Vernon Baker, who was the only living black veteran awarded the Medal of Honor for valor in World War II. Lt. Baker who received it some 52 years after he wiped out four German machine-gun nests on a hilltop in northern Italy, died Tuesday at his home near St. Maries, Idaho. He was 90.
According to Ron Hodge, owner of the Hodge Funeral Home in St. Maries , the cause resulted from complications of brain cancer.
Not displaying any bitterness, “I was a soldier and I had a job to do,” Mr. Baker said after receiving the Medal of Honor from President Bill Clinton in a White House ceremony on Jan. 13, 1997. The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest award for bravery.
In the segregated armed forces of World War II, black soldiers were usually confined to jobs in manual labor or supply units. It was thought that blacks were incapable of fighting. After pressure, the Army allowed blacks to go into combat. However, it rarely accorded them the recognition we deserved. Of the 433 Medals of Honor awarded by all branches of the military during the war, not a single one went to any of the 1.2 million blacks in the service.
In the early 1990s, responding to requests from black veterans and a white former captain who had commanded black troops in combat, the Army asked Shaw University, a historically black college in Raleigh, N.C., to investigate why no blacks had received the Medal of Honor during World War II. The inquiry found no documents proving that blacks had been discriminated against in decisions to award the medal, but concluded that a climate of racism had prevented recognition of heroic deeds.
Military historians gave the Army the names of 10 black servicemen who they believed should have been considered for the Medal of Honor. Then an Army board, looking at their files with all references to race deleted, decided that seven of these men deserved to be cited for bravery “above and beyond the call of duty.”
Four of the men — Lt. John R. Fox of Cincinnati; Pfc. Willy F. James Jr. of Kansas City, Mo.; Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers of Oklahoma City; and Pvt. George Watson of Birmingham, Ala. — had been killed in action. Two others — Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr. of Los Angeles and Lt. Charles L. Thomas of Detroit, who retired as a major — had died in the decades after the war. Those six received the medal posthumously at the White House ceremony in 1997.
Mr. Baker, the lone survivor among the seven, was greeted with a standing ovation as he entered the East Room to the strains of “God Bless America” played by the Marine Corps Band.
As Mr. Clinton placed the Medal of Honor around his neck, Mr. Baker stared into space, a tear rolling down his left cheek. “I was thinking about what was going on up on the hill that day,” he said later.
That day was April 5, 1945. Lieutenant Baker, a small man — 5 feet 5 inches and 140 pounds — was leading 25 black infantrymen through a maze of German bunkers and machine gun nests near Viareggio, Italy, a coastal town north of Pisa. About 5 a.m., they reached the south side of a ravine, 250 yards from Castle Aghinolfi, a German stronghold they hoped to capture.
Lieutenant Baker observed a telescope pointing out of a slit. Crawling under the opening, he emptied the clip of his M-1 rifle, killing two German soldiers inside the position. Then he came upon a well-camouflaged machine-gun nest whose two-man crew was eating breakfast. He shot and killed both soldiers.
After Capt. John F. Runyon, his company commander, who was white, joined the group, a German soldier hurled a grenade that hit Captain Runyon in his helmet but failed to explode. Lieutenant Baker shot the German twice as he tried to flee. He then blasted open the concealed entrance of another dugout with a hand grenade, shot one German soldier who emerged, tossed another grenade into the dugout and entered it, firing his machine gun and killing two more Germans.
Enemy machine-gun and mortar fire began to inflict heavy casualties among the platoon. Lieutenant Baker’s company commander had gone back for reinforcements, but they never arrived, so the remnants of the platoon had to withdraw. Lieutenant Baker, supported by covering fire from one of his soldiers, destroyed two machine-gun positions to allow the evacuation. Seventeen of the men in the platoon had been killed by time the firefight ended.
The next night, Lieutenant Baker voluntarily led a battalion advance through enemy minefields and heavy fire.
Lieutenant Baker received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award for bravery. Asked a half-century later whether he had ever given up hope of being awarded the Medal of Honor, he seemed surprised. “I never thought about getting it,” he said.
Freddie Stowers, a black veteran of World War I nominated for the medal in 1918, finally received it posthumously from President George Bush in 1991.
Vernon Joseph Baker was born on Dec. 17, 1919, in Cheyenne, Wyo., the son of a carpenter. After his parents died in an automobile accident when he was 4, he and two older sisters moved in with their grandparents, who also lived in Cheyenne.
The youngster developed a penchant for trouble, so he was sent to Boys Town in Omaha at age 10. He stayed there for three years, then earned a high school diploma while living with an aunt in Iowa.
He joined the Army in June 1941 and was sent to Camp Wolters, Tex., for basic training — his first trip to the Deep South. When he boarded a bus to the camp after stepping off the train, the driver shouted a racial epithet and told him to “get to the back of the bus where you belong,” he recalled years later in an interview with The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash.
When he began to show leadership potential, he was sent to Officer Candidate School, graduating as a second lieutenant in 1942. He went to Italy in 1944 with the 92nd Infantry Division’s 370th Regiment, which was composed of black enlisted men and black junior officers but had white officers in senior positions.
In October 1944, Lieutenant Baker was shot in the arm by a German soldier, and when he awoke from surgery he noticed that he was in a segregated hospital ward.
After the war, he remained in Italy for three years, then returned to the United States and re-enlisted. He stayed in the Army until 1968, then worked for the Red Cross at Fort Ord, Calif., counseling needy military families. After his first wife, Fern, died in 1986, he retired and moved to a rural section of Idaho to pursue his love of hunting.
Mr. Baker’s survivors include his second wife, Heidy; three children from his first marriage; a stepdaughter; and a stepgrandson.
Asked at the awards ceremony how he had felt about serving in a segregated unit, Mr. Baker replied: “I was an angry young man. We were all angry. But we had a job to do, and we did it. My personal thoughts were that I knew things would get better, and I’m glad to say that I’m here to see it.”
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