By Katie Lange, DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Today, we’re remembering another selfless hero from World War II — Army Lt. Vernon Baker, whose actions in 1945 earned him respect across the Army, but they weren’t fully recognized until long after his fighting days were over.
Baker joined the Army in the summer of 1941 for the simple reason that he needed a job. The 21-year-old Wyoming native was assigned to the segregated 370th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division.
The 370th was the first black unit to see action in the war, but that wouldn’t be for another three years after Baker joined up. His unit wasn’t activated until June 1944 when they were sent into Naples, Italy, to fight their way north.
A few months into his deployment, Baker ran into a German sentry while doing night patrol. He killed the enemy but was severely wounded in the encounter and spent two months in a hospital.
By the spring of 1945, Baker had recovered and worked his way up to lieutenant — the only black officer in Charlie Company — and had been put in command of a weapons platoon that was making its way up the Italian coast.
On April 5, Baker’s platoon was ordered to launch an assault against Castle Aghinolfi, a German stronghold at the top of a mountain. Baker made his mark in several ways that day:
— During a gun battle about 250 yards from the castle, Baker noticed two cylinders sticking up from the ground. When he realized they were observation scopes, he stuck his rifle in them and shot, killing two Germans who were directing the gunfire aimed at them.
— He shot and killed two enemy soldiers manning a camouflaged machine gun nest.
— While in a ravine, he killed a German soldier who had tossed a grenade at him and a commanding officer. Thankfully, the grenade turned out to be a dud.
— He blew open the fortified entrance of a hillside dugout with a grenade, shot an enemy sniper who ran out, and then went in and killed two more Germans.
Despite Baker’s successes, many in his platoon were casualties of the heavy fighting. Their captain ordered a withdrawal, and Baker covered them as they left. On his way to safety, he and his remaining platoon members came across two more German machine gun posts. Baker destroyed both with hand grenades.
His heroics weren’t over just yet, though.
The next day, Baker volunteered to lead his men on another assault of the castle. This time, they were successful in routing the Germans from the stronghold, despite having to dodge minefields and heavy fire.
For his actions, Baker earned the Distinguished Service Cross in July 1945. His Medal of Honor, however, wasn’t bestowed upon him until several decades later.
In 1996, Baker and seven other black World War II veterans were recommended to receive the award after a call had gone out to reevaluate the heroism of black men during that conflict.
Baker was finally awarded the medal in 1997, with President Bill Clinton placing it around his neck. The veteran was the only living black recipient from World War II to receive it.