|Born||17 Dec 1919|
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Vernon Baker was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, United States. He enlisted in the United States Army on 26 Jun 1941, six month prior to the American direct involvement in WW2. On 11 Jan 1943, after completing officer candidate school, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. On 5 and 6 Apr 1945, while fighting in near Castle Aghinolfi, Italy, he led a group of 25 men of the 370th Infantry Regiment, US 92nd Infantry Division deep into German lines, taking out six machine gun nests, two observer posts, and four dugouts, killing 26 German soldiers in the process. Baker alone was credited with the greater half of the enemy defensive structures destroyed and nine kills, achieved with his rifle and hand grenades. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery at Castle Aghinolfi. During WW2, he also earned the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. He remained in active service until Aug 1965, retiring at the rank of first lieutenant.
In 1993, a study commissioned by the US Army described systematic racial discrimination during the WW2-era. After review, Baker's Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, which was awarded to him by President William J. "Bill" Clinton on 13 Jan 1997. "[African Americans] helped America to become more worthy of them and more true to its ideals," Clinton said at the White House ceremony. The Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty in action on 5 and 6 April 1945, Lieutenant Baker advanced at the head of his weapons platoon, along with Company C's three rifle platoons, toward their objective; Castle Aghinolfi—a German mountain strong point on the high ground just east of the coastal highway and about two miles from the 370th Infantry Regiment’s line of departure.
Moving more rapidly than the rest of the company, Lieutenant Baker and about 25 men reached the south side of a draw some 250 yards from the castle within two hours. In reconnoitering for a suitable position to set up a machine gun, Lieutenant Baker observed two cylindrical objects pointing out of a slit in a mount at the edge of a hill. Crawling up and under the opening, he stuck his M-1 into the slit and emptied the clip, killing the observation post’s two occupants. Moving to another position in the same area, Lieutenant Baker stumbled upon a well-camouflaged machine gun nest, the crew of which was eating breakfast. He shot and killed both enemy soldiers.
After Captain John F. Runyon, Company C's Commander, joined the group, a German soldier appeared from the draw and hurled a grenade which failed to explode. Lieutenant Baker shot the enemy soldier twice as he tried to flee. Lieutenant Baker then went down into the draw alone. There he blasted open the concealed entrance to another dugout with a hand grenade, shot one German soldier who emerged after the explosion, tossed another grenade into the dugout and entered firing his submachine gun, killing two more Germans. As Lieutenant Baker climbed back out of the draw, enemy machine gun and mortar fire began to inflict heavy casualties among the group of 25 soldiers, killing or wounding about two-thirds of them.
When expected reinforcements did not arrive, Capt. Runyon ordered a withdrawal in two groups. Lieutenant Baker volunteered to cover the withdrawal of the first group, which consisted of mostly walking wounded, and to remain to assist in the evacuation of the more seriously wounded. During the second group's withdrawal, Lieutenant Baker, supported by covering fire from one of his platoon members, destroyed two machine gun positions (previously bypassed during the assault) with hand grenades. In all, Lieutenant Baker accounted for nine dead enemy soldiers, 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 the military service.
"No, I still don't feel like a hero", Baker said after receiving the honor from Clinton. "I just feel I was a soldier and I did my job, and I think I was rewarded for it". He also said that, during the ceremony, he thought of the other African American men in his unit who died on the front lines without ever receiving any recognition. "This day will vindicate those men and make things right", he said during an interview with the television news network CNN.
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|17 Dec 1919||Vernon Baker was born.|
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