Church bells sent out 11 chimes as Vernon Baker and his family wove through the rows of white tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery in the cold wind Tuesday.
Far up an asphalt lane, a team of six perfectly matched draft horses clopped in perfect rhythm to the clack of the wheels of the caisson they pulled.
Three ramrod-straight soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment sat, one behind another, on the left-hand horse in each team.
A mounted soldier accompanied the caisson, which bore the body of one of Baker’s fellow black veterans, Sgt. Edward A. Carter, to his new resting place. Eight soldiers, also clad in dress-blue uniforms, brought up the rear, marching two abreast.
Carter is the first black Medal of Honor recipient from World War II to be buried in this, the ultimate of final earthly destinations among the ranks of U.S. military, presidents, astronauts, heroes.
Carter was honored posthumously Monday by President Clinton for his combat valor in Germany in March 1945 in the same ceremony that recognized Baker, 77, of St. Maries. The Carter family asked that his body be moved from California and reburied here.
After the caisson drew up, the honor guard surrounded the silver, flag-draped casket and drew it off, methodically sidestepping in unison, one stride every four seconds. They brought it to the top of a small, tree-lined rise.
A chaplain declared that God’s world is open to all.
During World War II, Carter, Baker and other black soldiers faced racism and repression. Carter fought for three years for the right to go to combat and then had to relinquish his sergeant’s stripes to make it possible. That’s because black men were not allowed to command white men, President Clinton said Monday.
The full-honor burial included a traditional gun salute. Taps wept from a bugler’s horn. Few eyes remained dry.
Carter joined more than 250,000 others buried at Arlington National Cemetery and is the 357th Medal of Honor recipient buried there. There are other blacks, from slave James Parks to Benjamin O. Davis, the first black general in the regular armed forces.
As they left the cemetery in an Army van, Baker, his wife, Heidy, and his stepdaughter, Alexandra Pawlik, passed around a box of tissues. They briefly stopped to see the grave of Audie Murphy, the most decorated American hero of World War II. The actor also starred as himself in a movie about the period called “To Hell and Back.”
“It was real sad how he came to his end,” Baker said of Murphy’s death in the 1970s in a plane crash. “He was a young man.”
The family saw the monument to the Challenger astronauts, and the one to the passengers of Pan Am Flight 103, built with stones sent from Scotland where it crashed after a terrorist bomb exploded.
From the back of the van, Baker’s stepdaughter wondered aloud whether Tuesday’s ceremony only revived difficult memories for the Carter family. Pawlik lives in Germany and is grateful that her stepfather and these other heroes went up against Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
“I’m very happy that the soldiers came from all over the world and stopped the German dream, the dream for all to have blond hair and blue eyes,” Pawlik said. “Hitler was winning; he would have killed my grandfather, who was Ukrainian.
“I am very happy that these other people stopped this fight or maybe I wouldn’t be here.”
Because Baker is the only living black World War II veteran to receive the Medal of Honor, he is the most sought-after man in the nation’s capital.
Tuesday afternoon, Jesse Brown, secretary of Veterans Affairs, asked Baker to his office and introduced him to his entire staff.
“I wanted to bring my hero by here,” said Brown. “I don’t think there is anyone in the universe that better represents the sacrifices that made this country what it is than this man.”
Brown also announced that Veterans Affairs will unveil something “to capture your name for all time for people to see.” There are not yet any specific plans.
With Baker’s face on the front page of most newspapers, from the New York Times to The Spokesman-Review, and on every living room television set, he already is well on his way to becoming a household name. And Baker will be here another week, participating in inauguration balls, galas, dinners, reunions.
When that’s done, “I’m going to go hide,” he said. “I’m not a hero, I’m just a soldier that did a good job.”
He added: “I think the real heroes are the people I left up on the hill” near Italy’s Castle Aghinolfi in 1945.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo