Sunday, July 18, 2010

The passing of two great men

The world is indeed a sadder place this week as two great American heroes passed away, both recipients of the Medal of Honor.

Vernon Baker, the only living black World War II veteran to receive the Medal of Honor, died at his home south of St. Maries, Idaho, Tuesday at the age of 90. Yesterday, Nick Bacon passed away at the age of 64 at his home in Rose Bud, Arkansas. Both men had been battling cancer.

Baker captured that nation’s heart in 1997 when President Bill Clinton draped the Medal of Honor around the tearful soldier’s neck. This recognition finally came 52 years after Baker led a suicidal assault that helped the Allies breach the Gothic Line and drive the German Army out of northern Italy. His white commander deserted him and his men during that battle.

Baker became a symbol of the selfless sacrifice and courage of black soldiers who fought valiantly both to defeat the Axis powers and to gain full citizenship in the United States, which would not pass the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act for another 20 years.
Vernon Joseph Baker was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming., on Dec. 17, 1919. His parents were killed in a car accident when he was four, leaving him and his two older sisters to be raised by his grandparents. His grandfather, Joseph S. Baker, was chief brakeman for the Union Pacific Railroad in Cheyenne and the most influential figure in Vernon’s life. He taught his grandson to shoot a rifle and tasked the young Baker to help feed the family with rabbit and other wild game.

Those hunting skills served Baker in battle and saved him at home. While elk hunting in Idaho in the mid-1990s, he turned to find a mountain lion stalking him. In the receiving line after the Medal of Honor ceremony, President Clinton asked Baker about the fate of the cougar. “Why, it’s in my freezer,” Baker replied. “I’m going to eat him.” That's character, my friends.

After graduating high school, Baker worked a string of unfulfilling jobs before trying to join the Army in April 1941, but was turned down at first.

“The recruiter told me, ‘We don’t have any quotas for you people,’” Baker said. He returned to the Cheyenne recruiting office a few weeks later and a friendlier sergeant signed him up. “I said I wanted quartermaster,” Baker remembered. “And he put down infantry. But I didn’t say anything because I was going to get in.”

Despite such episodes, Baker said his first memorable encounter with racism came when he got off a train in central Texas and boarded the bus for Camp Wolters and basic training. Baker took the seat directly behind the driver. The driver turned and yelled, “Hey nigger, get to the back of the bus where you belong.” As Baker prepared to punch the driver, an old man grabbed his arm, led him to the back, and explained the way things were in the American South.

“I don’t regret joining the Army,” Baker said. “I do regret being assigned to places like Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana.”

Baker endured abuse from all sides. Illiterate black enlisted men who had been trapped in menial jobs for years resented his rapid advancement. Three black soldiers jumped him one night at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. “They whipped me up because I was the smart nigger,” Baker said.

The U.S. military considered blacks unfit for combat during the Jim Crow era, despite black soldiers’ impressive record dating back to the Revolutionary War. By 1944, short on soldiers and under intense pressure from the black community, the Army relented and formed the all-black 92nd Infantry Division – one of the few all-black units to see combat during World War II. Now a 2nd Lieutenant, Baker was shipped to Italy with the first contingent that June and quickly developed a reputation as a formidable fighter.

Baker was wounded in the arm on a night mission in October 1944 and hospitalized near Pisa. He returned to the front in December to find Allied units still bogged down along the Gothic Line. Stretching the width of northern Italy, the Gothic Line was a series of bunkers, artillery batteries and machine gun nests woven into the natural fortifications of the Appenine Mountains.

With his unit held in reserve, Baker watched other detachments from the 92nd Division being slaughtered when they were ordered to make a series of daylight assaults. Much of the focus was on a 15th-century fortress called Castle Aghinolfi that gave the Germans control of the western end of the Gothic Line. The castle remained impervious to Allied bombing raids and ground assaults. Eventually, Baker and his men were sent into the fray.

In the early hours of April 5, 1945, Baker and his heavy weapons platoon managed to slip through mine fields, barbed wire and other German defenses and get within sight of the castle. Baker single-handedly took out three machine gun nests, two observation posts and two bunkers in addition to helping take other enemy positions. He also discovered and destroyed a network of telephone lines that connected the German positions.

When the Germans woke to U.S. troops in the terraced olive groves below the castle, they pummeled them with mortar rounds and machine gun fire. Baker’s calls for artillery support were disregarded for several hours because American officers didn’t believe he and his men were so far behind enemy lines. As the battle intensified, the white company commander left, taking the only radioman and telling Baker he was going for reinforcements. Instead, he reported that Baker’s platoon had been wiped out.

Baker fought for several more hours, losing 19 of his 25 men before deciding to withdraw. The next day, Baker was order to lead an all-white company back to the castle. They reached the fortress without a shot being fired. Germany surrendered a month later.

Baker’s fellow soldiers nominated him for the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest honor for battlefield valor, well aware that the white Southerners the Army purposefully put in charge of black troops would not approve the more justly deserved Medal of Honor. White officers, meanwhile, nominated the captain who deserted Baker’s platoon for the Medal of Honor. That captain ultimately didn’t receive it.

General Ned Almond, commander of the 92nd Division, summoned Baker to headquarters after the Distinguished Service Cross nomination reached his desk. Almond ordered Baker to write a detailed report about the battle with the intent of discrediting him. Baker, by then a 1st Lieutenant, still received the honor and at the end of World War II was the most highly decorated black soldier in the Mediterranean Theater with the Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, the Italian Cross of Valor of War and the Polish Cross of Valor.

In the early 90’s, the Army commissioned a study to learn why no black soldiers received the Medal of Honor in WW2. At first, Baker was skeptical when researchers from Shaw University called. “I just figured it was one of those things somebody dreamed up that would go away,” Baker said, recalling earlier promises to recognize the heroism of black soldiers in World War II.

The deeds of a dozen black World War II veterans were forwarded to an independent Army review board after the study was completed. The panel affirmed the Medal of Honor for seven black soldiers in 1996. By then, Baker was the only survivor.
Vernon Baker’s Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:
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.

Nick Daniel Bacon was born in Caraway, Arkansas, the son of a sharecropper farmer, and grew up working on farms. The family, six kids in tow, moved to Arizona when Nick was a child. At 17, he joined the Army. After serving in the Arizona National Guard, he volunteered for active duty in Vietnam in 1964. He ended his first tour in 1967, after having fought mainly in small unit engagements against the Vietcong. Early the next year, he was sent to Hawaii to help train the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 23d (Americal) Division. That fall, Bacon, now a Staff Sergeant, returned with the regimentt to Vietnam for his second tour. But the war had changed dramatically since his first tour ended. Well-supplied and disciplined units of the regular North Vietnamese Army, filtering into South Vietnam down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, had begun to take over the brunt of the fighting from the Vietcong. Bacon found himself leading a squad of the first platoon of Company B, 4th Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment in this new tour.

On August 26, 1968, Bacon's company was returning to base for a break after a month of fighting. The men expected steak and beer and long showers, and instead, they were hustled onto helicopters and sent to help a unit of the 1st Cavalry Division under heavy attack near Tam Ky. The stalled tanks and armored personnel carriers of the 1st Cavalry were ready to move forward by the time Bacon's unit arrived. As they were deploying, a reinforced and well-camouflaged North Vietnamese regiment dug into the hillside opened fire.

Bacon organized his men and began an assault. He assaulted one enemy bunker and destroyed it with grenades. Seconds later, several GIs, including the lieutenant leading his platoon, were hit by machine-gun fire. Bacon took command, got the badly wounded officer back to a personnel carrier, then returned to destroy the machine gun.

When the third platoon of Bravo Company lost their own leader, Bacon took command of that platoon as well as his own and led both platoons against enemy positions. Armored personnel carriers were needed to evacuate the wounded, but they were unable to reach the American position because of heavy fire from rocket-propelled grenades. Bacon killed four more of the enemy and destroyed an antitank weapon with a grenade. Now that the American armor could move again, Bacon climbed onto the deck of the tank and directed fire in the enemy position while the wounded were evacuated. The company commander then called in air strikes, which took the pressure off Bacon's unit and allowed it to advance.

Bacon was awarded his Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon on November 24, 1969. Bacon stayed in the Army and retired as a First Sergeant, and later served as the director of Veteran’s Affairs for the state of Arkansas from 1993 to 2005. His Medal of Honor citations reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. S/Sgt. Bacon distinguished himself while serving as a squad leader with the 1st Platoon, Company B, during an operation west of Tam Ky. When Company B came under fire from an enemy bunker line to the front, S/Sgt. Bacon quickly organized his men and led them forward in an assault. He advanced on a hostile bunker and destroyed it with grenades. As he did so, several fellow soldiers including the 1st Platoon leader, were struck by machine gun fire and fell wounded in an exposed position forward of the rest of the platoon. S/Sgt. Bacon immediately assumed command of the platoon and assaulted the hostile gun position, finally killing the enemy gun crew in a single-handed effort. When the 3d Platoon moved to S/Sgt. Bacon's location, its leader was also wounded. Without hesitation S/Sgt. Bacon took charge of the additional platoon and continued the fight. In the ensuing action he personally killed 4 more enemy soldiers and silenced an antitank weapon. Under his leadership and example, the members of both platoons accepted his authority without question. Continuing to ignore the intense hostile fire, he climbed up on the exposed deck of a tank and directed fire into the enemy position while several wounded men were evacuated. As a result of S/Sgt. Bacon's extraordinary efforts, his company was able to move forward, eliminate the enemy positions, and rescue the men trapped to the front. S/Sgt. Bacon's bravery at the risk of his life was in the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.Vernon Baker will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, while Nick Bacon will be buried at the Arkansas State Veteran’s Cemetery in North Little Rock.

Rest in peace, boys. Godspeed, and thank you from a grateful nation.

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