January 13, 1997
More than 50 years after the guns fell silent on the second world war seven American soldiers received Congressional Medals of Honor long overdue. Joan Cartan-Hansen of Idaho Public Television reports.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Today we recognize seven men as being among the bravest of the brave.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Of the seven medal winners honored today only one of them is still alive.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: When victory was complete in World War II, our government made a pledge to correct cases in which Medals of Honor were deserved but not awarded. Today America honors that pledge. On behalf of the United States Congress I award the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest military award, to Vernon Baker.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: At 22 he earned his medal fighting in Northern Italy. On April 5, 1945, he led an all-black platoon of 25 men up a hill, three miles behind enemy lines.
VERNON BAKER, Congressional Medal Recipient: And in the process of going up we cut quite a few communications lines which let us get through because they didn't know we were there, and when they did find out we were there, they cut us to pieces.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Baker's white commander left, saying he'd be back with reinforcements. He never bothered to return.
VERNON BAKER: Well, I don't want to tell you what I thought because it wouldn't sound too good on TV, but we dealt with it. What--the men that I had with me, we dealt with it. We set up a little perimeter, and we stayed there awhile until I decided that it--it wasn't going to work for us, and then we picked up and came back.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Baker and his platoon had killed twenty-six Germans, destroyed six machine gun nests, two observer posts, and four dugouts. Only eight of the original twenty-six men survived. A company clerk later said he filled out a form nominating Baker for a Congressional Medal of Honor, but that paper work never surfaced. Instead, Baker was given a Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest honor. In 1994, Baker asked for declassified accounts of the incident. He learned his company commander had reported that the other black soldiers were terrified to fight in the dark and had no heart for combat.
VERNON BAKER: They were out and out lies. And those statements came from people that didn't know us, that really didn't know how good we were.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Recruiting films for the military showed an army which preached the gospel of inclusion and acceptance.
NEWSREEL SPOKESMAN: Tank men, gunners, radio operators, and motor mechanics, every man schooled in the meaning of team work, every man qualified to replace any of his team mates at any time, every man ready to do his share.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: But according to military historians like Daniel Gibran exclusion and segregation was the reality for most of the 1.2 million African-American soldiers who served in World War II. The military was not officially desegregated until 1948.
DANIEL GIBRAN, Tennessee State University: Black men were not allowed to ride in the same buses with white soldiers. If so, they had to ride at the back. They were not allowed to go into the nearby towns and villages and participate in social activities like their white counterparts.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Despite the racism he encountered, Baker spent 28 years in the military. About the time he retired to Idaho Gibran and a team of historians began combing through military records. They wanted to find out if any African-American soldiers had been overlooked for the Congressional Medal of Honor. And although around 300 medals of honor were given out for service in World War II, Gibran learned that blacks weren't even nominated.
DANIEL GIBRAN: So we had to move the study in another direction. I pressed the army to make a re-evaluation or reconsideration of black Distinguished Cross recipients.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: The military eventually sent Congress the names of the men honored today. When Baker received the call saying "he" was to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor, at first he was astonished, then he was angry.
VERNON BAKER: Because it was something that I felt this should have been done a long time ago. If I had--if I was worthy of receiving a Medal of Honor in 1945, I should have been--I should have received it then.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: But he says the pain of discrimination, of being forgotten for so long melted after dozens of strangers, white and black, wrote to congratulate him and to apologize.
VERNON BAKER: After reading of your bravery and heroism under fire, I feel--I felt compelled to write to you. First, my own personal thank you for your heroism for our country. Second, I'm sorry it has taken so long for you to receive the highest award our nation has for being a true hero, the Medal of Honor.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: What do you think of all these people who've written you?
VERNON BAKER: I love ‘em. It makes me feel real good that there are people in the world that--I ran across so many people that are not like this, and I began to wonder whether--whether the world was full of bad people, but now it makes me feel real, real good that there are people like this still in the world.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: The families of the six other men honored accepted their medals. Major Charles Thomas, First Lt. John Fox, Staff Sgt. Edward Carter, Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, Private First Class Willy James, Jr., Private George Watson. Afterwards, Baker talked with reporters.
VERNON BAKER: It's a great day, and we've all been vindicated.
REPORTER: Did you think this day would ever come?
VERNON BAKER: And the only thing I can say to those that are not here with me, thank you, fellows, well done. And I'll always remember you.
REPORTER: I think almost anyone would have to consider your story extraordinary. Why did you do what you did on that day?
VERNON BAKER: I was a soldier, and I had a job to do.
REPORTER: Did you serve in a segregated unit, and how did you feel about that?
VERNON BAKER: Every unit I served in was segregated.
REPORTER: And what was that like for you? How did you feel about that?
VERNON BAKER: It was kind of rough. Just like I said, as a black soldier, I fought a war on two sides.
REPORTER: Did you and any other soldiers ever have any sort of resentment because of the segregation and having to fight two wars?
VERNON BAKER: Well, certainly. I was an angry young man, and all the soldiers that were with me were angry with us. We were all angry. But we had a job to do, and we did it.
JOAN CARTAN-HANSEN: Baker now returns to Idaho with a medal and a sense of being appreciated.