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First Name: Vernon

Last Name: Baker

Birthplace: Cheyenne, WY, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Middle Name: Joseph

Date of Birth: 17 December 1919

Date of Death: 13 July 2010

Rank: First Lieutenant

Years Served: 1941-1968
Vernon Joseph Baker

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)
•  Korean War (1950 - 1953)


Vernon Joseph Baker
First Lieutenant, U.S. Army
Medal of Honor Recipient
World War II

First Lieutenant Vernon Joseph Baker (17 December 1919 - 13 July 2010) was a U.S. Army officer who received the U.S. military's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, for his actions in World War II.

Baker was awarded the Medal for his actions on 5-6 April 1945 near Viareggio, Italy, when he and his platoon killed 26 enemy soldiers and destroyed six machine gun nests, two observer posts and four dugouts. He was the only living black World War II veteran of the seven belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor when it was bestowed upon him by President Bill Clinton in 1997.

Vernon Joseph Baker was born on 17 December 1919, in Cheyenne, WY, 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, IA. 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. At his first attempt to enlist, in April 1941, he was turned away, the recruiter stating "We don't have any quotas for you people." He tried again weeks later with a different recruiter and was accepted; he requested to become a quartermaster but was instead assigned to the infantry.

Military Service

Baker entered the Army on 26 June 1941, six months prior to the U.S. entry into World War II. He went through training at Camp Wolters, TX, and after completing Officer Candidate School was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on 11 January 1943.

In June 1944, Baker was sent to Italy with the all-black 92nd Infantry Division. He 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 reserves and placed in active combat. On the morning of 5 April he participated in an attack on the German stronghold of Castle Aghinolfi. During the assault, Baker led his heavy weapons platoon through German army defenses to within sight of the castle, personally destroying three machine gun nests, two observation posts, two bunkers, and a network of German telephone lines along the way. It was for these actions that he was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

After the end of the war, Baker remained in Europe with the Allied occupation forces until 1947. He later joined the Army Airborne forces and left the military in 1968 as a First Lieutenant.

Medal of Honor

In 1993, a study commissioned by the U.S. Army described systematic racial discrimination in the criteria for awarding medals during World War II. At the time, no Medals of Honor had been awarded to black soldiers who served in World War II. After an exhaustive review of files, the study recommended that several black Distinguished Service Cross recipients have their awards upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On 13 January 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal to seven African-American World War II veterans; Baker was the only recipient still living at the time.

Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army, 92nd Infantry Division.

Place and date: Near Viareggio, Italy, 5 and 6 April 1945.

Citation: 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 and 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. Second Lieutenant Baker's fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the Armed Forces.

Medals and Awards

Medal of Honor
Bronze Star Medal
Purple Heart
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
Croce Al Valor Militare (Italy)

Combat Infantryman Badge

On 11 September 2008, Vernon Baker was awarded the Sandor Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service to Humankind by Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC. Along with the award, Baker received an honorary doctorate from the college.


Baker's first wife was Leola Baker. His second wife was Fern Brown; the couple had three children. After his wife's death in 1986, he moved to a cabin in the Benewah Valley of Northern Idaho. Baker was an avid hunter, and hunted elk in Northern Idaho before and after moving to the area. In 1989, he met a German woman visiting the U.S., Heidy Pawlick, whom he would later marry.

Death and Burial

Baker died at his St. Maries, ID, home on 13 July 2010 after a long battle with cancer. He had been near-death due to brain cancer in 2004, but had recovered. His funeral at Arlington National Cemetery on 24 September 2010 was attended by three other Medal of Honor recipients. Funds for his family to travel to the funeral service were raised by their local community. His grave is located in Section 59, Site 4417.

Honoree ID: 1277   Created by: MHOH




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