By Chad Stewart

He had to wait 52 years, but Vernon Baker finally got what he deserved.

When President Bill Clinton clasped the Medal of Honor around Baker’s neck in the East Room of the White House on January 13, 1997, a lone tear rolling down the recipient’s cheek punctuated a distinguished Army career.

Seven courageous black World War II veterans were recognized for conspicuous gallantry that day. Only Baker was alive to receive the nation’s highest award for valor. Later, reporters asked what was running through his mind as the president listed his wartime achievements.

“I was thinking about what was going on up on the hill that day,” he told the New York Times after the ceremony.

Medal of Honor recipient Vernon Baker spent nearly 28 years in uniform before retiring from the Army in 1968. | Photo credit DoD photo

Behind enemy lines in Viareggio, Italy, on April 5, 1944, then-2nd Lieutenant Baker led his team of black soldiers from the segregated 370th Infantry Regiment through a hornet’s nest of German bunkers and machine-gun positions. The mission was to capture Castle Aghinolfi, an enemy stronghold perched on a steep hillside.

“The whole regiment had been trying to take [the castle],” Baker said in an interview with the National WWII Museum. “Battalion by battalion, they went up … they got cut to pieces. And when they got back down … we knew it was our turn.”

In the ensuing firefight, Baker killed nine enemy troops, eliminating three machine-gun positions, an observation post and a dugout in the process. As enemy mortars, mines and incessant gunfire inflicted heavy casualties—19 members of the 25-man platoon were killed—Baker provided cover as the remaining men withdrew.

The next day, the 5-foot-5-inch, 140-pound junior officer led a battalion advance on the heavily fortified position and secured Castle Aghinolfi for the Allies.

Baker received a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on that Italian hillside, but was essentially excluded from the Medal of Honor. Of the more than 1 million African-Americans who served during WWII, no awards were received until 1997.

In an interview with PBS, an anecdote from Baker illustrated the racial climate of the time.

“When I went back to regimental headquarters to turn in the dog tags of the 19 men that I’d left up on that hill there, I was chewed out by the regimental commander, Colonel (Raymond G.) Sherman himself, because I wasn’t wearing a steel helmet.”

In the early 1990s the Defense Department asked researchers at Shaw University, a historically black college in Raleigh, North Carolina, to find out if there was a racial disparity in the selection of Medal of Honor recipients. Historians did not find evidence that proved racial bias in the Army’s award process, but the study’s authors reported that the politics of the day nearly guaranteed that no black service member would receive the military’s top award for valor. Researchers recommended 10 men for consideration and the Pentagon chose seven, including Baker.

The Wyoming native He spent his post-military years in service to his community, working for the Red Cross before retiring to rural Idaho. After battling brain cancer for years, Baker lost his fight in 2010. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Baker lived 90 years, outlasting virtually all the men he served with during the war. The soldiers he fought with and led in Italy—especially the ones who didn’t make it home—stayed with him throughout his life. Holding back tears, he told the National WWII Museum that he thought about them often.

“Every once in a while, I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the guys,” he said. “I think of 19 souls that gave their all. If not for them, I probably wouldn’t be here myself.”

–Chad Stewart is the senior editor of On Patrol.