Vernon Baker died in his home near St. Maries on Tuesday at the age of 90, but his heroic wartime actions and indomitable spirit won’t soon be forgotten.
Before his death, he was the only living black World War II veteran to receive the Medal of Honor for uncommon valor.
He once said, “I’ve never seen color. I look out and I see America. I love you, America.”
It took a long time for America to love him back.
When he first tried to join the Army, the recruiter did see color and rejected him. He persisted and was placed in the 92nd Infantry Division, an all-black unit.
On April 5, 1945, Baker rallied the troops after their commander deserted and took Castle Aghinolfi, a German stronghold in Italy, against great odds. Baker took out three machine gun nests, two bunkers and an observation post.
But because the military did see color, it took 52 years before Baker was awarded the Medal of Honor. Six other African-American soldiers were honored posthumously.
When he was sent home from Italy in 1947, he left behind the Italian woman he had fallen in love with, because America did see color and wouldn’t approve of an interracial couple.
In Baker’s lifetime, Jim Crow laws were dismantled, the military was desegregated and equal rights for African-Americans became the law of the land. But for most of his life he did not enjoy the benefits of racial equality. He had to be a better man, and he was.
Baker’s parents died when he was a toddler, but he was fortunate to have a grandfather who taught patience and forgiveness. Baker had many reasons to be angry, but he never succumbed to hate.
His personal creed offers advice we’d all be wise to follow: “Give respect before you expect it. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Remember the mission. Set the example. Keep going.”
Baker served on Idaho’s Human Rights Commission for eight years, and when he turned 90 last December, Gov. Butch Otter proclaimed it to be Vernon J. Baker Day.
As always, Baker was gracious and humble: “Oh my lord, thank you. I appreciate that very, very much. The only thing I can do about it is sit here and cry.”
Though recognition came late in life, Vernon Baker died knowing America loved him as much as he loved America.