Vernon J. Baker, 90

Vernon J. Baker, African American Medal of Honor recipient, dies at 90

Lt. Baker was one of the few black officers serving in the 92nd Infantry Division in 1945.
Lt. Baker was one of the few black officers serving in the 92nd Infantry Division in 1945. (File Photo)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Thursday, July 15, 2010

First Lt. Vernon J. Baker, 90, an Army infantryman who, more than 50 years after the end of World War II, became the only surviving African American to receive the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during the war, died July 13 at his home near St. Maries, Idaho. He had brain cancer.

In 1993, the Army commissioned a study led by researchers from Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., to determine whether there had been a racial disparity in how the Medal of Honor was awarded during World War II.

Of the more than 400 Medals of Honor awarded, not one of the 1.2 million African Americans who served in the war was a recipient.

After researchers found the discrepancy, the Army recommended seven African American soldiers for the country's most prestigious military honor, including Lt. Baker.

On Jan. 13, 1997, after Congress voided a statutory limit for awarding the medal, President Bill Clinton presented the families of six men with the Medal of Honor; four had died in combat, and two others had died since the end of the war. Lt. Baker, then 77, was the only living recipient.

In April 1945, then-2nd Lt. Baker was one of the few black officers serving in the segregated 92nd Infantry Division near the northern Italian village of Viareggio.

He and his 25 men were ordered to lead an assault on Castle Aghinolfi, a heavily guarded mountain fortress on the western end of the Gothic Line, a series of fortified bunkers considered to be the one of the last lines of German defense toward the end of the war.

Two hours after starting their mission on April 5, Lt. Baker and his men came within 300 yards of the castle. While attempting to find a suitable place for a machine gun, Lt. Baker observed two rifle barrels hanging out of a concealed slit in some rocky earth.

After stealthily crawling to the opening, he popped up and emptied the clip of his M-1 rifle into the observation post, killing two sentries.

While searching for more camouflaged emplacements, Lt. Baker spotted a machine-gun nest occupied by two soldiers distracted by their breakfast. He shot and killed them both.

A German soldier then hurled a grenade that landed at Lt. Baker's feet. Undeterred, he fired two fatal rounds at the fleeing German, while the grenade by Lt. Baker's boots failed to explode.

He found the door to another bunker and blasted it open with a grenade. A wounded German soldier stumbled out in confusion, and Lt. Baker shot him. After tossing in a second grenade, he raided the bunker with a submachine gun blazing, killing two more Germans.

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