Vernon Joseph Baker, WWII Medal of Honor Recipient   Leave a comment


baker

Vernon Joseph Baker (December 17, 1919 – July 13, 2010) was a United States Army officer who received the United States military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, for his actions in World War II. He was awarded the medal for his actions on April 5–6, 1945 near Viareggio, Italy, when he and his platoon killed 26 enemy soldiers and destroyed six machine gun nests, two observer posts and four dugouts. He was the only living black 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.

Early lifeBaker 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.[1]

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. At his first attempt to enlist, in April 1941, he was turned away, the recruiter stating “We don’t have any quotas for you people.” He tried again weeks later with a different recruiter and was accepted; he requested to become a quartermaster but was instead assigned to the infantry.[1]

Military serviceBaker 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.

In June 1944, Baker was sent to Italy with the all-black 92nd Infantry Division. He 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.

Castle Aghinolf (2011)In early spring, 1945, his unit was pulled from the reserves and placed in active combat. On the morning of April 5, he 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 three machine gun nests, two observation posts, two bunkers, and a network of German telephone lines along the way. It was for these actions that he was later awarded the Medal of Honor.[1]

After the end of the war, Baker remained in Europe with the Allied occupation forces until 1947. He later joined the Army Airborne forces and left the military in 1968 as a first lieutenant.[1]

Medal of Honor
Vernon Baker is awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton on January 13, 1997.In 1993, a study commissioned by the U.S. Army described systematic racial discrimination in the criteria for awarding medals during World War II. At the time, no Medals of Honor had been awarded to black soldiers who served in World War II. After an exhaustive review of files, the study recommended that several black Distinguished Service Cross recipients have their awards upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the medal to seven African American World War II veterans; Baker was the only recipient still living at the time.[2]

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 decorationsBaker 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).

Combat Infantry Badge
1st Row Medal of Honor Bronze Star Purple Heart American Defense Service Medal
2nd row American Campaign Medal European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Medal World War II Victory Medal Croce di Guerra

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 lifeBaker’s first wife was Leola Baker. His second 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 Pawlick, whom he would later marry.[1][3]

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 to travel to the service were raised by their local community.[1]

See also Biography portal
United States Army portal
World War II portal
List of Medal of Honor recipients for World War II

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Posted February 21, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Uncategorized

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