This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the honor of wearing the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
By Alex Snyder, Defense Media Activity
Orphaned just a few years after his 1919 birth, Vernon Baker was raised with his two sisters by his grandparents in Wyoming. He moved in with an aunt in Iowa while in high school. After graduation, he joined his grandfather as a railroad worker, serving as a porter.
In the summer of 1941, Baker grew tired of railroad life, and enlisted in the Army. After completing officer candidate school, he was commissioned on Jan. 11, 1943. Baker joined the segregated 270th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division. He and his fellow soldiers were members of the first African-American unit to go into combat in World War II.
Almost three years to the day that Baker enlisted, his division landed at Naples, Italy, and fought its way north into the center of the embattled country. In the fall, Baker, on night patrol, ran into a German guard. Baker killed the German, but he was wounded so badly that he was hospitalized for two months.
In the spring of 1945, Baker — the only black officer in his company — was back on duty and in command of a weapons unit near Viareggio, Italy. It was just a few months before the war would end, but on April 5, the battles were still raging. Baker and his troops were ordered to launch an early morning assault against a mountain stronghold occupied by the Germans.
Baker led two attacks against the stronghold, taking out many of the enemy positions in the mountainous terrain. This action secured the position for Baker’s team and helped to drive enemy forces out of northern Italy.
Following the battle, Baker was nominated for the nation’s second-highest honor for battlefield valor, the Distinguished Service Cross. At the time, the Medal of Honor was reserved for white troops.
Baker remained in the military until 1968 and became one of the first African-American officers to command an all-white company.
In 1996, more than 50 years after his actions in Italy, Baker, who was by then living in Idaho with his wife, Heidy, received a telephone call explaining that the military was seeking to reevaluate the heroism of African-Americans in World War II and he was to receive the Medal of Honor.
On Jan. 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton presented Baker with the Medal of Honor, He was the only living African-American World War II veteran to earn it. Six other African-American service members were recognized with the award that year. Four had died in action and the other two had died in the decades after the war.
At the White House ceremony Clinton said African-Americans “were denied the nation’s highest honor, but their deeds could not be denied.”
Asked how he had felt about serving in a segregated unit, Baker said, “I was an angry young man. We were all angry. But we had a job to do, and we did it. My personal thoughts were that I knew things would get better, and I’m glad to say that I’m here to see it.”
Baker died at his St. Maries, Idaho, home on July 13, 2010, after a long battle with cancer. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
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