Vernon Baker, a Black soldier who received the Medal of Honor award more than 50 years after his service, died of brain cancer on July 13. He was 90.
Baker enlisted in the Army in 1941 after working as a railroad porter in Iowa. He was assigned to the segregated 270th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division, which ultimately became the first group of Blacks assigned to combat in World War II.
While serving as second lieutenant in the unit in 1945, he and his men were ordered to launch an assault against Castle Aginolfi, a mountainous German post near Viareggio, Italy, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. After executing the attack, his company was bombarded with fire from several machine gun emplacements. Baker crawled to one of the posts and destroyed it, killing three Germans. Thereafter, he attacked an enemy observation post and killed two of its occupants.
After teaming up with another soldier in the company, Baker attacked two more machine gun posts, killing or wounding four enemy soldiers who were occupying it. He then organized the evacuation of all of the wounded soldiers in his unit by situating himself in an exposed position and drawing the enemy’s fire.
The following day, Baker led a battalion advance and finally secured the mountain for American soldiers. According to the Associated Press, Baker and his platoon killed a total of 26 Germans and destroyed two observer posts, four dugouts and six machine gun nests.
Baker later told the PBS series “American Valor” that his company commander initially told the troops he was going for reinforcements, but eventually abandoned the company.
“It made me all the more determined to accomplish our mission,” he said during the PBS interview. “Because at that time the Army was segregated it was thought we were unable to fight. we were cowards. We were Black.”
During his time of service, he received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Cross and remained in the military until 1968. But he wouldn’t be awarded the country’s most prestigious military honor until 52 years after his service in the war.
In 1993, the Army commissioned a study by Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. to find whether or not race prevented some soldiers from receiving the Medal, according to The Washington Post. While it was awarded to over 400 people, none of the 1.2 million African-American soldiers in the war were recipients.
Once the study revealed the unbalanced nature of the award practice, the Army selected seven African-American soldiers for the Medal of Honor, including Baker. President Bill Clinton presented the medals to the families of the six men on Jan. 13, 1997. Baker was the only living recipient of the award.
“I’m not a hero,” Baker said, according to the Post. “I’m just a soldier who did a good job. I think the real heroes are the men I left behind on that hill that day.”
“They were denied the nation’s honor, but their deeds could not be denied,” President Clinton said during the White House ceremony. He then quoted Baker’s personal creed, which gave him motivation while serving in the war: “Give respect before you expect it. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Remember the mission. Set the example. Keep going.”
Baker had emergency surgery in 2004 to remove a malignant brain tumor, but continued to battle cancer following the procedure, receiving hospice care at his home. He was surrounded by his family in his Idaho home at the time of his death.