WASHINGTON -- It would be easy, perhaps too easy, to put Vernon J. Baker on a pedestal and turn the modest, humble old soldier into a symbol.
But Baker, 77, wants none of that.
"I would just like to be remembered as a soldier in the United States Army that did his job," he says.
Yesterday, Baker's country told him he was more than just a soldier. He was a hero. Of the seven black men awarded the Medal of Honor yesterday at the White House, Baker is the only one who survives. Four of the others were killed in action.
They are the first and only black Americans to win the Medal of Honor for heroism in World War II.
Baker never thought this day would come. He never hungered for it, or for the recognition. Yet, as he sat in the East Room with President Clinton, the military brass, the families, his gray eyes welled with tears. His mind traveled back 50 years to the time of war and battle.
"I was an angry young man. We were all angry, but we had a job to do and we did it," says Baker, a former lieutenant in the 92nd Infantry Division. "It was very frustrating to be a soldier. But when the fighting started, all of that was gone. The uppermost thought in my mind was getting the job done and keeping myself alive."
Getting the job done. Baker, who grew up in Cheyenne, Wyo., sounds so matter-of-fact about his combat experience. On April 5, 1945, outside the Italian town of Viareggio, getting the job done meant leading four platoons toward Castle Aghinolfi, a German strong point in the mountains. He blew up machine-gun nests, killed nine German soldiers at close range with his rifle and a hand grenade, covered wounded comrades making their way to safety. The next day he led the battalion through enemy minefields and heavy fire. For those actions he won the Distinguished Service Cross.
He remained in the Army until 1968, then went to work for the American Red Cross before retiring to St. Maries, Idaho. He put away his memories of war.
But then, three years ago, two military historians, detectives piecing together the past, came to his door.
They were trying to find out why none of the 1.2 million black men who served in World War II were awarded any of the 294 Medals of Honor issued. They suspected racism. In the American military of that time, even the blood was segregated.
Baker, his disgust only slightly eased by 50 years, recalls his officer training meaning nothing when placed beside that of a white officer.
"We were all boys. It didn't matter if we were lieutenants or privates, we were all boys," he says, a palpable distaste in his voice. "Our opinions were never taken seriously, or they were ignored."
Back then, many whites considered black soldiers poorly disciplined cowards, unable to fight. This attitude prevailed despite blacks having fought in all of America's wars. Black soldiers were assigned to support operations, away from the firing line. Pressure from the black community and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt combined with the long war to change that.
The 761st Tank Battalion, the "Black Panthers," fought through Europe and the Battle of the Bulge; the 92nd Infantry Division battled through Italy; the famed Tuskegee Airmen took to the skies against the Luftwaffe. Those soldiers built a legacy of heroism.
"They were willing to sacrifice everything for freedom, even though freedom's fullness was denied them," is how President Clinton described their acts yesterday. The president recalled how in 1945, President Truman handed out more than two dozen Medals of Honor in one day. "But that day, something was missing from his cross-section of America."
In May 1993, the Army decided to investigate its own actions in awarding the Medal of Honor. Dr. Daniel K. Gibran, then of Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., won the $320,585 contract. He and the others on his team found that by war's end, eight black soldiers had received the Distinguished Service Cross, less than 0.2 percent of the 4,750 such medals given out. Another soldier ** received the award posthumously in 1982.
Those nine soldiers, plus another who won the Silver Star, comprised the group Dr. Gibran's team investigated for the Medal of Honor.
The medal is the nation's highest award for valor, and one of its oldest. The Distinguished Service Cross was brought into existence in World War I to honor battlefield courage so that the Medal of Honor could be preserved as an "exalted honor for truly extraordinary acts of bravery."
A pattern of racism
"As you know, it is very hard to prove racism," says Dr. Gibran, now teaching at Tennessee State University. "Our study really took a lot of [commanders] to task for being overtly racist. The charges we made are not hearsay. We can't afford to do that. We had to document everything."
The team sifted through old Army files and held interviews. They found no record of any black soldier even being recommended for the Medal of Honor. The reason was clear.
"We found statements pertaining to the fact that white commanders had repeatedly said the Medal of Honor would not be for a black soldier in this war," says Gibran.
It didn't matter what a black soldier did.
On Dec. 26, 1944, Lt. John R. Fox, acting as a forward observer for the 598th Field Artillery Battalion, called in a barrage for his position in Sommocolonia, Italy. It was the only way to stop the German and Italian forces. The report notes that when the artillery commander double-checked with Fox, the lieutenant responded: "Fire it! There are more of them than there are of us. Give 'em hell."
The bodies of Fox and the others in the observation post were found among nearly 100 dead enemy soldiers. The recommendation for his Distinguished Service Cross was either lost, or destroyed.
"It was an unwritten thing," Dr. Gibran says of the old attitude. "It was a concerted effort on the part of white officers not to make this award to a black guy."
David J. Williams is one white officer who did not harbor the bitter hatred. A captain in A Company, 761st Tank Battalion, he lTC remembers other white officers getting drunk and singing, "I'm dreaming of a white battalion," to the tune of "White Christmas."
"We fought three battles: Fort Cleburn in Louisiana, Fort Hood in Texas, and Europe. The only medal we got without any fuss: Purple Hearts," says Williams, 76. "You have to understand. In battle you fight for each other. The pride in the unit. You have a cohesion," he says, then goes on to borrow from "Henry V." "When men fight shoulder to shoulder and bleed and die for a just cause, they become brothers."
After the war, Williams waged his own campaign to win recognition for his battalion and for one of his men, Sgt. Ruben Rivers, killed in action. After the unit received a Presidential Citation in 1978, Williams kept on fighting for Rivers. He believes God kept him alive for one reason: To see that Rivers won the Medal of Honor. Yesterday, he savored the victory, smiling, crying, proudly declaring himself a "Black Panther."
"We did win, didn't we," he says. "God can take me this moment because the deed is done."
Yet, regrets still eat at him.
"I have a certain sadness," he says. "Why didn't I have Sgt. Roberson hold [Rivers] down and me hit him with the morphine? I regret it to my dying day."
Rivers, horribly wounded, leg ripped open to the thigh from shrapnel, could have taken the offered morphine shot and a ticket to the rear. He already had a Silver Star. But he stayed on through the blood, mud and snow of November 1944. Williams remembers that time as if it were yesterday.
"You have to imagine Dante's 'Inferno.' The 4th Armored had gotten murdered the day before. There were bodies all over the place," he says. "You don't have any idea how horrible it was. The cows and horses all bloated with gas, the old women torn up in a ditch."
On Nov. 19, 1944, three days after he had been wounded, an armor-piercing round slammed into the turret of Rivers' tank as he covered his company's withdrawal near Guebling, France. Williams says he put in a recommendation for the Medal of Honor. When he later asked about it, he was told it was "in channels." No record was ever found.
'A great day'
That's how the Army operated back then. But yesterday, there was vindication, and tears of honor, pride, of memory for the fallen. Baker remembered his comrades as President Clinton, who stands a head taller, placed the medal with its blue ribbon around his neck.
He remembered the angry young men who fought for a country that doubted them. He stood in morning chill, warmed by some inner fire while others shivered and blew into their hands for warmth.
He joked with reporters: "How come you guys are all out in the cold?"
He chuckled and talked about the mountain lion he killed not too long ago while elk hunting: "He's in the freezer. It was one of those things. He was stalking me and I was stalking him. I lost the elk, and he lost his life."
Asked to explain why, despite the prejudice, the segregation, the anger, he had gone to fight, he repeated his simple answer: There was a job to do. But yesterday, he gladly accepted the honor not just for himself, but for all the black soldiers of World War II.
"It's a great day. We've all been vindicated," he said, standing ramrod straight, a breeze blowing through his gray-white hair. "The only thing I can say to the ones who aren't here is, 'Thank you, fellas. Well done, and I'll always remember you.' "
These seven soldiers were presented with the Medal of Honor yesterday for their actions during World War II:
Lt. Vernon J. Baker, 77, for action near Viareggio, Italy, on April 5-6, 1945.
Lt. Edward A. Carter Jr., for action near Speyer, Germany, on March 23, 1945, when he killed six enemy soldiers and captured two, though he had been wounded five times. He died of cancer in 1963 at age 46.
Lt. John R. Fox, for action near Sommocolonia, Italy. He was killed in action Dec. 26, 1944. He was 29.
Pfc. Willy F. James Jr., for action near Lippoldsberg, Germany, on April 7, 1945, when he led an assault on an enemy position. He was killed in action the next day. He was 25.
Sgt. Ruben Rivers, for action near Guebling, France, Nov. 16-19, 1944, when he was killed in action. He was 26.
Lt. Charles L. Thomas, for action near Climbach, France. On Dec. 14, 1944, he was wounded several times but refused to be evacuated until he had ordered and directed the placement of anti-tank guns and was certain his junior officer was ready to take over. He died in 1980 at age 59.
Pvt. George Watson, for action on March 8, 1943, near Porloch Harbor, New Guinea. After his transport ship, the USAT Jacob, was sunk by enemy bombers, he helped other sailors and soldiers into life rafts. Exhausted, he was pulled under by the suction from the sinking ship. He was 28.
Pub Date: 1/14/97