“Courage is not the absence of fear but the judgment that something else is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all.”
Old Soldiers don’t die, they just fade away…
Vernon Baker was an American combat warrior, he was a bonafide World War II hero, and he was the last surviving Black soldier from WWII to receive our country’s most revered symbol of heroism, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
On Tuesday Mr. Baker lost his battle against brain cancer and passed away quietly at his home near St. Maries, Idaho. To say that his actions under intense enemy fire exemplified courage would be an understatement. The man lived during an era in American history when a soldier’s grit, courage, leadership, sacrifice and determination defeated real tyranny and real fascism.
In the tradition of American heroes who were “called home” before him, Vernon Baker will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
According to family spokeswoman Lil Shanks, “The Medal of Honor people have been notified of Mr. Baker’s death and arrangements will be made with the appropriate representatives from Arlington National Cemetery.”
When Mr. Baker’s stepdaughter Alexandra Pawlik was asked by family and friends what his extraordinary life meant to her, she responded by calling The Congressional Medal of Honor recipient “The hero in my life”. “I loved him and I named my son after him.”
It was in 1997 that then U.S. President Clinton draped the sacred Congressional Medal of Honor around the neck of a tearful and humbled Vernon Baker, officially recognizing 52 years later a nation’s deep and profound gratitude to a soldier who overcame personal fear and overwhelming German forces by exhibiting the valor of a warrior and the heart of the legendary American fighting man.
“They were denied the nation’s highest honor, but their deeds could not be denied,” Clinton said during the White House ceremony. The president made a point of quoting Baker’s personal creed, which kept the Wyoming native going during World War II and through his distinguished military career. “Give respect before you expect it. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Remember the mission. Set the example. Keep going.”
To understand the man turned soldier it’s important to understand his humble beginnings.
Vernon Joseph Baker was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming on December 17, 1919. His parents were both killed in a car accident when he was just four-years-old. It was his grandparents that took on the responsibility of raising him and his two older sisters.
His grandfather, Joseph S. Baker, was chief brakeman for the Union Pacific Railroad in Cheyenne and the most influential figure in young Vernon’s life. Grandpa Joseph taught a young Vernon how to track an animal and how to shoot a rifle. It was because of the hunting skills that he taught his grandson that he tasked his grandson to help feed the family by providing the dinner table with rabbit and other wild game.
It was the hunting skills taught to him by his grandfather that served Baker well in battle and saved not only his life but the life of many a soldier that served with him.
Vernon’s grandmother tormented by the pains of arthritis and confinement to a wheelchair, appeared at times to be overly bitter and overbearing to the young man that was just coming into his own as a young Black teenager in the wild west of Wyoming. It was because of the tension between him and his grandmother that a teenaged Vernon was sent away for a couple of years to live at the iconic Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska. While there, he received a solid education, structured discipline and the skills of fighting to survive.
People who lived with him at the Nebraska orphanage remembered him as being soft-spoken, cool under pressure and always sticking up for the smaller kids.
After he left Boys Town, Vernon attended and graduated from high school in Clarinda, Iowa, his grandfather’s hometown. Shortly after his grandfather’s death in 1939, Vernon worked briefly as a railroad porter, a job that he loathed. That particular job only lasted briefly and Vernon needing to sustain himself, took on odd jobs at sweeping barbershop floors and shinning shoes.
In 1941 after initially being turned away by a less than enthusiastic Army recruiter, Vernon went back to the Army recruiting station to show the recruiters that he was determined to make a life for himself as a soldier. This time a different recruiter processed his paperwork and Vernon Baker the young man found himself shipping out to boot camp in a deeply segregated south.
Vernon’s first real encounter with racism came when he got off a train in central Texas and boarded the bus for Camp Wolters and basic training. Vernon took the seat directly behind the driver. The driver turned and yelled, “Hey nigger, get to the back of the bus where you belong.” As Vernon prepared to punch the driver, an old man grabbed his arm, led him to the back, and explained the rules of Southern living.
Baker endured abuse from all sides. Illiterate Black enlisted men who had been trapped in menial jobs for years resented his rapid advancement. Three Black soldiers jumped him one night at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. “They whipped me up because I was the smart nigger,” Baker said.
The U.S. military considered Blacks unfit for combat during the Jim Crow era, despite Black soldiers’ impressive record dating back to the Revolutionary War. However by 1944, the Army being short on soldiers and under intense pressure from the Black community, relented and formed the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division, one of the few all-Black units to see combat during World War II. Vernon Baker because of his education and his leadership skills was promoted to the rank of 2nd lieutenant. He was shipped to Italy with the first contingent of Black soldiers that June. The young Black lieutenant from Wyoming who was deadly with a rifle quickly developed a reputation as a fierce fighter.
What legends are made of
On April 5, 1945, Baker and his heavy weapons platoon managed to slip through enemy mine fields, barbed wire and other German defenses and in doing so got within eye sight of a German fortified castle that served as the German’s headquarters. Baker single-handedly took out three machine gun nests, two observation posts and two bunkers in addition to helping take other enemy positions. He also discovered and destroyed a network of telephone lines that connected the German positions.
Once the Germans woke to the presence of U.S. troops in the terraced olive groves below the castle, they pummeled them with mortars and machine gun fire. Baker’s calls for artillery support were disregarded for several hours because American officers didn’t believe he and his men were so far behind enemy lines. As the battle intensified, the White company commander left, taking the only radioman and telling Baker he was going for reinforcements. Instead, he reported that Baker’s platoon had been wiped out.
Baker fought for several more hours, losing 19 of his 25 men before deciding to withdraw. The next day, Baker was order to lead an all-white company back to the castle. They reached the fortress without a shot being fired. Germany surrendered a month later.
Baker’s fellow soldiers nominated him for the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest honor for battlefield valor, well aware that the white Southerners the Army purposefully put in charge of black troops would not approve the more justly deserved Medal of Honor.
At the end of World War II now 1st lieutenant Baker was the most highly decorated Black soldier in the Mediterranean Theatre with the Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, the Italian Cross of Valor of War and the Polish Cross of Valor.
At the end of WWII Baker’s unit stayed in Italy with the Army during its occupation and fell in love with an Italian woman. She didn’t join Baker in the United States when he was shipped home in 1947 because he knew people in the United States would not tolerate their interracial relationship. Baker remained in the Army, joined the Airborne and jumped out of airplanes until he was 48. He also became one of the first Black commanders of an all-White company when the military finally desegregated.
Baker met and married Fern Brown along the way. The couple raised three children. Drug use, desertions and turmoil in the ranks amid the Vietnam War drove him to leave the Army in 1968, three years short of his 30-year goal. His only tour in Vietnam was with the American Red Cross, serving his country as a living testament of heroism.
When his beloved Fern died in 1986, Baker moved to northern Idaho, where he had elk-hunted for years, and finished a half-built cabin in the Benewah Valley. He met a German tourist, Heidy Pawlick, in the Spokane airport in 1989 and they later wed. They couple joked that he had married the enemy.
In the early 1990s the Army commissioned a study to ascertain why Black soldiers during WWII hadn’t received the Congressional Medal of Honor and upon final review in 1996 awarded the highly coveted award to Baker and six other Black soldiers. Unfortunately by 1996, Baker was the only soldier still alive to receive the award.
Because Vernon Baker’s promotion to lieutenant was during the war when officers were in short supply, after the war Baker returned to the ranks of the enlisted, however because of Army regulation, Vernon Baker by virtue of one time achieving the rank of 1st lieutenant, (his highest promoted rank) was allowed for pay purposes to retire in 1968 with the pay grade of 1st lieutenant rather than that of a Noncommissioned Officer. (Sergeant)
In closing when asked about being a hero, Mr. Baker responded that he did not look at himself as being a hero. He acknowledged that he did a good job during the war, however, without hesitation he stated that the real heroes were the individuals who died in combat, never getting the chance to return home to their family. It is because of soldiers like Vernon Baker that the United States and Western Europe enjoy the freedoms that sometimes we take for granted. In another era, Mr. Vernon Baker would have had movies made in honor of his valor. Perhaps it’s not too late. Spike Lee are you listening?
Until the next time Louisianans, Good Day, God Bless and Good Fishing.