65 years ago in Italy’s Apennine Mountains, the men of Company C, 370th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division fought through enemy machine gun nests and bunkers in order to capture the German stronghold of Castle Aghinolfi.
The small castle overlooked a coastal highway and was used by the Germans as an artillery observation post. Although three previous assaults on the objective had failed, Second Lieutenant Vernon J. Baker’s segregated company was ordered to attack again – using a similar approach as the previous assaults. To make matters worse, nearly three-quarters of Baker’s undermanned platoon were replacements, and had seen little or no combat.
At 5:00a.m. on April 5, artillery pounded the German position and Charlie Company headed to their objective. Initially, they encountered little resistance, and within about two hours, Baker and his men were within 250 yards of the castle. As they looked for a suitable position to set up their machine gun, Baker saw an enemy telescope pointing out of a slit in the hill. He crawled up to the position and emptied the clip of his M1 Garand rifle into the hole, killing the observation post’s two occupants.
As the unit sought another position, Baker happened upon a concealed German machine gun position, killing the two soldiers as they ate breakfast. Moments later, an enemy grenade struck the company commander in the head, landing five feet from Baker. Luckily, the grenade didn’t explode, and Baker shot another German. Then, Baker grabbed a teammate’s Thompson submachine gun, and proceeded forward alone. Discovering another concealed enemy position, he used a grenade to blow open the door, and used his machine gun and grenade to kill three additional Germans.
As Baker returned to the summit of the hill, German mortar crews had zeroed in on the American position and were inflicting heavy casualties on the small group. Baker directed his forward observer to call in artillery support, but the fire base initially refused as they didn’t believe that the unit had already reached the castle.
The artillery barrage temporarily silenced the enemy mortars, but Baker knew that the Germans would mount a counterattack. His rattled company commander decided to leave the battle – supposedly for reinforcements.
But Baker’s reinforcements would never arrive.
The German mortar barrage resumed, and as the rounds hit the weakened platoon, a platoon of German soldiers disguised as medics and litter-bearers approached to within 50 yards of the American position. Once in place, they removed a machine gun from one of the litters. Baker’s men wiped out the attackers, but as the effective strength of the American force – originally at 25 – was now down to eight, Baker was left with no choice but to withdraw. He personally covered for his men, killing another enemy soldier in the process. The remaining Germans fled to the other side of the hill.
As the men moved down the hill, one man was wounded by a mortar, and a sniper killed the unit’s medic, bringing the party’s number to six. The men discovered two additional bunkers, and Baker disabled the positions with white phosphorous grenades, enabling the beleaguered force to evacuate the casualties to the aid station.
All told, Baker had killed nine enemy soldiers, three machine gun positions, an observation post, and a dugout. But his work was not done. The regimental commander “volunteered” Baker to lead another assault on the castle the next day. Fortunately, the Americans captured the now-deserted castle without firing a shot.
Baker was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. He retired in 1968 after nearly 30 years of distinguished service
In 1993, the Army contacted Shaw University to determine if racism may have been a factor in the fact that no Medals of Honor were awarded to blacks during World War II. Historians did not find any racism in the Army’s policy, but recommended ten black soldiers who received the Distinguished Service Cross for an upgrade. The Army approved seven, and by then, Baker was the only man still alive – the other recipients either died in battle or after the war.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded Vernon Baker the Medal of Honor. Baker accepted the medal on behalf of the 1.2 million black Americans who served during World War II.
“I was an angry young man,” Baker said of how he had felt about serving in a segregated unit. “We were all angry. But we had a job to do, and we did it. My personal thoughts were that I knew things would get better, and I’m glad to say that I’m here to see it.”
Baker passed away last Tuesday in his home near St. Maries, Idaho of complications due to brain cancer, surrounded by family. He was 90 years old.
Please take a moment to read the citation of a hero.
Rank: First Lieutenant
Organization: U.S. Army
Company: Weapons Platoon, Company C
Born: 17 December 1919
Departed: Yes (07/13/2010)
Entered Service At: St. Maries, ID
Date of Issue: 01/13/1997
Accredited To: Cheyenne, WY
Place / Date: Near Viareggio, Italy, 5 and 6 April 1945
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.