More than 50 years after World War II ended, seven African-American soldiers were awarded a congressional medal of honor. Only one of them is alive to tell his story, Vernon Baker, of northern Idaho.
Watch a video clip of Vernon Baker.
The first time I walked into the recruiting office, there was a sergeant sitting behind the desk. He asked me what I wanted and I said I would like to enlist in the army. And he said, "well, we don't have any quotas for you people." With that he went back to what he was doing, writing something on his desk, you know dismissed me as if I was a little mouse or something.
And it made me very angry and when I walked out the door I swore I wasn't coming back, I wouldn't do that anymore. But as things went on, I wasn't working. I didn't have a job. I was living with my sister and it kind of rankled me that I needed to support myself.
So, I swallowed my pride and I went back to the recruiting office. And this time, there was a different soldier sitting behind the desk and he asked me if he could help me. And I said, "yes, I'd like to enlist in the army." And he said, "well come right in and sit down." and I ended up at Camp Waters, Texas, in the infantry.
We were in a segregated platoon in a white company, OCS class number 148. And it was the same old thing. We were in separate barracks, separated from everybody, except when we went to class. That was normal for us, that's the way it always had been. And being a black man, you had to accept it.
In 1944, second lieutenant Vernonon Baker was sent to Italy with a full platoon of 54 men. On April 5 he and his men found themselves behind enemy lines.
We were briefed that there was a push coming up. But we didn't know what part we would play in it until the night of the third of April. All the officers and the N.C.O.'s were called together by Captain Runyan. And we were told our mission was to go up hill X and take castle Aghinolfi which was about three miles behind enemy lines.
We got three quarters of the way up to the castle. That's when I had 25 men going up the hill and came back with seven. And in the process of going up, we cut quite a few communications lines which let us get through because they didn't know we were there. And when they did find out we were there, they cut us to pieces. And we were quite a few yards behind enemy lines. We were right in the middle of them.
I can recall talking to my company commander. We were in sight of the castle. We were sitting on one side of the draw, talking about how to get down the draw, take the company up there so we could go get up to neutralize the castle.
And the German came out and threw a hand grenade and I shot him. And fortunately the hand grenade didn't explode. My company commander took off and went into a house and I went down and I found two more dug outs and threw grenades in them and fired some rounds and killed some more soldiers. And then I came back up to where my company commander was. And at the end, just as I got back to him, we began to get into another fight with machine gun and mortars falling all around.
Baker and his platoon had killed 26 Germans, destroyed 6 machine gun nests, 2 observer posts and 4 dugouts. Baker earned a distinguished service cross, only one of nine African Americans so honored in World War II.
Eventually Baker retired to northern Idaho. Then one day he received a call telling him he was to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor. At first he was astonished. Then he was angry.
Because it was something that I felt should have been done a long time ago. If I was worthy of receiving the Medal of Honor in 1945, I should have received it then.
I like to be right and I know in my heart that we were right. And we were a heck of a lot better than the people that ran us down thought we were.
It means that every black solider that fought in the Second World War has been vindicated, every one.
The correspondence that Baker has received since receiving his Medal of Honor has encouraged him.
Oh, there's lots of hope. I've got quite a few letters that tell me there's gallons of hope. I love 'em. Makes me feel real good that there are people in the world. I've ran across so many people that are not like this and I began to wonder whether the world was full of bad people. But now it makes me feel real, real, real good that there are people like this still in the world.
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