b. 17/12/1919 Cheyenne, Wyoming. d. 13/07/2010 St Maries, Idaho.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 05-06/04/1945 Viareggio, Italy.
Baker was born on December 17, 1919, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the youngest of three children. After his parents died in a car accident when he was four, he and his two sisters were raised by their grandparents. His grandfather Joseph S. Baker, a railroad worker in Cheyenne, taught him to hunt in order to feed the family and became “the most influential figure in Vernon’s life.” His relationship with his grandmother was much more strained, and he spent a few years at the Boys Town orphanage in Nebraska to be away from her.
Baker graduated from high school in his grandfather’s hometown of Clarinda, Iowa. He then worked as a railroad porter, a job he despised, until his grandfather’s death from cancer in 1939. A series of menial jobs followed until his enlistment in the U.S. Army in mid-1941. He attempt to enlist in April 1941, but was turned away with the recruiter stating, “We don’t have any quotas for you people”. Baker tried again weeks later with a different recruiter and was accepted; he requested to become a quartermaster but was assigned instead to the infantry.
Baker entered the Army on June 26, 1941, six months prior to the U.S. entry into World War II. He went through training at Camp Wolters, Texas, and after completing Officer Candidate School was commissioned as a second lieutenant on January 11, 1943. It was at this time that Baker met Sgt. Coleman Conley, a Tuskegee Airmen pilot, and his brother, Booker Conley. It was Coleman who encouraged Baker to find a way to join the 92nd Infantry Division.
In June 1944, Baker was sent to Italy with the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, with Booker Conley joining him that November as part of the 366th Infantry Regiment, which was a part of the 92nd Infantry Division. Baker was wounded in the arm in October of that year, hospitalized near Pisa, and in December rejoined his unit in reserve along the Gothic Line.
In early spring, 1945, his unit was pulled from the reserve status and ordered into combat. On the morning of April 5, Baker participated in an attack on the German stronghold of Castle Aghinolfi. After the end of the war, Baker remained in Europe with the Allied occupation forces until 1947, when he lost his commission due to the lack of a college education. He was re-commissioned during the Korean War and joined the 11th Airborne Division, but did not see any combat. He left the military in 1968 as a first lieutenant. Following his retirement from the Army, he worked for the Red Cross for nearly 20 years.
In 1993, a study commissioned by the U.S. Army described systematic racial discrimination in the criteria for awarding decorations during World War II. At the time, no Medals of Honor had been awarded to the black American soldiers who served in World War II. After an exhaustive review of files, the study recommended that ten black Distinguished Service Cross recipients have their military awards upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to seven of the World War II veterans; Baker was the only living recipient of the medal at the time. Baker died in 2010, aged 90 and was buried with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery.
For extraordinary heroism in action on 5 and 6 April 1945, near Viareggio, Italy. Then Second Lieutenant Baker demonstrated outstanding courage and leadership in destroying enemy installations, personnel, and equipment during his company’s attack against a strongly entrenched enemy in mountainous terrain. When his company was stopped by the concentration of fire from several machine gun emplacements, he crawled to one position and destroyed it, killing three Germans. Continuing forward, he attacked an enemy observation post and killed two occupants. With the aid of one of his men, Lieutenant Baker attacked two more machine gun nests, killing or wounding the four enemy soldiers occupying these positions. He then covered the evacuation of the wounded personnel of his company by occupying an exposed position and drawing the enemy’s fire. On the following night Lieutenant Baker voluntarily led a battalion advance through enemy mine fields and heavy fire toward the division objective.
BURIAL LOCATION: ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA.
SECTION 59 GRAVE 4408.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: FAMILY.