|Vernon Joseph Baker|
Vernon Baker, awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997 for actions during World War II
December 17, 1919|
|Died||July 13, 2010
St. Maries, Idaho
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Army|
|Years of service||1941–1968|
|Unit||370th Infantry Regiment,
92nd Infantry Division
11th Airborne Division
|Battles/wars||World War II
Medal of Honor
Bronze Star (2)
With V Device
Purple Heart (2)
Croce di Guerra al Valor Militare
Vernon Joseph Baker (December 17, 1919 – July 13, 2010) was a United States Army officer who received the Medal of Honor, the highest military award given by the United States Government for his valorous actions during World War II. He was awarded the medal for his actions on April 5–6, 1945 near Viareggio, Italy. Baker was the only living black American World War II veteran of the seven belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor when it was bestowed upon him by President Bill Clinton in 1997. He died in 2010 at the age of 90.
Baker was born on December 17, 1919, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the youngest of three children. After his parents died in a car accident when he was four, he and his two sisters were raised by their grandparents. His grandfather Joseph S. Baker, a railroad worker in Cheyenne, taught him to hunt in order to feed the family and became "the most influential figure in Vernon's life." His relationship with his grandmother was much more strained, and he spent a few years at the Boys Town orphanage in Nebraska to be away from her.
Baker graduated from high school in his grandfather's hometown of Clarinda, Iowa. He then worked as a railroad porter, a job he despised, until his grandfather's death from cancer in 1939. A series of menial jobs followed until his enlistment in the U.S. Army in mid-1941. He attempt to enlist in April 1941, but was turned away with the recruiter stating, "We don't have any quotas for you people". Baker tried again weeks later with a different recruiter and was accepted; he requested to become a quartermaster but was assigned instead to the infantry.
Baker entered the Army on June 26, 1941, six months prior to the U.S. entry into World War II. He went through training at Camp Wolters, Texas, and after completing Officer Candidate School was commissioned as a second lieutenant on January 11, 1943. It was at this time that we met Sgt. Coleman Conley, a Tuskegee Airmen pilot, and his brother, Booker Conley. It was Coleman who encouraged Baker to find a way to join the 92nd Infantry Division.
In June 1944, Baker was sent to Italy with the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, with Booker Conley joining him that November as part of the 366th Infantry Regiment, which was a part of the 92nd Infantry Division. Baker was wounded in the arm in October of that year, hospitalized near Pisa, and in December rejoined his unit in reserve along the Gothic Line.
In early spring, 1945, his unit was pulled from the reserve status and ordered into combat. On the morning of April 5, Baker participated in an attack on the German stronghold of Castle Aghinolfi. During the assault, Baker led his heavy weapons platoon through German army defenses to within sight of the castle, personally destroying a machine gun position, two observation posts, two bunkers, and a network of German telephone lines along the way. It was for these and other actions including leading a battalion advance under heavy fire that he was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
After the end of the war, Baker remained in Europe with the Allied occupation forces until 1947, when he lost his commission due to the lack of a college education. He was re-commissioned during the Korean War and joined the 11th Airborne Division, but did not see any combat. He left the military in 1968 as a first lieutenant.
Medal of Honor
In 1993, a study commissioned by the U.S. Army described systematic racial discrimination in the criteria for awarding decorations during World War II. At the time, no Medals of Honor had been awarded to the black American soldiers who served in World War II. After an exhaustive review of files, the study recommended that ten black Distinguished Service Cross recipients have their military awards upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to seven of the World War II veterans; Baker was the only living recipient of the medal at the time.
Baker's official Medal of Honor citation reads:
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 an 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.
Awards and decorations
Baker has been awarded the following military awards: Medal of Honor; Army Distinguished Service Cross; Silver Star Medal; Bronze Star Medal (twice); Purple Heart (twice); American Defense Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal; World War II Army of Occupation Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Combat Infantryman Badge; Croce Al Valor Militare (Italian Decoration).
- On September 11, 2008, Vernon Baker was awarded the Sandor Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service to Humankind by Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Along with the award, Baker received an honorary doctorate from the college.
Family and later life
Baker's first wife was Helen Stewart Baker, a member of the Conley Family of Alabama, and cousin of Coleman and Booker, who persuaded Baker to join the 92nd Infantry Division. Two children came of this union: Vernon Baker (daughter named for him) and Micheal Baker. His second wife was Leola Baker. His Third wife was Betty Alexander of Columbus, Georgia. A daughter, Debra Ann and a son William were had in this union. His fourth wife was Fern Brown; the couple had three children. After his wife's death in 1986, he moved to a cabin in the Benewah Valley of northern Idaho. Baker was an avid hunter, and hunted elk in northern Idaho before and after moving to the area. In 1989, he met a German woman visiting the U.S., Heidy Pawlik, whom he would later marry.
Baker died at his St. Maries, Idaho, home on July 13, 2010 after a long battle with cancer. He had been near-death due to brain cancer in 2004 but had recovered. His funeral at Arlington National Cemetery on September 24, 2010, was attended by three other Medal of Honor recipients, and his family, for whom funds for them to travel to Arlington, Virginia were raised by their local community.
- List of Medal of Honor recipients for World War II
- List of African-American Medal of Honor recipients
- Conley family
- Olsen, Ken (July 14, 2010). "World War II hero Vernon Baker dies". The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington). Archived from the original on July 14, 2010.
- World War II African American Medal of Honor recipients, U.S. Army.
- Barrett, Natasha. "Only living black Medal of Honor recipient buried at Arlington National Cemetery". TBD. Retrieved September 25, 2010.
- Kelly, S.H. "Seven WWII vets to receive Medals of Honor", Army News Service, January 13, 1997. (Retrieved April 23, 2006).
- Jim Garamone (January 15, 1997). "Army Finally Recognizes WWII Black Heroes". DefenseLINK News. Retrieved 2007-03-27.
- Goldstein, Richard (July 14, 2010). "Vernon Baker, Belated Medal of Honor recipient, Dies at 90". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-07-15.
- Vernon Baker, American Valor: Stories of Valor, PBS
- Dialogue: Paying a Debt of Honor, Dialogue: Paying a Debt of Honor, Idaho Public Television