Sometimes, it takes decades or even centuries for history to right its wrongs and honor those heroes who have been long overlooked or ignored. One such hero is an infantryman who exhibited bravery and resilience during the Second World War and was an inspirational leader for generations of soldiers to come. For more than half a century after the war’s end, 1Lt. Vernon J. Baker was the sole surviving African American veteran to have received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions.
It took a study commissioned by the Army years after the war to uncover the racial disparity in the selection process of the country’s most prestigious award. Shockingly, of the more than 400 Medals of Honor awarded, not a single one was given to the 1.2 million African Americans who served. Thanks to the researchers’ findings, seven African American soldiers, including Baker, were finally recommended for the country’s most prestigious military honor. Baker’s story is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the unbreakable will to fight for what’s right, regardless of the odds.
Vernon Baker’s Pre-Enlistment Life
Vernon Baker, born in 1919, was raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming, along with his two sisters by their paternal grandparents. Unfortunately, he became an orphan at the age of four when his parents got into a tragic car accident that killed them both. Vernon, the youngest of the three, used to struggle with anger and often argued with his grandmother. Accordingly, their strained relationship pushed a young Vernon to live in a Boys’ Town in Nebraska, and he stayed there for a few years to keep a distance away from his grandmother.
Nevertheless, Vernon’s relationship with his grandfather, Joseph S. Baker, was the total opposite. His old man taught him to hunt and provide for the family, becoming the most influential figure” in the young Baker’s life.
He entered and graduated from the same high school his grandfather once attended and eventually worked almost the same job as his old man as a railroad porter. However, Vernon ended up despising it, and shortly after Joseph’s passing due to cancer in 1939, the young Baker left this job. He would work a series of menial jobs until he finally decided to enlist in the US Army in mid-1941.
Overcoming Racial Discrimination
Initially, recruiters turned Vernon away because he was African American, with some historical accounts stating that the recruiter turned him down, saying they “don’t have any quotas for you people.” Despite being known as a hot-headed, Vernon did not give up and tried applying again a few weeks later with a different recruiter. Unlike his first attempt, Vernon was accepted this time and requested to join the Quartermaster Corps. However, the enlistment declined his first choice, placing him in the infantry instead.
Not wanting to jeopardize his chance, Vernon accepted the assignment without complaint and went to train at Camp Wolters, Texas, on June 26, 1941—just six months before the US entered the Second World War.
Living in a height period of racial segregation and discrimination, Vernon Baker experience degradation as soon he boarded the bus. His anger management was tested to the brim by the never ending prejudice he received from the Jim Crow South. He set his mind to get through it with his grandfather’s words echoing, “If you want to live, boy, learn how to conform.”
And conform he did.
After 13 weeks, Vernon completed Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning and graduated as a second lieutenant on January 11, 1943. Subsequently, he was assigned to command a weapons platoon in the segregated 370th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Infantry “Buffalo Soldiers” Division.
In June 1944, Baker was among the men sent to Italy to support major campaigns to push back the German occupation in the region. He suffered an arm injury in October of that year that forced him to recuperate in a hospital near Pisa before returning to his unit in December. Upon his return, he served in reserve along the Gothic Line, a heavily fortified German defensive line constructed across the Italian peninsula that the Allied forces struggled to overcome.
His recovery and return signify Baker’s resilience, but little did he know his time in the Army this time around will be a defining moment of his career and his life.
The Highlight of His Military Career
The morning of April 5, 1945, started like any other for the soldiers of C Company. The American forces pulled Baker’s unit off the reserves and placed them in active combat to embark on a mission to capture the German stronghold, Castle Aghinolfi, that had withstood three previous attempts of the Allied forces to take over the artillery post.
Baker led his heavy weapons platoon into the assault in the morning, and after two hours, they reached 250 yards away from the castle. He went on to survey the red zone and personally “killed two Germans in an observation post and another two near a camouflaged machine gun nest.” He also found two bunkers and a network of German telephone lines that he successfully destroyed along the way.
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He later met his company commander Captain John Runyon just seconds before a German grenade flew their way, which luckily did not explode in their faces. According to accounts, this pushed Runyon to retreat to the hill summit out of fear, but not Baker, who resumed his mission and killed four more enemies.
The Germans eventually spotted the American platoon lurking in the area and began a mortar assault killing dozens. American artillery managed to counter the attacking mortars, but not for long, as the Germans would launch another counterattack.
Amid the chaos that lasted for 12 hours, Baker found Runyon still paralyzed in fear and, instead of leading the unit, told the former to cover his withdrawal as he would seek reinforcement. With or without his company commander, Baker pushed through the operation. But the intense firefight forced the officer to eventually retreat, hoping to save some of his men, recounting the events: “My men wanted to stay, but I wanted to ensure some of them stayed alive.” While covering their withdrawal, Baker courageously crawled and threw grenades to destroy two German machine gun nests creating a safe route for his remaining men to reach safety. Unfortunately, the lieutenant only managed to save eight and lost nineteen lives.
Withstanding the loss, Baker volunteered to lead the battalion’s advance the following night through enemy mine fields to secure the occupied mountain objective. Like the previous day, the operation faced intense, heavy fire. But Baker saw through the campaign and eventually the war’s end.
The Long Road to Recognition
Baker stayed with the Allied occupation forces for a couple more years until 1947 before joining the Army Airborne forces. He ultimately retired and left the service in 1968 with the rank of first lieutenant and worked for the Red Cross for the next twenty years.
Runyon previously recommended Baker for the Distinguished Service Cross for his gallantry at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in that April 5-6, 1945 campaign, which he received in July of that year.
But in 1996, the Army announced the unjust awarding of seven African Americans, including Baker, who were determined to be deserving of the country’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor—the following year, retired 1Lt. Vernon Baker found himself among the seven to receive the prestigious award in the White House presented by President Bill Clinton.
Below is Baker’s Medal of Honor citation awarded by President Clinton on January 13, 1997.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: First Lieutenant Vernon J. Baker distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action on 5 and 6 April 1945 […] In all, Lieutenant Baker accounted for nine enemy dead soldiers and the elimination of three machine gun positions, an observation post, and a dugout. On the following night, Lieutenant Baker voluntarily led a battalion advance through enemy mine fields and heavy fire toward the division objective. Lieutenant Baker’s fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of military service.
In 2010, Baker succumbed to a long battle with cancer at his Idaho home. He was laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
The story of Vernon Baker is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the perseverance of those who fight for what is right. His bravery and resilience in the face of racial discrimination and adversity during World War II serve as an inspiration to generations of soldiers who have followed in his footsteps. Despite the decades-long delay in recognizing the contributions of African American veterans, Baker’s legacy and the recognition of his heroic actions remind us of the importance of justice and equality for all.
For more in-depth reading about the memoirs of Vernon J. Baker, check out Lasting Valor here!
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