Salute to Wyoming War Heroes: Lieutenant Vernon Baker
In this series aboutWyoming war heroes, we present another “bad ass.” That’s meant only with reverence. We take pride in them all, but one may have had an extra chip on his shoulder – Army Lieutenant Vernon Baker.
Army Lieutenant Vernon Baker served in the weapons platoon of Company C in World War II. On April 5, 1945, he had become a military machine. Baker led an attack against an entrenched machine gun battalion near Viareggio, Italy.
Vernon Joseph Baker was the only living black American World War II veteran awarded the Medal of Honor. It just wasn’t bestowed on him until 1997.
Dec. 17, 1919, born in Cheyenne, Biography.com mentions it was a town that had just a dozen other black families. Vernon was the youngest of three children. After his parents died in a car accident when he was four, he and his two sisters were raised by their paternal grandparents. Vernon’s grandfather Joseph S. Baker, a railroad worker, taught him to hunt. Joseph became “the most influential figure in Vernon’s life.” The relationship with his grandmother wasn’t so great. Vernon, himself, opted for a few years at the Boys Town orphanage in Nebraska, and graduated in his grandfather’s hometown of Clarinda, Iowa.
Despising work as a railroad porter, Vernon tried to enlist in the Army in April 1941. The recruiter said, “We don’t have any quotas for you people”. Trying again weeks later with a different recruiter, he was accepted, and Baker entered the Army in June 1941.
As the U.S. entered World War II, Baker did training and wanted more of it. After completing Officer Candidate School, a commission made him 2nd Lieutenant Baker in 1943. In June ’44, he was sent to Italy with the all-black 92nd Infantry Division. He was wounded in the arm in October and in December rejoined his unit along the Gothic Line.
In early spring, 1945, the unit was ordered into combat on April 5. That was when Baker led in an attack on the German stronghold of Castle Aghinolfi. The Lieutenant and his heavy weapons platoon got into German defenses, destroyed a machine gun position, two observation posts, two bunkers, and a network of German telephone lines. For all of this and leading an advance under fire, Baker would one day get the Medal of Honor.
After the end of the war, Baker remained in Europe with the Allied occupation forces until 1947, but lost his commission due to no college education. Re-commissioned in the Korean War with the 11th Airborne Division, he did not see any combat.
After Korean Armistice, Baker was reduced to the enlisted ranks. But he rose again to the rank of Master Sergeant, and retired from the Army in 1968, though he was promoted on the retired list to first lieutenant, the highest rank he held.
The Vernon Baker Story did not end there. In 1993, a study commissioned by the Army described systematic discriminati , and intended to award decorations deserved from World War II. After an lengthy review, black Distinguished Service Cross recipients would have their awards upgraded to the Medal of Honor. That was for seven other vets in a posthumous ceremony. On Jan. 13, 1997 President Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to Baker, the only living recipient of the medal at the time.
After more happy years hunting the home front in Idaho, Baker died in St. Maries, Idaho on July 13, 2010 after a long battle with cancer. His funeral at Arlington National Cemetery had many of his family members present thanks to funds for them to travel were raised by their local community.
More on Lieutenant Vernon Joseph Baker, with full Medal of Honor citation, is here.
Also find a review of Vernon Baker’s biography, “Lasting Valor” here.