WWII hero Vernon Baker fought fascism over there, racism at home

Vernon J. Baker received the Medal of Honor nearly a half-century after World War II.
Vernon J. Baker received the Medal of Honor nearly a half-century after World War II. (Jesse Tinsley/AP)
By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

With the death last week of Medal of Honor recipient Vernon J. Baker, who was 90, the time has come to heed his final commands: You don't have to remember him as a hero, the retired Army lieutenant told me during a visit to Washington in 1997; just don't forget the sacrifices made by African American soldiers during World War II.

In his memoir, "Lasting Valor," Baker wrote of a fierce battle April 5, 1945, in Querceta, Italy, between German soldiers and his all-black platoon from the 92nd Infantry Division: "We had cleared the way for this all-white company to go all the way to [the Castle Aghinolfi, a Nazi stronghold] without hearing a shot. Our thanks was an ass chewing and an assignment to scout for white soldiers. It was a way of life for my men. It made me furious."

Remarkably, Baker and other African American soldiers did not allow racism or resentment to break their spirit. This is what he would have us remember: "We had made an ass out of everyone who said we couldn't do it."

Prove the naysayer wrong, Baker said. Do good in school, stay out of trouble and recognize your self-worth even if others do not. "Yet, I still wanted respect and the acknowledgment that we were good," wrote Baker, a native of Cheyenne, Wyo.

A dynamo of a man who stood 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 145 pounds, Baker, then 25, rushed up a hill and used a submachine gun and grenades to take out a Nazi machine-gun nest.

By the time his heroism was fully acknowledged -- more than 50 years later at a White House ceremony in 1997 -- Baker couldn't have cared less.

When I spoke with him at a reception afterward, he appeared melancholy. Six other black soldiers from World War II were also found deserving of the nation's highest military honor, but they were dead and their awards were presented posthumously.

"I just wish the other guys were here," Baker told me.

Justice delayed was justice denied. And Baker knew that no medal could make up for it. Indeed, a half-century after the war, the extent of racial injustice against black soldiers was still emerging.

One practice proved especially odious during World War II: the disproportionate number of black veterans who received the so-called blue discharge. The discharge was neither honorable nor dishonorable, but a veteran who received one would have more difficulty finding employment and was denied the educational and job-training benefits of the G.I. Bill, widely regarded as a gateway to the middle class.

Although African Americans made up 6.5 percent of the soldiers in the Army during World War II, they received more than 22 percent of the blue discharges. By the time Congress put an end to the blue discharge in 1947, the damage had been done: Blacks had been victimized once again by institutional racism -- with economic consequences that persist to this day.

Know your history, Baker said. Honor those who gave their lives for their country and who, in doing so, helped lay the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement. Fight as hard to keep your freedoms as they did to win them, lest their deaths be in vain.

Baker lost 19 of his men on the ridge leading up to the castle. In his book, he wrote that his white commander fled the firefight, saying that he was going for reinforcements. He never returned and ended up trying to take credit for Baker's heroic acts.

Baker did receive a Distinguish Service Cross at war's end, but only after the Italian and Polish governments presented him with their crosses of valor.

The Medal of Honor was presented by President Bill Clinton, with retired Gen. Colin L. Powell and Army Secretary Togo West leading the applause. Only later did we learn how Baker really felt about the ceremony and what he thought we should do instead of turning soldiers into celebrities.

"My hero's mantle has been crafted out of carnage, the senseless sacrifice of young men and my mad-dog desperation to outlast the enemy and disprove the fiction that black soldiers were afraid to fight," he wrote. "It's not a cause for national celebration or the incarnation of heroes. It is reason for us to mourn our losses and question our motivation."

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