Last living African-American WWII Medal of Honor recipient was a Museum stalwart
NEW ORLEANS (August 4, 2010) – When Vernon J. Baker died on July 13, 2010, America lost another of the great heroes of World War II. “Vernon was an extraordinary soldier and an extraordinary American,” said Dr. Gordon “Nick” Mueller, President and CEO of The National World War II Museum in New Orleans. “Over the years, he was an integral part of helping our Museum fulfill its mission to bring the history and values of World War II to all generations. It has been a privilege to know him and work with him.”
Vernon Baker’s relationship with The National World War II Museum goes back to the institution’s earliest days. His oral history is particularly compelling as it explores not only his notable military accomplishments but also his experiences as an African-American soldier in a segregated Army. Baker was a guiding force and active participant in the creation of the Museum’s special symposium “Fighting on Two Fronts: The African-American Experience in World War II,” and the Museum has spotlighted his heroic actions on several occasions.
In 2008, the Museum presented its highest honor, The American Spirit Award, to Baker and the other living WWII Medal of Honor recipients in a poignant special ceremony aboard the USS Midway in San Diego. In the Museum’s planned Campaigns Pavilion, opening in 2012, his story will be the centerpiece of the galleries on the war in Italy.
The story of Vernon Baker’s journey from a challenging childhood to becoming a World War II hero has been widely reported. Born in1919, Baker was orphaned at the age of four and, along with two sisters, was raised in Cheyenne Wyoming by his grandparents. There were a mere dozen other African-American families in Cheyenne at that time. He followed his grandfather into railroad work but abhorred it and sought to enlist in the Army. Turned away by one recruiter, he eventually was accepted into the infantry.
The Armed Forces were still segregated and Baker was assigned to the 270th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division, one of the first African-American unit to go into combat in World War II. Following Officer Candidate School, he received his commission on January 11, 1943.
In June, 1944, Baker’s regiment landed at Naples, Italy and fought its way north into central Italy. Several months later while on night patrol, he was seriously wounded in an encounter with a German sentry, but survived.
In April of 1945, Baker, the only black officer in his company, was ordered to lead his platoon in an assault on Castle Aghinolfi near Viareggio, occupied by entrenched German forces. Baker led two actions against the enemy, taking out machine gun nests and observation posts and ultimately leading a battalion advance through enemy mine fields and heavy fire to secure the occupied mountain objective. This action helped breech the Gothic line and drive German forces out of northern Italy.
Baker was nominated by his fellow soldiers for the nation’s second-highest honor for battlefield valor, The Distinguished Service Cross. It was a cruel irony of the times that the highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor, was reserved for white troops.
More than 50 years later, in 1996, the Army affirmed that seven African-American World War II veterans had been unjustly denied the Medal of Honor. By that time, Vernon Baker was the only survivor. In 1997 at a White House ceremony, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to Baker with these words: “They were denied the nation’s highest honor, but their deeds could not be denied.”
Baker also was decorated with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He remained on active duty until 1968, seeing the Armed Forces finally desegregate and becoming one of the first African-Americans to command an all-white company. When he retired from the military, Baker worked for the Red Cross for more than 20 years.
In reflecting on the loss of this patriot, Museum President Nick Mueller noted, “The Citation for Vernon’s Congressional Medal of Honor concludes with these words: ‘Second Lieutenant Baker's fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the Armed Forces.’ He will continue to inspire us for all time.”
The National World War II Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world – why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today. Dedicated in 2000 as The National D-Day Museum and now designated by Congress as America’s National World War II Museum, it celebrates the American Spirit, the teamwork, optimism, courage and sacrifice of the men and women who fought on the battlefront and the Home Front. For more information, call 877-813-3329 or 504-527-6012 or visit www.nationalww2museum.org. Follow us on Twitter at WWIImuseum or visit our Facebook fan page.