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First taste of real democracy in the United States - dating in Spokane

Killing ten Germans alone

Company Captain Runyun deserts his men

How Baker felt receiving the Medal of Honor


[Annotator's Note: video begins with 19 seconds of silence then begins abruptly with Baker in mid-sentence.] Vernon Baker was born and raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He was born there in December 1919. Just before his fourth birthday his mother and father were killed in an automobile accident. He was born Vernon Joseph Caldera, his father was from New Mexico. After his parents' death, he became the ward of his grandparents with the last name of Baker. All his life he was known as Baker until things got complicated when he joined the army and they asked for his birth certificate. He had to get affidavits from relatives to prove who he was. He became a second lieutenant after OCS [Annotators Note: officer candidate school] on 11 January 1943. He was never officially a Baker until he had to get a passport after the war. There was no military background in his family. Outside of Cheyenne was Fort D. A. Russell, now Warren Air Force Base, and he used to see soldiers come into town and get drunk. His grandfather told him to stay away from the soldiers. He had a bad opinion of soldiers growing up. Baker was living with his sister and did not have a job. He had worked as a busboy, and then as a railroad porter. He hated beiong a porter because he came in contact with racist people. He quit when his grandpa, who had given him the job, died. At that time Fort D. A. Russell was being built up so he got a job on a segregated construction crew. It was difficult because white southerners were their bosses. He worked at night. The racist bosses called his construction site the nigger barracks. He did not like that so he quit. After that he got a job driving a truck for a dry cleaning business and went to both the white and black sections of town. He felt that was demeaning. His sister suggested he join the army. He went to the recruiting station and had an interaction with a racist sergeant so he left but he could not find a job for another three months. In June of 1941 he decided he was going to go back and join the army. He was worried he would punch the sergeant if he was still there but instead he had a pleasant experience. When asked what branch of the service he wanted to go in he said Quartermaster but he [Annotators Note: the recruiter] wrote down infantry instead.


Vernon Baker went to Camp Wolters, Texas for basic training and experienced segregation. He got onto a bus when he arrived and tried to sit in the front. The driver called him an offensive name and told him to go to the back of the bus where he belonged. Baker went to strike the bus driver but an old man interfered and told him about the South and what to expect. It was demeaning but he could hear his grandfather saying that if he wanted live he had to learn how to conform. They were trained separately from white soldiers. After Camp Wolters he went to Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The next morning they went out on formation where a Sgt. Espy asked if anyone could use a typewriter and Baker raised his hand. He became a company clerk for Company D, 25th Infantry. This was in October 1941. At that time they were recruiting black soldiers to become officers. Being the clerk, Baker processed all the paperwork from orderly and supply rooms. When his sergeant left to go to OCS Baker earned his sergeant stripes and he became a supply sergeant. This also occurred in October 1941. Most black soldiers at that time were illiterate or semiliterate and had been in the army for 15 or 20 years and only risen to the rank of corporal. At that time in the army somebody either had to die or be discharged to move up. Baker had a high school education. He was a supply sergeant from October 1941 to October 1942. In December 1941 everyone was promoted one grade and he became a staff sergeant. Around that time his unit was shipped up to Spokane, Washington where they became the security force for Geiger Airfield. He got his first taste of real democracy in the United States in Spokane. All of the NCOs in the unit decided to go into Spokane and find some girls and have a party. All the NCOs went to church to find a date. Baker and his date went to the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Washington. It was the first time he had a white waitress wait on him.


Vernon Baker stayed at Geiger Airfield until October 1942 when they went back to Fort Huachuca, Arizona. One day he was called up to regimental headquarters. He thought he was in trouble. Baker reported to a colonel there and told Baker to sign some papers. Baker did not even read them and the colonel told him he was going to OCS [Annotators Note: officer candidate school]. He did not want to go to OCS but ended up there at Fort Benning, Georgia. He did 13 weeks of training there to become a second lieutenant. One soldier there asked why they were making so many second lieutenants. The officer said it was because second lieutenants are expendable. On 11 January 1943 Baker became a second lieutenant. At this time the 92nd Infantry Division was being activated and he was assigned to that unit. The division was activated at Camp Atterbury, Indiana; Fort Dix, New Jersey and Fort Huachuca, Arizona. All regiments came together between March and May 1944. The rumor was they were going overseas. One day off the second lieutenants were called to the division headquarters and told they were going overseas. The Chief of Staff there said that all the white boys are going overseas and getting killed [Annotator's Note: Baker becomes emotional for a minute] and now it is time for the black boys to go get killed. The way it was said was wrong he believes. Baker told himself he was going to go overseas and not get killed. That was their initiation into war. It was ironic that one of their unit's first casualties was that Chief of Staff of the 92nd Division. Baker had to take a patrol out to find his body. In another ironic event a few days later the Chief of Engineers got killed.


The interviewer notes that in the last segment Vernon Baker made a comment about an event that was his initiation into war. She has also heard him quoted as saying he fought a war on two sides. She asks Baker how he felt about defending a country that treated him wrongly. Baker says he was on the fence. It was the only country he had, but he was also fighting for people that did not care about him. Baker asks to digress and talk about some interactions with some of the corporals that had been in the army 20 years after he made supply sergeant. He was coming home from a movie one night and four guys were behind him. One of them said called him a smart nigger and harassed and beat up Baker about his promotion. He tried not to dwell on it until three or four weeks later when he was called up to regimental headquarters, but that's when he was sent to OCS [Annotators Note: officer candidate school]. In October 1942, he shipped off to Fort Benning for OCS. Then he was assigned to Camp Rucker, Alabama to an airbase security unit. Many black soldiers went overseas for this duty. When Baker went overseas to Italy he went aboard the Mariposa and the entire 370th Regimental Combat Team, about 7,000 men, and their weapons were on the ship. The entire ship was black so there was no segregation aboard. They were told they did not need a convoy because the ship could outrun torpedoes. Nobody bought that explanation though. They pulled up near Naples harbor then had to walk across sunken ships to get to the harbor. They walked on gangplanks across sunken ships in the shallow harbor.


Vernon Baker arrived in Italy on around 28 June 1944. His Medal of Honor action did not happen until the following year. He spent some time in the hospital prior to that action as a result of being shot in the arm in October 1944. He was on a night patrol to take a house on the side of a hill. He took a squad up and lost three men right away. As they went around the house a German soldier came up and both fired at each other. The bullet ricocheted off the ground and broke his arm. When he reported back, his platoon sergeant told him he was hit. He did not notice it was as bad as it was. Baker lost so much blood he passed out waiting for the doctor. He woke up in the 64th General Hospital in Pisa, Italy to a beautiful Italian woman asking if he wanted a cigarette. He was in the hospital from mid October to the end of December 1944. He then went back to his unit, Company C. Other units were trying to take specific hills like Hill X,Hill Y, and Hill Z, generally unsuccessfully. So on 5 April 1945 they knew it was their turn and they were ordered to take Hill X. They knew they could take it. For a week before 5 April they had been bombarding all those hills. And every morning at five or six they would bomb until daylight began. Baker's unit moved from a little town, across an open field to the bottom of the hill and were told to wait until the artillery stopped. Baker had 25 men with him. They moved from Hill X, to Y to Z and then went towards Castle Aghinolfi. Baker describes the terrain and an unexpected area they in encountered. There was a rocky path along the hills they followed but they did not know the path was mined. He thought they heard artillery but it was men in his unit stepping on mines. He lost six men going up Hill X.


Vernon Baker continues to describe his Medal of Honor actions in Italy. He began cutting wire on the hill. The wire was covered with plastic and he had never seen that before. The Germans did not know they were coming. They were not taking any fire. They got to an unexpected area and did not see a path. A German soldier came out below them and threw a potato masher [Annotators Note: nickname for a German grenade] and it landed very near Captain Runyon. Baker shot the German and that made him mad because even in war he did not want to shoot anybody in the back. He did not want to shoot anybody in the back because in the western novels he used to read that was a bad thing to do. The German was only about 25 feet away. After Baker shot him they noticed a path. The grenade was a dud. It never exploded. [Annotator's Note: tape changes] Captain Runyon got in the way of Baker's rifle when he went to shoot the German soldier but Runyon had left. Sergeant Dickens came out with a submachine gun. They waited to see if more Germans would come up. Baker took Dickens' submachine gun and went down and saw a car door stuck on the side of a hill. Baker put a grenade under the door and when it blew open a German stuck his head out and Baker shot him then continued on to find more Germans and threw a grenade at them. Baker wanted to go by himself. He was full of adrenaline. He went farther and there was another hole. He tossed another grenade in it, killing more Germans. The foxholes the Germans were in were elaborate. One of the dugouts was very well camouflaged from the air. Then Baker found two more Germans and shot them.


Vernon Baker continues describing his Medal of Honor actions in Italy in detail including what he was wearing. When he woke up in the morning he felt that someone was going to die that day. He was lucky in his choice of path as he missed walking into a large group of German soldiers further down the path at a marble processing plant. When he got back on the top of the hill the Germans saw them and started bombarding them with artillery from the castle. Baker cut communication lines. Baker did not know where Captain Runyon was at this time but they found him curled up on the floor. Runyon told Baker to get the men together and Baker told him he was doing his best and that everything was fine. Runyon told him he was leaving to go get reinforcements. Baker was about to kill him but then he realized what he was doing and let him go. Baker knew he was not coming back. Baker decided to stay with his company. The Germans attacked them three times and left him with only six men. He gave his men the order to shoot at anything that moved. The German artillery was not very accurate, except for the mortars. He knew his men were wondering if they were going to stay there and die so eventually they moved out. He hated to leave. On the way back he lost a couple more men.


Vernon Baker reviews details of his Medal of Honor actions in Italy on 5 April 1945. He had a big, strong BAR [Annotator's Note: Browning Automatic Rifle] man who he asked to cover him during a firefight with the Germans. He was trying to get close enough to throw grenades. They did this twice. At this point he had six men with him. Four of his men evacuated three wounded. The rest were dead. Baker was wearing a compass around his belt that was hit by shrapnel and therefore did not hurt him. All of this happened during the morning and midday of 5 April. They returned to headquarters at the bottom of Hill X. When he got back he threw up. It was very busy there because they had finally broken through so the army could move up Highway 1. They did not realize they were the ones that made all that possible. His adrenaline had stopped running then. In his mind he had a job to do and he was fighting a war. The next night, 6 April 1945, Colonel Sherman volunteered him to take the 473rd Infantry up to Hill X again. Baker was in trouble for not wearing a steel helmet. Runyon had returned but Baker did not see him until he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on the 4 July 1945. Runyon was also being awarded a military decoration. They never spoke to each other.


Vernon Baker was volunteered to go back up to Hill X by a colonel. He reported to the commanding officer of the 473rd [Annotator's Note: 473rd Infantry Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division] and was assigned to bring them back up Hill X but not a shot was fired. All the Germans had moved out. They saw a lot of shoeless American GIs because the Germans had taken their boots. They went all the way to Montignoso, Italy. In Viareggio, Baker was sitting in a tent and a lieutenant from S2 [Annotators Note: battalion intelligence] came in. Baker was talking to Joe West, a ukulele player. The lieutenant asked Baker when he was going to division. Baker asked him why he would go there and the lieutenant told him he was getting a DSC [Annotator's Note: Distinguished Service Cross]. Baker was very surprised. In June 1945 he was summoned to division headquarters. He reported to the commanding general, General Almond [Annotator's note: Edward Almond, commander of the 92nd Infantry Division]. He thought he was in trouble. Baker does not know who wrote the citation for the DSC or how it got to army headquarters because if Almond had seen it at the division level it would never have gotten through as Almond was racist. General Almond told Baker to write down what had happened on Hill X [Annotator's note: tape is changed] so Baker wrote it all down. He never saw him until he was awarded the medal in Genoa. Getting the Medal of Honor never crossed his mind. He felt he did his job, was rewarded for it, and then it was time to move on. He stayed in Italy until February 1947. He stayed in the military for 28 years and retired a colonel. After he left the military he went to work for the Red Cross helping military families at Fort Ord, California. He lived nearby and worked for them for the Red Cross until May 1989. Then he moved to Idaho. He likes the people and liked hunting here. White people would stop and talk to him and be friendly. That had not happened in other places in the United States. Baker liked the anonymity.


Vernon Baker retired in Idaho. One day he got a call from Professor Gibran at Shaw University. He asked what Baker knew about the Medal of Honor. Gibran told him that Shaw University had been given a 350,000 dollar grant from the US Army to research why no black soldiers had received the Medal of Honor during World War 2. He told him he wanted to come to Idaho and talk about his action in the war. He talked to Baker for a couple days. They were hard days for Baker. Their study showed that there had been recommendations but no one knows what happened to them. They recommended seven be awarded. Baker was the only one still living. Baker received a call from the White House one day and a woman told him to stay home and that she would be calling him later. She was giving him progress on his Medal. During these calls a Captain Jackson and his driver showed up on Baker's doorstep. He told Baker he was his escort to the White House to receive the Medal of Honor. Captain Jackson was officious then but Baker grew to like him. This was December 1996. Jackson chopped wood for him.


On 13 January 1997 Vernon Baker flew to Washington DC with his family. They went into the East Room of the White House and on the way there he saw a buffet of food and he was very hungry. Baker describes the ceremony of receiving the Medal of Honor. General Colin Powell was in the audience. He sat on the stage with family members of those awarded the Medal posthumously. Then the President [Annotator's Note: President William J. Clinton] read the citation. At the time we was wondering why he was singled out for this award. He was happy and overwhelmed. It was emotional. Baker wished that there were 19 men that had died that could be there with him. He thinks they were the ones that should have been there. Baker states that when you are in a life and death situation with people you depend on and they depend on you, you become close. Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about those guys. When Baker wears the Medal of Honor, he thinks of the 19 souls that gave their lives for it. If not for them he would not be here himself. Baker was angry when he heard he was awarded the Medal. He does not understand why if the deeds were performed back then that he wasn't recognized then, but it goes to show America has grown up. He's not angry anymore.


Vernon Baker looked at things differently after the war. He used to think of himself as a killer but then he started to think of the lives he took of enemy soldiers. War is not a contest; it's something horrible man has devised to gain goals. He gets angry at the politicians that foster war. Baker feels America has grown up. People with different colors of skin now talk to each other and not at each other. People in St. Maries, Idaho [Annotator's Note: where Baker was living at the time] know about the Medal. He has talked to many school children. His message to them is is that we are here as one and that he does not see race. He sees America. He tells them to look forward and not back. The interviewee asks about what Baker's definition of hero is. Baker states that he cannot say. He does not consider himself a hero. When he was a soldier he had a job to do and he did it. [Annotator's Note: the cameraman takes some close up shots of Baker]


[Annotator's Note: a different interviewer, Martin Morgan, now interviews Vernon Baker] Vernon Baker had a reputation for not wearing a steel helmet. Helmets made it hard for him to hear. His commanders could not understand that. His hearing loss was caused during basic training when he got too close to a mortar tube that went off. On 5 April 1945 he was under intense mortar fire. He explains that all he could hear was explosions. When mortar rounds explode they spread out, not up. They will tear you up from waist down. Baker once saw a round hit right between a man's legs. The man did not get a scratch but the men behind and in front of him were killed. At the end of the day on 5 April, Baker went to see his battalion commander, Colonel Murphy, on his way to the regimental commander to give the dog tags of the men who had died on the hill to the S3 [Annotators Note: operations officer]. He did not have to go but he wanted to personally hand over the dog tags so those mens' families would know what happened to them. Baker collected the dog tags as they were fighting. As he saw a man fall he went to him. He collected about 16 tags. At one point on the afternoon of 5 April the Germans came out under the flag of truce. Baker and his men were getting ready to evacuate and German soldiers came up carrying stretchers with red crosses on them. Then they dropped them and pulled back the sheets to reveal machine guns and mortars they began to set up. Baker and his men shot them so they would not be able to set them up. They were supposed to advance with mortar fire but they lost them in the morning. Baker's theory is they got separated and were ambushed. Baker and his men did not get any artillery support because the army did not believe they were that far behind the lines in enemy territory. They were radioing back for artillery support but he got word back that they did not know where they were, that they could not be that far advanced. Finally he got through and they used antiaircraft guns on the castle and that suppressed the German fire.


At the end of the war Vernon Baker was a second lieutenant but in May of 1945 he became a first lieutenant. His commission expired in June 1947 when he returned from overseas. When his commission expired his rank reverted to Master Sergeant. That was fine with Baker because that gave him options. He wanted to be a photographer because he had liberated a camera in Italy from a German officer. He went to photography school at Lowry Air Force Base, then Lowry Field, in Denver, Colorado. After he graduated from that he decided he wanted to go airborne. The army was still segregated and they assigned him to run a photo lab in a hobby shop at Lowry Air Force Base. One day he saw on a bulletin board that they were looking for Negro troops to volunteer for the airborne. He put in his papers to do that. When he went in to get his orders the squadron commander asked if he was sure he wanted to join the airborne. The commander said that he would not sign the order until he got an answer to whether Baker would be his Sergeant Major in the Air Force or not. Baker said thank you, but no, he wanted to go into the airborne because it paid an extra 50 dollars per month. This happened in December 1946. Baker went to Fort Benning, Georgia to the airborne school and graduated in May 1947. He first joined the 82nd Airborne Division but in November 1950 when he came back on active duty as a first lieutenant he joined the 11th Airborne Division. He was a reserve officer. Baker went inactive again in 1953 and went to Fort Ord, California where he was the signal corps photo lab chief and where he stayed for 14 years. Baker had 165 airborne jumps but never had an injury from it. The only injury Baker ever had was being shot early in his military career in Italy. Before Baker left the army he did his last tour of duty in Germany in 1967. He was volunteered to go there. Baker had been at Fort Ord so long that he called the army personnel office in St. Louis and asked what his status was as far as going overseas. The man there could not find his records. About three months later he received orders to go to Germany. He was assigned to Headquarters Company, 8th Airborne Infantry Brigade there. Baker was in his late forties but was still jumping out of airplanes. He made his last jump there at 48 years old. He put in for retirement then because drugs were beginning to be a problem and Vietnam was tearing families apart and many men were going AWOL. There were so many drugs around that Baker carried his pistol to wake the troops. He told his late, first wife Fern he wanted to retire and she said it was about time. At that point he had been in for 27 years and 8 months. He wanted to make 30 but things were not good over there.


Vernon Baker got out of the army on 28 August 1968, 35 years before the interview. He was 83 years old during this interview. Baker is surprised at the renewed interest in World War 2 history. He does not understand it. He is not contacted too frequently by people interested in his story but that is comforting to him because sometimes he gets upset discussing it. Baker likes to talk to people. The interviewer tells Baker he is recording this interview to use at The National D-Day Museum for an exhibit on African American Medal of Honor recipients and that it will be seen by thousands of people. Baker thinks it is important for people to hear his story because the black soldier's story was very much ignored and he feels they contributed a lot to winning the war. The men he served with were wonderful soldiers. It was like they became brothers. During that time of segregation, most of the men were from the south and their schooling was very limited. He became their parents and wrote and read letters for them. He did not know that that existed because he did not go to segregated schools growing up in Wyoming in Iowa. It was surprising to him that there were so many adult black men who could not read or write at that time. Out of Company D, 25th Infantry Regiment, 98 percent of the black soldiers could not read or write. That was why he was beat up as he described earlier [Annotators Note: see Vernon Baker Segment 4]. On 6 April 1945 Baker led the elements of the 473rd Infantry Regiment, a white regiment. It was not a real regiment because it was a conglomeration of service soldiers who had been picked up and formed in to the 473rd. He did not realize that until later. Their combat forces had been so depleted they picked up service soldiers and made a combat unit out of them. It is a good thing they saw no combat. When Baker heard it was V-E Day he was on his way to north to Genoa and Milan. Baker's first sergeant came up and told him that the war was over. It was in May 1945. They packed up and returned to Viareggio in the Southwest part of Italy and that was it.

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