On this day in 1997, a U.S. soldier receives the Medal of Honor. Then-2LT Vernon Baker had been lucky to survive his World War II experience. He probably wouldn’t have, but one of the German grenades thrown his way turned out to be a dud.
Baker had been at loose ends before he joined the Army. He was an orphan who’d grown up living with grandparents and cousins—he even spent time in an orphanage. After high school, he worked a series of odd jobs before finally deciding that he needed to join the Army. Otherwise, he later recounted, “I was getting ready to get myself into trouble.”
Things didn’t go well in the Army, at least not at first. Baker’s first trip to the recruiting station ended in failure: The officer on duty didn’t seem to think that a black man could do the job. Fortunately, Baker stuck to his guns: He returned and tried again a few months later.
Once in the Army, Baker was assigned to the segregated 370th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division. His unit was the first unit of black soldiers to go into combat during World War II.
In April 1945, Baker’s unit was in Viareggio, Italy. He and about two dozen other men were taking part in an effort to capture Castle Aghinolfi, a German stronghold located in a mountainous area. They’d been tasked with an early morning assault, and they were working their way up a hill.
As day was breaking, Baker could make out “holes with these two cylindrical objects poking out, and I said, ‘Oh, damn it’s an observation post.’ I crawled up there and threw a grenade in the slit.”
It wasn’t the only grenade he would throw that day. Baker would singlehandedly take out three more German machine gun nests before the day was through. “I focused on the desperate need to survive the moment,” he later explained, “capture a few hundred feet of hillside, a trench, a machine gun nest. If I survived one minute, I figured out how to deal with the next.”
At some point during all these events, a German soldier unexpectedly emerged from the brush and threw a grenade toward Baker. “And the grenade didn’t explode,” Baker later said, smiling and shaking his head. “It was a dud. Somebody was sitting on my shoulder. I don’t know.”
Baker and his men held on for a few hours, even after their commanding officer decided to leave for reinforcements. However, Baker finally concluded that retreat was necessary. The Americans were running low on ammunition and 19 men had been killed. Baker covered the evacuation of the few men remaining, exposing himself to fire. When he was sure they were out, he finally joined them.
As if all that were not enough, Baker led another advance through mine fields and heavy enemy fire the very next morning. His efforts contributed toward the capture of Castle Aghinolfi.
Baker was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts, but that award would later be upgraded. In 1993, the Army engaged independent researchers to “determine if there was a racial disparity in the way Medal of Honor recipients were selected” during World War II. It was determined that Baker had met the standards for the Medal.
When he finally received the Medal in 1997, Baker was the only living black veteran to receive the award for valor during World War II.
Baker’s response to these events was simple. “I was a soldier and I had a job to do,” he concluded.
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Catherine Reef, African Americans in the Military (2004)
Cole Kingseed, Old Glory Stories: American Combat Leadership in World War II (2006)
Medal of Honor citation (Vernon Baker)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Vernon Baker, WWII)
Larry Smith, Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words (2004)
Peter Collier, Choosing Courage: Inspiring Stories of What It Means to Be a Hero (2015)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)