Saturday, July 17, 2010

Farewell to Medal of Honor Recipient Vernon Baker

The signpost at the corner of 16th Street and Main Street in Clarinda, Iowa honors two World War II heroes. Glenn Miller was a big band leader who entered the armed forces and was lost in flight over the English Channel in August 1944. Vernon Baker was a young second lieutenant who fought in the Italian campaign.

Vernon J. Baker was one of the most decorated African-Americans who served in World War II, winning the Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and Croce di Guerra. Later he was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor.

He died this past week in St. Maries, Idaho at age 90, after a long battle with brain cancer.

Baker was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He attended school there and at Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska and graduated from Clarinda High School in 1939.

Here is the plaque in front of the Page County Courthouse. His full citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty in action on 5 and 6 April 1945, Lieutenant Baker advanced at the head of his weapons platoon, along with Company C’s three rifle platoons, toward their objective; Castle Aghinolfi—a German mountain strong point on the high ground just east of the coastal highway and about two miles from the 370th Infantry Regiment’s line of departure. Moving more rapidly than the rest of the company, Lieutenant Baker and about 25 men reached the south side of a draw some 250 yards from the castle within two hours. In reconnoitering for a suitable position to set up a machine gun, Lieutenant Baker observed two cylindrical objects pointing out of a slit in a mount at the edge of a hill. Crawling up and under the opening, he stuck his M-1 into the slit and emptied the clip, killing the observation post’s two occupants. Moving to another position in the same area, Lieutenant Baker stumbled upon a well-camouflaged machine gun nest, the crew of which was eating breakfast. He shot and killed both enemy soldiers. After Captain John F. Runyon, Company C’s Commander, joined the group, a German soldier appeared from the draw and hurled a grenade which failed to explode. Lieutenant Baker shot the enemy soldier twice as he tried to flee. Lieutenant Baker then went down into the draw alone. There he blasted open the concealed entrance to another dugout with a hand grenade, shot one German soldier who emerged after the explosion, tossed another grenade into the dugout and entered firing his submachine gun, killing two more Germans. As Lieutenant Baker climbed back out of the draw, enemy machine gun and mortar fire began to inflict heavy casualties among the group of 25 soldiers, killing or wounding about two-thirds of them. When expected reinforcements did not arrive, Capt. Runyon ordered a withdrawal in two groups. Lieutenant Baker volunteered to cover the withdrawal of the first group, which consisted of mostly walking wounded, and to remain to assist in the evacuation of the more seriously wounded. During the second group’s withdrawal, Lieutenant Baker, supported by covering fire from one of his platoon members, destroyed two machine gun positions (previously bypassed during the assault) with hand grenades. In all, Lieutenant Baker accounted for nine dead enemy soldiers, elimination of three machine gun positions, an observation post, and a dugout. On the following night, Lieutenant Baker voluntarily led a battalion advance through enemy mine fields and heavy fire toward the division objective. Lieutenant Baker’s fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the military service.

Baker's memoir Lasting Valor was published in 1997. He chronicles his early life and almost 30 years of military service from World War II to the desegregation of the armed forces under President Truman to the Vietnam War.

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