In this rural Benewah County town, as in Washington, D.C., the biggest draw for any event these days is Vernon Baker.
The proof was spilling out of the Knickers Golf & Grill Saturday, where the number of tickets for the annual Republican Lincoln Day dinner skyrocketed after people learned Baker would attend. Even stalwart Benewah County Democrats such as County Commissioner Jack Buell and Rep. June Judd were among the masses packed sardine-tight in the banquet room of the combination restaurant and clubhouse.
“Congratulations on such a big turnout,” Idaho Republican Party Chairman Ron McMurray said when he was introduced. “We’ll just take Vernon around the state.”
Baker, 77, was on hand to receive the Distinguished Service Medal from Idaho Gov. Phil Batt. It is the state’s highest honor for heroism and follows Baker’s receiving the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest medal for valor, at the White House last month.
“Your heroism has inspired all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike,” Batt said. Idaho is privileged to honor Baker on the same day it celebrates President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday because both were willing to give their lives so that others might be free.
Baker’s grace and plain-spoken elegance was, as usual, the most memorable of the day. “I never thought a day like this would happen to me, especially on April 5 when I was up there getting pushed around,” he said, referring to the Battle for Castle Aghinolfi in 1945 in Italy.
Baker is being honored, 52 years late, for his incredible heroism during the Battle for Castle Aghinolfi, a key German fortification on the Italian coast. As a platoon leader, Baker managed to move his men three miles behind enemy lines and inflict heavy casualties on the Germans even though he received little artillery support and his white commander deserted him.
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945 - the nation’s second highest honor. A nomination for the Medal of Honor was lost.
“As I’ve said before, when I look out here I don’t see color. I’ve never seen color,” Baker said. “I look out and I see America. I love you, America.”
Following a U.S. Army study, initiated about five years ago, Baker and six black World War II veterans were selected to receive the Medal of Honor. Baker is the only living recipient among the seven.
Most of Idaho’s congressional delegation also was on hand to stump for support and to praise Baker. “You gave every ounce that a human can give in the protection of freedom,” U.S. Sen. Larry Craig said. “Your example needs to be bestowed upon all of us.”
U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne presented Baker with a scrapbook and declared the nation is better off not only for Vernon Baker but because the nation realized its error in not bestowing the Medal of Honor upon him.
U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth put it in religious terms. “I believe that God gave us Vernon Baker as an example,” she said.
“Thank God you came home.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.