BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. – Born December 17, 1919 in Cheyenne Wyoming, Vernon Joseph Baker was orphaned at age four when his parents were killed in an automobile accident. Baker and his two older sisters were raised by his grandparents in Cheyenne, a town that had only 12 other black families. At 5’5” and with the prevailing climate of racism that existed, Baker had a fairly turbulent childhood. Baker was to spend three years of his adolescence at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha Nebraska. He graduated from high school in Iowa while living with his Aunt, and began work as a railroad porter.
Baker grew tired of his life as a railroad porter and in the summer of 1941 he joined the U.S. Army. Baker’s leadership qualities were recognized and he was sent to officer candidate school. He was commissioned a second lieutenant on January 11th,1943. Baker’s first assignment as an officer was the segregated 270th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division, the first black unit to go into combat in World War II.
The 270th landed at Naples in June of 1944 and fought its way north into central Italy. Later that year Baker, while on night patrol, came face to face with a German sentry. Baker was to win the duel that followed. Baker killed the German but was wounded so badly himself that he had to be hospitalized for two months. When he awoke from surgery he noticed he was in a segregated ward.
Baker, the only black officer in his company in the spring of 1945, was commanding a weapons platoon that consisted of two light machine guns and two mortar squads. The unit was near the village of Viareggio on April 5th when it was ordered to launch a dawn assault against Castle Aghinolfi, a mountain stronghold occupied by the Germans. It was on the second day of the assault that Baker led a battalion that finally secured the mountain for the American soldiers.
In his book “Lasting Valor” Baker wrote that their white commanding officer ran when the fighting started, ostensibly to seek reinforcements who never arrived.
The intense German fire was decimating the Americans, Baker took charge, moving from one machine gun nest to another, killing the enemy soldiers inside. Then he covered the evacuation of his wounded comrades by taking an exposed position and drawing the enemy’s fire, according to Army records.
The next night, Baker voluntarily led an advance on the castle through enemy mine fields and heavy fire.
In all, Baker and his platoon killed 26 Germans, destroyed 6 machine gun nests, two observer posts and four dugouts. Their heroism enabled the Allies to take the castle shortly thereafter.
Baker was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, making him the most decorated black soldier in the Mediterranean Theater.
What he did not know was that his Medal of Honor nomination had been blocked by a military establishment that did not want to give the nation’s highest honor to blacks.
Baker earned a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Distinguished Service Cross during his time in service. Baker stayed in the Army until 1968. He lived through its desegregation, and became one of the first blacks to command an all-white company. He joined the U.S. Army Airborne along the way, and made his last jump at age 48.
It was more than half a century after the assault on Castle Aghinolfi, when Baker received a telephone call from a man working on a federal grant to reevaluate the heroism of blacks in World War II. It was during this phone call Baker learned he was to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
On January 13th, 1997, 52 years after Baker’s World War II military service, President Clinton presented him with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration for battlefield valor. He was one of the most highly decorated black soldiers in the Mediterranean Theater. He was also the only living black World War II veteran to earn the Medal of Honor.
After retiring from the Army, he spent nearly 20 years working for the Red Cross. He lived in Northern Idaho with his wife, Heidy until he died on July 13, 2010 after a long battle with cancer.
The President of the United States
in the name of The Congress
takes pleasure in presenting the
Medal of Honor
First Lieutenant Vernon J. Baker
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.
Baker has been awarded the following: Medal of Honor; Bronze Star Medal; Purple Heart; American Defense Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal; Combat Infantryman Badge; Croce Al Valor Militare (Italian Decoration).
On September 11, 2008, Baker was awarded the Sandor Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service to Humankind by Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. Along with the award, Baker received an honorary doctorate from the college.
1st Lieutenant Vernon Baker is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery, Section 59, Site 4417.