As a young Black man, Vernon Baker wasn’t happy with his life. He determined that joining the Army might be a good way to get his life on track. When he went to the Army recruiting station in his hometown, he was told by the Army recruiter there, “We ain’t got no orders for ‘you people.'”
On a second try some time later, when Baker entered the recruiting office, he was welcomed in by a different recruiter who asked him what he wanted to do in the Army. Baker said he wanted to be in the Quartermaster Corps, but the recruiter wrote down, “Infantry.” Baker didn’t say anything, because at least he was in.
Fast forward to 1945, and he was with the segregated 370th Regiment, the first all-Black unit to see combat in WWII. Baker had shown great skills and by this time was a 1st Lt. He was leading a platoon of the 370th on April 5, 1945, near Viareggio, Italy. For several days, various units were charged with mounting an attack in very hilly country to take a German-held castle and its surrounding areas. One unit after another went up and had to retreat. After four attempts, it was his unit’s turn.
He was following the CO up a trail, but the CO stayed off of and above the trail, so Baker did too. It wasn’t long before they heard explosions behind them. They were the result of some of the men who did not stay off of the trail and were tripping mines. Shortly thereafter, a German man appeared and tossed a hand grenade. Baker was able to get a shot off and killed the German. The grenade turned out to be a dud.
Baker headed back toward the rear to see about his men. He took a submachine gun with him. On his way, he came across a door over an opening in the hill. He tossed a grenade at it, and a German stuck his head out. Baker shot him. He tossed in another grenade and got three more Germans. As he continued on, he spotted yet another bunker-like opening. He tossed another grenade into it and got two more Germans.
He then went back up the hill to where the CO was, but couldn’t find him. He asked one of the troops where the CO was, and the soldier pointed to a small hut. When Baker went inside, he found the CO frozen with fear. The CO asked him to take over and then said he was going back down the hill to get reinforcements. Baker told him he would do his best but knew inside that the CO wouldn’t be coming back with those reinforcements. He was on his own to get his platoon back to the rear.
The next day, Baker volunteered to lead a battalion in a final advance against the fortified castle held by the Germans. They were able to rout the enemy and take the castle for the Allies. Still, when Baker thinks back to those events that day, all he thinks about is the 19 men that fell in that effort. He says, “If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Baker was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for his actions in that battle near Viareggio that day. But 50 years later, in 1996, he was contacted by a researcher who was looking into the possibility of upgrading medals awarded to African-American soldiers during WWII, including him. Baker’s DSC was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, and it was awarded to him by President Bill Clinton in January of 1997, making Baker the only living African-American serviceman from WWII to receive that honor.
The Veterans Site honors the courage and the leadership that 1st Lt. Vernon Baker demonstrated during WWII. We will never forget! Hooah!Whizzco