.

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Second Lieutenant, US Army; 370th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division

Born: 17 December 1919, Cheyenne, Wyoming
Died: 13 Jul 2010, St Maries, Idaho

Citation: For extraordinary heroism in action on 5 and 6 April 1945, near Viareggio, Italy. Then Second Lieutenant Baker demonstrated outstanding courage and leadership in destroying enemy installations, personnel and equipment during his company's attack against a strongly entrenched enemy in mountainous terrain. When his company was stopped by the concentration of fire from several machine gun emplacements, he crawled to one position and destroyed it, killing three Germans. Continuing forward, he attacked and enemy observation post and killed two occupants. With the aid of one of his men, Lieutenant Baker attacked two more machine gun nests, killing or wounding the four enemy soldiers occupying these positions. He then covered the evacuation of the wounded personnel of his company by occupying an exposed position and drawing the enemy's fire. On the following night Lieutenant Baker voluntarily led a battalion advance through enemy mine fields and heavy fire toward the division objective. Second Lieutenant Baker's fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the Armed Forces.

Note: Medal awarded 13 Jan 1997.

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