January 14, 1997 in Nation/World

At Long Last, Honor Vernon Baker Receives Medal Of Honor And A Measure Of Justice

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Fifty years ago Vernon Baker couldn’t bring his Italian girlfriend home because his country wouldn’t accept the interracial relationship.

Monday, Baker and his wife Heidy, who is white, were welcomed to the White House by President Bill Clinton, where tales of Baker’s World War II heroism had the nation’s commander-in-chief fighting back tears.

Before the day ended, colonels and generals were lining up to shake Baker’s hand, to say thanks, to say they were sorry one of America’s greatest fighting men had to wait five decades for honor that should have been automatic, to apologize for asking him to fight for the citizens of a country that wouldn’t give him full citizenship.

Baker, 77, of St. Maries, Idaho, entered the East Room of the White House to a standing ovation as the Marine Corps band played “God Bless America.” The widows, nieces and nephews of the six other men recognized posthumously with the Medal of Honor on Monday received a similar welcome.

There was neither an empty seat nor a spare square-inch of floor space at the ceremony, which attracted nearly every member of Clinton’s Cabinet and Idaho Sens. Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne.

Fifty-two years earlier, to the day, President Harry Truman stood under the glistening chandeliers of the East Room and presented 28 other World War II veterans with the Medal of Honor, Clinton noted. Truman described the men honored at that, the largest Medal of Honor ceremony in history, as a great cross-section of the United States.

No so, Clinton said. Of the 1.2 million black Americans who served in World War II, none received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest medal for valor.

“Today we fill the gap in that picture and give a group of heroes who also loved peace but adapted themselves to war, the tribute that has always been their due,” Clinton said. “They were denied the nation’s highest honor, but their deeds could not be denied.

“For these men, heroism was a habit.”

The men receiving the Medal of Honor Monday join the honor roll of American heroes, with the likes of Sgt. York, Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Audie Murphy and others, Clinton added.

Baker’s battlefield commander once wrote that Baker “desperately wanted the men of his company to hold their ground and was willing to sacrifice his own life in an effort to win our battle,” Clinton said of the Battle for Castle Aghinolfi in April 1945. “That passage was never forwarded.”

And so it was that, after taking out three machine gun nests and helping snuff out two other nests, obliterating two bunkers and destroying an observation post, killing several Germans and being deserted by his commander, Baker received the Distinguished Service Cross instead of the Medal of Honor.

Clinton singled out Baker for living with dignity as much as for fighting fearlessly. The president quoted Baker’s creed, the words that carried Baker into battle day after day, that kept him doing his best for decades for a nation that dealt him its worst.

“Give respect before you expect it. Treat people the way you want to be treated,” Clinton said, quoting Baker. “Remember the mission. Set the example. Keep going.”

“Those are words for all of us,” Clinton added.

The president also joked about Baker killing a mountain lion that was stalking him during the fall of 1995, fascinating the media mob that later was eager to hear the details of this seemingly Old West tale. The president draped the medal, held by a blue ribbon, around Baker’s neck and stood admiring Baker. Baker, standing erect and proud, didn’t move even to wipe away the tears that were streaming down his face.

Because he is the only living recipient, Baker was the only person present to have the medal draped around his neck. The six people standing in for the fallen heroes received the medal in a wooden box.

Widows, sons, sisters and nieces were there to take the medal on behalf of Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr., 1st Lt. John R. Fox, Pfc. Willy F. James Jr., Sgt. Ruben Rivers and 1st Lt. Charles L. Thomas.

There was no family for Pvt. George Watson, who perished in the South Pacific saving soldiers who couldn’t swim away from a sinking troop ship. Army Sgt. Maj. Gene C. McKinney represented Watson. That is significant because McKinney is the first black to serve as the top non-commissioned officer in the Army.

“One of my dreams was to become one of the first black sergeant majors in the Army,” Baker commented after the ceremony. He shook his head when he realized that it took as much time for that dream to come true for any black man as it took for him to receive the Medal of Honor.

As it stands, Baker now is one of only three living black veterans to have received the Medal of Honor, although dozens more now dead have received the medal.

Reporters swarmed Baker during the few minutes he was thrust into the cold wind on the White House north lawn for the sound-bite feeding frenzy. He put them at ease with his sharp wit.

“How come you guys are all out in the cold?” he asked.

Baker then said he wanted to tell the men he left behind, “It’s a great day, we’ve all been vindicated. Thank you fellows, well done, I will always remember you.”

And when he left the White House, Baker purposefully made his way to the back of the bus, laughing and joking. It was a quiet reference to one of his earliest experiences with the racism of the South. When he boarded the bus for Camp Wolters from the train in Mineral Wells, Texas, in 1941 a white bus driver had shouted, “Nigger, get to the back of the bus where you belong.”

“I knew things would get better,” Baker reflected. “I’m glad to see they have.”

Baker and the families of the other medal recipients were honored at a Fort Myer, Va., luncheon packed with a galaxy of general’s stars. The most popular entree was the chance at a photo with hero Vernon Baker.

Then the 70-plus strong group, which included Baker’s stepdaughter, Alexandra Pawlik of Germany, was swept out to the Pentagon for an emotional ceremony in the Hall of Heroes. The wood-paneled walls of the diamond-shaped alcove carry the names of about 3,400 other veterans who have received the Medal of Honor.

“It is difficult to express the debt of gratitude,” Army General Chief of Staff Dennis Reimer told Baker and the families of the others honored Monday. Tears again showed Baker’s pride. He will return here in February for another ceremony when the African-American Medal of Honor Memorial is moved from Morgan State University to the Pentagon.

One of the most touching moments of the day came when Baker and Gen. Robert Foley, the commander of the Military District of Washington, talked privately. Foley is one of only two Medal of Honor winners on active duty and received his medal for a harrowing firefight in Vietnam.

“I think about the obligations they have to their soldiers,” Foley said of platoon leaders like Baker. “He did things not only to accomplish the mission, but to take care of his soldiers.”

“Before you get in that situation, he had to create an environment where you manifest trust and cohesion,” Foley said. “It takes a great leader to do that.”

Baker admitted it was difficult to pull his unit together considering the racism of the times. As usual, he took little credit for himself, but credited his men for sticking together and following his lead. “When the bullets began to fly, there was no rancor, there was no looking back to see if it was done.

“Every decision I made turned out right,” Baker added. “Right now I can see the looks on their faces…” He couldn’t finish the sentence for crying as he thought about the 17 men killed during the battle for Castle Aghinolfi on that fateful April day.

Foley was moved. “This is character right here,” Foley said.

“When you still remember love for your fellow soldiers, that’s compassion.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

MEMO: See related story under the headline: Medal of Honor dates to heroism in Civil War

This sidebar appeared with the story: ON-LINE INFORMATION Additional stories and photos about Vernon Baker are available on-line on Virtually Northwest: http://www.VirtuallyNW.com.

See related story under the headline: Medal of Honor dates to heroism in Civil War

This sidebar appeared with the story: ON-LINE INFORMATION Additional stories and photos about Vernon Baker are available on-line on Virtually Northwest: http://www.VirtuallyNW.com.


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