Saturday, February 12, 2011

Black History Month: Vernon Baker

I first wrote about Vernon Baker a few months ago when he passed away at the age of 90.

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.

Author Ken Olsen, who wrote a biography of Baker called "Lasting Valor", wrote this article for The Spokesman that I found at Veteran's Voices about Vernon's funeral at Arlington:

A caisson drawn by seven white horses carried Vernon J. Baker to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery Friday under the solemn watch of the 3rd Infantry Regiment Honor Guard – starched and sharp in full dress blues despite the stifling September sun.

Four soldiers from the nation’s oldest infantry regiment led the procession along Arlington’s narrow asphalt lanes, followed by the U.S. Army Band, 18-white gloved riflemen, the color guard and the flag-draped caisson. An eight-man casket team, a lone Medal of Honor flag bearer and three Vietnam Medal of Honor recipients came next. Widow Heidy Baker, escorted by Medal of Honor recipient Tom Norris and Maj. Gen. Reuben Jones, brought up the rear with a long line of mourners that included Paul Dickerson, who served with Baker in northern Italy in World War II.

They filed to Baker’s gravesite, located at the edge of a sea of white markers that stretched into trees already taking on autumn colors. A chaplain’s words spilled onto a breeze that brought minimal relief from the record-breaking 98-degree heat. A seven-man firing party snapped off three sharp rounds. Taps cried goodbye. Handkerchiefs wiped away tears and wiped brows.

Norris, retired Gen. Robert Foley, Brian Thacker, Joe Marm and Barney Barnum – all who earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam – came forward one-by-one at the end of the ceremony to lay a yellow, long-stemmed rose beside Baker’s urn, then stepped back and saluted a hero’s farewell.

Baker, who lived near St. Maries, Idaho, was the only living black World War II veteran to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest commendation for battlefield valor. That recognition, delayed by the racism of the era, 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 April 1945 battle.

Baker’s widow cried quietly throughout the memorial, like many others gathered here, far from ready for this final moment, far from ready to say goodbye to the humble orphan from Wyoming who emerged with remarkable dignity and grace from some of the worst that 20th century America dealt to black soldiers.

The contingent at the memorial included Lt. Col. Mark Jackson, who, as a captain, escorted Baker to the White House in 1997 where he received the Medal of Honor from President Bill Clinton. Gen. Colleen McGuire, provost marshal general of the Army, U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, and other dignitaries also came to pay their respects.

Baker’s stepdaughter, Alexandra Pawlik, and step-grandson Vernon Pawlik, were on hand as was Kathleen Jackman, a neighbor of the Bakers in Idaho’s Benewah Valley; she also attended the White House ceremony 13 years ago.

Baker attended the reburial of the only other black World War II Medal of Honor recipient buried at Arlington – Sgt. Edward A. Carter – on a frigid day in January 1997, less than 24 hours after the White House ceremony.

Baker would been uncomfortable with this attention, all the while proud of the recognition it brought to the forgotten black soldiers who fought in the last officially segregated combat units of the U.S. Army. He always took little credit for his deeds, insisting he was just a soldier trying to do his job.

“The real heroes were the 19 men I left on the hill that day,” Baker said repeatedly, referring to the men from his unit killed during that brutal but decisive battle.

That will inspire soldiers and citizens long after this day fades. “He’s an example worth following,” Norris said as today’s memorial concluded. “He was such a low-key, unassuming man with incredible insight and wisdom. I was incredibly lucky I was able to know him.”

There's an awesome and tear-inducing photo essay of Vernon's funeral here.

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.

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