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Vernon BakerVernon Baker

Born: December 17, 1919
Cheyenne, Wyoming

War: World War II

Rank: First Lieutenant, Infantry, U.S. Army Company C, 370th Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division.

Location of action: Near Viareggio, Italy, Castle Aghinolfi - a German mountain strong point on the high ground.

Date of action: April 5-6, 1945

Medal received from: President Bill Clinton, January 1997

Official Citation:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life own life above and beyond the call of duty in action on 5 and 6 April 1945, Lieutenant Baker advanced at the head of his weapons platoon, along with Company C’s three rifle platoons, toward their objective; Castle Aghinolfi—a German mountain strong point on the high ground just east of the coastal highway and about two miles from the 370th Infantry Regiment’s line of departure.

Moving more rapidly than the rest of the company, Lieutenant Baker and about 25 men reached the south side of a draw some 250 yards from the castle within two hours. In reconnoitering for a suitable position to set up a machine gun, Lieutenant Baker observed two cylindrical objects pointing out of a slit in a mount at the edge of a hill. Crawling up and under the opening, he stuck his M-1 into the slit and emptied the clip, killing the observation post’s two occupants. Moving to another position in the same area, Lieutenant Baker stumbled upon a well-camouflaged machine gun nest, the crew of which was eating breakfast. He shot and killed both enemy soldiers.

After Captain John F. Runyon, Company C’s Commander, joined the group, a German soldier appeared from the draw and hurled a grenade which failed to explode. Lieutenant Baker shot the enemy soldier twice as he tried to flee. Lieutenant Baker then went down into the draw alone. There he blasted open the concealed entrance to another dugout with a hand grenade, shot one German soldier who emerged after the explosion, tossed another grenade into the dugout and entered firing his submachine gun, killing two more Germans. As Lieutenant Baker climbed back out of the draw, enemy machine gun and mortar fire began to inflict heavy casualties among the group of 25 soldiers, killing or wounding about two-thirds of them.

When expected reinforcements did not arrive, Capt. Runyon ordered a withdrawal in two groups. Lieutenant Baker volunteered to cover the withdrawal of the first group, which consisted of mostly walking wounded, and to remain to assist in the evacuation of the more seriously wounded. During the second group’s withdrawal, Lieutenant Baker, supported by covering fire from one of his platoon members, destroyed two machine gun position (previously bypassed during the assault) with hand grenades. In all, Lieutenant Baker accounted for nine dead enemy soldiers, elimination of three machine gun positions, an observation post, and a dugout. On the following night, Lieutenant Baker voluntarily led a battalion advance through enemy mine fields and heavy fire toward the division objective. Lieutenant Baker’s fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the military service.

Vernon Baker fought in Italy, earned a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1996, more than fifty years after the assault on Castle Aghinolfi, he received a telephone call from a man working on a federal grant to reevaluate the heroism of blacks in World War II. It was during this phone call Baker learned he was to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Baker is the only living black World War II veteran to earn the Medal of Honor.

Read an except from Vernon Baker's interview.

©2003 GWETA