Vernon Baker, Belated African American World War II Medal of Honor Recipient, Dies at 90

Vernon Joseph Baker (December 17, 1919 – July 13, 2010) was a United States Army officer who received the United States military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, for his actions in World War II. He was awarded the medal for his actions on April 5–6, 1945 near Viareggio, Italy, when he and his platoon killed 26 enemy soldiers and destroyed six machine gun nests, two observer posts and four dugouts. He was the only living black World War II veteran of the seven belatedly awarded the medal of honor when it was bestowed upon him by President William Jefferson Clinton in 1997.

African American World War II Medal of Honor Recipients

No African American soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. In 1993 the Army contracted Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, to research and prepare a study “to determine if there was a racial disparity in the way Medal of Honor recipients were selected.” Shaw’s team researched the issue and, finding that there was disparity, recommended the Army consider a group of 10 soldiers for the Medal of Honor.

Of those 10, seven were recommended to receive the award. In October of 1996 Congress passed the necessary legislation which allowed the President to award these Medals of Honor since the statutory limit for presentation had expired. The Medals of Honor were presented, by President William Clinton, in a ceremony on 13 January 1997.

Vernon Baker was the only recipient still living and present to receive his award; the other six soldiers received their awards posthumously, with their medals being presented to family members.

Citation for Vernon Baker:

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.

Sources: Wikipedia / U.S. Army Center of Military History

Paying a Debt of Honor: Interview with Vernon Baker (1997)

Watch the full episode. See more Dialogue.

Stories from the Northwest: WWII – Vernon Baker

Further Reading:

Vernon Baker, American Valor: Stories of Valor (PBS)
> more

U.S. President Bill Clinton, Remarks on Presenting the Congressional Medal of Honor to African-American Heroes of World War II, January 13, 1997
> more

Elliott Vanveltner Converse, et al., The Exclusion of Black Soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War II: The Study Commissioned by the United States Army to Investigate Racial Bias in the Awarding of the Nation’s Highest Military Decoration (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, 1997)
> more

Richard Goldstein, “Vernon Baker, Belated Medal of Honor Recipient, Dies at 90,“ New York Times, July 14, 2010
> more

Courtland Milloy, “WWII hero Vernon Baker fought fascism over there, racism at home,“ Washington Post, July 21, 2010
> more

T. Rees Shapiro, “Vernon J. Baker, African American Medal of Honor recipient, dies at 90,“ Washington Post, July 15, 2010
> more