This is from Warrior Scout.

Lest We Forget.

 

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In the spring of 1945, Vernon Baker survived an assault on a mountain fortress that left most of his platoon slaughtered. The following day, he volunteered to lead a second team to attack the German-occupied fortress; this time, he would not be denied.

Under a dark Italian sky in June 1944, Vernon Baker was walking a night patrol when he stumbled upon a German sentry. The fight that followed was the kind of death struggle that never leaves a man. Baker survived by killing the German that night.

But it had been a close call.

The young American would spend the next several weeks in the infirmary recovering from his deadly encounter. It would not, however, be his last brush with death, or killing.

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Born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1919, Baker joined the Army in June 1941 at the age of 21. His reason for enlisting in the military was a familiar one: he needed a job.

The timing of the enlistment–less than six months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor–meant that Baker’s service would not be base duty.

As the United States prepared for war, Baker was assigned to the 370th regiment in the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated unit that would become the first black unit to see combat in the Second World War.

By the spring of 1945, months after his encounter with the German sentry, Baker was a new man.

He was a seasoned soldier who fought his way into central Italy beside the men in his unit. He had killed a German in a deadly close-combat encounter. He had earned a commission as a second lieutenant, and, as the only black officer in his company, was leading a weapons platoon that included two mortar squads and a pair of light machineguns.

On April 5, 1945, Baker awoke near Viareggio, a city in Northern Tuscany off the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. In his path was Aghinolfi Castle, an imposing German-occupied mountain stronghold that overlooks the Tuscan countryside.

Baker’s platoon was among those who had received orders to take the castle in a morning attack.

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Shortly before noon, as he and his men reached a ravine about 200 meters from the castle, Baker’s platoon begin to receive withering fire.

After taking cover, Baker spotted a pair of German spotters on a nearby hill directing fire; he took aim and and shot, killing each.

After killing a pair of Germans manning a well-hidden machine gun that he had discovered accidentally, Baker turned to see a German soldier hurl a grenade at him. The potato masher landed at his feet. It was a dud.

The German turned to flee but Baker gunned him down.

After killing three more Germans in a nearby dugout, Baker received new orders: Get out.

His platoon had ran into the teeth of the German defense and was in danger of being overwhelmed.

Baker covered the retreat for the survivors, and then he and his men made their way back to friendly territory–but not before taking out two more German positions with grenades.

Losses were heavy: Of the 25 men in Baker’s platoon who had made the assault, only six had survived.

Nonetheless, Baker volunteered to lead a second assault on the German position the following. This time, the weakened Wehrmacht defenses fell before the U.S. assault.

For his heroic actions in the fight, Vernon Baker received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Baker stayed in the military and received a second commission in 111th Airborne during the Korean War (though he never saw combat).

In 1997, Vernon Baker was presented the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton, making Baker the only living African American World War II veteran to receive the honor.

“Second Lieutenant Baker’s fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the Armed Forces,” the citation reads.

Asked years later if he had long since given up hope of receiving the prestigious award, Baker answered it had never crossed his mind.

“I was a soldier and I had a job to do,” Mr. Baker,” Baker said. In July 2010, Baker died of complications with brain cancer at his home in Idaho. He was ninety years old.

NOTES:

Baker’s awards: Medal of Honor; Army Distinguished Service Cross; Silver Star Medal; Bronze Star Medal (twice); Purple Heart (twice); American Defense Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal; World War II Army of Occupation Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Combat Infantryman Badge; Croce Al Valor Militare

Sources: Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, NYT obit by RICHARD GOLDSTEIN published by July 14, 2010, Youtube clip.)

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