Vernon Baker has a debt to repay. Otherwise he would not run this gauntlet.
A tornado of accolades. People pressing to shake his hand, to have their photo taken with him. The media interviewing him to exhaustion, not out of ill will, but because they want to share a glimpse of this incredible man with the world.
This 77-year-old hero - the first living black World War II veteran to receive the Medal of Honor - is graciously dealing with these demands.
Because of his debt.
Baker is here to repay the men who fought with him on April 5, 1945, in a key battle to drive the Germans from Italy. Especially the 17 men, from his platoon of 25, who died clearing the way for a white battalion to take Castle Aghinolfi without firing a shot.
“It’s pretty sad,” Baker says, his blue-brown eyes misting. “If they were here, we would have a lot in common, a lot to talk about.
“I have to bear the burden myself.”
This pilgrimmage began at daybreak Saturday, when a hand-picked military escort from Fort Belvoir, Va., arrived to pull the Bakers from the soggy, foggy back roads of Idaho to the bright lights of the nation’s capital.
It is such an important assignment that the commander of the 437th Military Police Company, Capt. Mark Jackson, is here to make this happen.
Around the country, other commanders are preparing to help the families of five other black men, now dead, come to Washington for the White House ceremony.
Six men are receiving the medal posthumously, but no one has been able to find any family for Pvt. George Watson. A military escort will be in Los Angeles, where he is buried, until the last minute on the chance that a relative will be found and can be rushed to the White House.
Baker marked his suitcases with bright green duct tape, hugged his housesitter, kissed his dog and shepherded his wife, Heidy, and stepdaughter, Alexandra Pawlik, to the waiting vehicles.
They made their way to Spokane International Airport. Arriving was a sweet moment. The Bakers searched out the coffee shop tables where they first exchanged glances and then telephone numbers in September 1989.
“That was a very productive hour,” Baker says. “That was a pleasure.”
They were interrupted by a television crew. Has much changed since you were denied the Medal of Honor five decades ago because you were black, the TV reporter asks.
Baker smiles. “Oh, yes. You wouldn’t have been here talking to me five decades ago. Now we can look at each other as human beings, without looking at color.”
On the airplane, as in the airport, people line up to shake Baker’s hand, tell him what an honor it was to see him, ride in the same plane with him. Young men with beads around their necks and middle-aged people with neckties are equally in awe.
The captain of the plane asks if Baker was one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black World War II pilots. “No, I was a mud-slogger,” Baker says of his days as a second lieutenant with the 92nd Infantry Division.
A stewardess asks for his autograph - for her neighbor in Minneapolis, who also is black. “He is so proud of you,” she says, fighting back tears.
There are well-wishers with a banner at the airport in Minneapolis. People are eager to meet the man who single-handedly took out three German machine-gun nests, two bunkers and an observation post during the fight for Castle Aghinolfi.
During the battle, Baker’s white company commander deserted him. Then he was denied the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for heroism, and instead received the Distinguished Service Cross.
That was sufficient reward in Baker’s eyes but a significant disappointment to his fellow black soldiers. With the Distinguished Service Cross, the Italian Cross of Valor, the Polish Cross of Valor, a Purple Heart and other decorations, Baker was the most highly decorated black American soldier in the Mediterranean Theater.
Then, white Southern commanders belittled him. Today, white soldiers vie for the chance to carry his bags as he comes off the airplane at Washington’s National Airport.
Sunday morning, after barely sneaking in a night’s sleep in a motel near the Potomac River, Baker was back in the frenzy. There were two interviews before breakfast and more reporters waiting the moment he returned.
The Medal of Honor ceremony begins in the White House East Room at 10:30 a.m. Baker will receive his medal from President Clinton.
A luncheon begins immediately afterward at Fort Meyers, Va., and that is followed by a ceremony in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes.
Tuesday, Baker will attend a funeral at Arlington National Ceremony for Sgt. Edward A. Carter, one of the medal winners being honored posthumously.
Each Medal of Honor recipient, or their nearest living relative, is allowed to bring eight guests. Baker’s entourage includes everyone from close neighbors to a Vietnam War veteran who called last May.
Throughout all of this, Baker praises his fellow black soldiers instead of talking about himself.
“They didn’t know how good we were,” he says.
Because he is so gracious and humble a hero, Baker likewise doesn’t realize his own greatness.
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