Vernon Joseph Baker tried to enlist in the United States Army in mid-1941 but was turned away due to the color of his skin. Not to be deterred from serving his country, he tried several months later and was accepted. Although he initially intended to be a quartermaster, he was signed up for the infantry instead. He completed basic training and was assigned to 1st Battalion, 370th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division. After completing officer candidate school he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. In 1944 Baker was wounded in action while fighting in Italy. In spring, 1945 he was reassigned to be the commander for Weapons Platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 370th Infantry.
On April 5th, 1945 he led his twenty five man platoon on a reconnaissance patrol in support of a company level raid on a Nazi held castle. While scouting locations to most effectively deploy his machine gunner, he discovered a series of enemy fighting positions. Lt. Baker had caught these enemy soldiers off guard. In the exchange that ensued, he single handedly destroyed three machine gun nests, two observation posts, two bunkers, and a network of telephone lines that provided enemy forces with vital communication between fighting positions. The Nazi forces within the castle walls retaliated with small arms and mortar fire. Baker’s platoon suffered massive casualties, with approximately 2/3 of his brothers killed or wounded. The company commander (a white man) that had made the movement with Baker’s platoon took the platoon’s only radio operator and left Baker and the rest of the men behind, abandoning them under the pretense that he was going to return with reinforcements. Instead this captain told the rear command that his platoon was wiped out.
With no reinforcements coming, and critical artillery assets being flat out denied to him, partly because of the company commander’s lie, and partly because the command didn’t believe the all-black platoon had successfully reached the castle, Lt. Baker made a decision to break contact with the enemy and preserve his remaining soldiers. Lt. Baker split his remaining forces into two groups. He personally covered the withdrawal of the first group, and then during the withdrawal of the second group seized an opportunity to destroy two more enemy machine gun positions. The following evening, Lt. Baker volunteered to lead a battalion sized advance through enemy minefields and heavy fire to attempt to take the enemy held castle again. The Nazi forces ultimately surrendered.
After the fact, Lt. Baker’s fellow soldiers nominated him for an Army Distinguished Service Cross. They reportedly did not push for a Medal of Honor (MOH) because they felt it would definitely be shot down, given the prestige of the award. As anticipated, Lt. Baker faced discrimination and resistance throughout the investigation to confirm his Service Cross nomination, meanwhile the company commander that had abandoned them was nominated for an MOH. Lt. Baker ultimately received the service cross, and the company commander was denied. By the end of the war, Baker was the most decorated African-American soldier of the Mediterranean campaign.
In the 1990’s, the US Army determined that there were several instances where Black soldiers had been denied Medals of Honor due to racial prejudice. In a joint effort with Shaw University of Raleigh, NC, ten soldiers were identified that met criteria to receive the MOH, 7 of which were ultimately approved. What made Lt. Baker’s presentation of the MOH so special was that of the seven men that received the honor, he was the only one still alive. On January 13, 1997 he was presented the Medal of Honor by President Clinton; his justice having been delayed fifty-two years.
As if Lt. Vernon Baker’s selfless service during WWII wasn’t enough, he continued to faithfully serve his country for another twenty-three years after the end of the war, concluding with his retirement in 1968, for a grand total of twenty-seven years as a soldier. He proceeded to enjoy a twenty year career in the American Red Cross after seperating from the Army. During an interview after he received his MOH, he stated that he didn’t feel like a hero. He said he was doing what was expected of him as a soldier, and he expressed that his MOH vindicated every black soldier who’s service was never recognized or honored due to the prejudiced atmosphere at that time.
Lt. Vernon Baker died July 13, 2010 after a long battle with brain cancer. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His grave is located at Section 59, Grave 4408. Lt. Baker was the absolute embodiment of what it means to be a veteran. He had a profound career as a soldier, carving out a portion of history for himself, while being humble and choosing to grow after leaving the military. Although Lt. Baker’s accolades as a soldier should be celebrated forever, and his mistreatment at the hands systematic racism should never be forgotten, he didn’t allow his military exploits to be his only character defining moments. He chose to live a prosperous and beautiful life, and redefine his identity in his years after the military. He is an example for all others to emulate.