Army lays hero to rest in Arlington
September 23, 2010
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 23, 2010) -- The only living African-American Soldier to receive the Medal of Honor for action during World War II is scheduled to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery Sept. 24.
1st Lt. Vernon Baker, who was awarded the U.S. Army's highest decoration in 1997, died in July after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 90 years old.
On April 5, 1945, Baker's 25-man unit was tasked with capturing a critical Nazi stronghold in the mountainous terrain of Viareggio, Italy. The Germans had created a perimeter across Italy called the Gothic Line, establishing a main post along that line at the ancient Castle Aghinolfi.
The castle was a crucial observation point that allowed the Germans to remain hidden while using precise artillery to annihilate American troops, said Ken Olson, a journalist and author who stayed close with Baker up to his death.
When Baker and his unit approached the castle they were quickly pinned down with enemy fire. He crawled to the nearest machine-gun emplacement and destroyed it, killing three Nazi soldiers in the process. Baker continued forward and eradicated an enemy observation post, killing two more German soldiers.
"It was a job to do, it was my job, that's what I was there for," Baker said when asked how he summoned the courage.
Baker enlisted the help of a battle buddy and attacked two more machine-gun nests, exterminating four enemy troops. Still, the Nazis were relentless, killing 18 American Soldiers. There were injuries that needed tending, but German firepower was preventing an organized withdraw.
"We were stuck, and they knew it, and they cut us to pieces while we were stuck," Baker said. "Machine guns, mortars, artillery - whatever they had they threw it at us."
Baker exposed himself, taking an uncovered position to enable the evacuation. He drew the enemy's fire, putting his life in danger, and the remaining American Soldiers made it back to camp.
Baker's actions severely weakened the German's defense, and the next day he was asked to lead a platoon back to Castle Aghinolfi to finish what was started earlier. He successfully navigated the American Soldiers through an enemy minefield and heavy fire until completing the unit's objective.
Baker's fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the armed forces, according to his Medal of Honor citation.
When Baker received his medal, he remained humble, and like every Soldier to receive the commendation, credited the American troops that stood by his side.
"The only thing that I can say to those who are not here with me is, 'Thank you, fellas, well done,'" he said. "And I will always remember you."
Baker served in the Army for 28 years. He moved to Idaho after his wife's death in 1986. Baker remarried, and lived out the rest of his life hunting elk in the northern part of the state.
Baker was the most highly decorated African-American Soldier in the Mediterranean Theater with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Italian Cross of Valor of War and the Polish Cross of Valor.