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Pentagon Summons Black Heroes For Dedication Of Belated Exhibit Vernon Baker Joins Vietnam Vet At Corridor Honoring Black Soldiers

Thu., Feb. 20, 1997

There are only three of them.

Webster Anderson mounted the parapet of his battalion’s howitzer emplacement to direct shells at North Vietnamese who were overrunning his position in October 1967. Two grenades exploded at his feet, shattering his legs. He propped himself up and continued to direct howitzer fire. Another grenade landed by a wounded comrade. Anderson grabbed it and tossed it, losing his right hand in the explosion.

Clarence E. Sasser was an infantry medic with an aerial assault team elsewhere in Vietnam in 1968. The enemy ambushed the choppers, inflicting 30 causalities. Sasser ran through a blizzard of rockets and bullets to bring the wounded to safety. He was hit in the shoulder by rocket fragments, and kept going back. After both legs were hit, he dragged himself back, bringing more wounded to safety. Then he tended to them for five hours until they were evacuated.

This is the company Vernon Baker keeps. Baker, of St. Maries, along with Anderson and Sasser, are the only three living black veterans to have received the Medal of Honor.

All were summoned to the Pentagon on Wednesday for Black History Month and for the dedication of a corridor honoring blacks who have fought for the United States.

Only Baker and Sasser were there. Anderson, a triple amputee, is too ill to travel.

Baker, his wife, Heidy, and Sasser arrived an hour early - time enough for them to be shuffled from one office to another, so all of the important people could have a moment with these heroes.

Baker and Sasser then were squeezed into a 300-seat auditorium that was trying to hold 400 to hear words long denied them because of their race.

“Their medals shine especially bright, because they fought two wars,” Defense Secretary William S. Cohen declared. That they had to fight racism and prejudice as well as enemy soldiers “is a stain upon our nation’s soul.”

Admiral J. Paul Reason, commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet and the first black four-star officer in the Navy, echoed those thoughts.

“Lt. Vernon Baker and Pfc. Clarence Sasser and many more represent the very best our country has to offer,” Reason added. Wednesday’s festivities included a video tribute to the 86 blacks who have earned the Medal of Honor since it was created by Congress during the Civil War.

Baker’s photo leads the film. A clip of him at the Jan. 13 White House ceremony, tears on his cheek, draws the tribute to a close - and the audience to a standing ovation.

Baker was a platoon leader in Italy in 1945 and single-handedly took out three German machine gun nests, an observation post and two bunkers as well as helping to eliminate two additional machine gun nests. All of this in a single day, a day during which he was abandoned by his white commander.

Baker was passed over for the Medal of Honor until last month. Six other black World War II veterans were honored posthumously.

During every pause at Wednesday’s ceremony, there was a crush of people, young and old, working to get autographs from Baker and Sasser. People with cameras jockeyed for position and shouted “just one more.”

Heidy Baker guided forkfuls of food to her husband’s mouth so he could partake of the reception banquet and satisfy the demand for signatures. It was both a welcome honor and a trying task for Baker.

“It just brings back things I’d like to forget,” he said of the talk of potholes and curves in the road to equality. “I think sometimes that’s part of the problem - we live in the past too much. I’d rather look forward, down the road, to what’s going to happen.” , DataTimes


 

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