Vernon Baker, belated recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, was born on December 17, 1919 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. His father, Manuel Caldera, was a carpenter from New Mexico. His mother was named Beulah. At the age of four, Baker lost his parents in a car accident and he and his two sisters, Irma and Cass, were raised by his grandparents in Cheyenne and Clarinda, Iowa. Baker graduated from high school in Clarinda, Iowa in 1937 and found the only available work for blacks locally at that time. He was a shoe shine boy and later a railroad porter.
On July 26, 1941, five months before Pearl Harbor, Baker joined the U.S. Army as a private and trained as an infantryman at Camp Wolters, Texas. When officers recognized his leadership capabilities he was allowed to attend Officer Candidate School. On January 11, 1943, Baker was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and assigned to the segregated 370th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division, one of two all-black divisions.
In June 1944, the 92nd Infantry Division landed in Naples and initially experienced heavy fighting on its way to central Italy. In October, Baker, while on night patrol, was wounded in an encounter with a German soldier. Treated in a hospital near Pisa, Italy, he was reunited with his unit in December 1944.
In spring 1945, the 370th Regiment was again called to the front. Baker, the only African American officer in his company, commanded a weapons platoon of two Light Machine Gun (LMG) squads and two Mortar squads. On the morning of April 5th, his unit was ordered to assault a German mountain stronghold, Castle Aghinolfi, at dawn. Baker led his platoon to the heavily defended castle. Though caught under heavy fire with his men by the German defenses, Baker managed to crawl out to safety and personally destroy a German machine gun emplacement. He then led his men in using their LMGs and Mortars to destroy three German machine gun nests, two German observation posts, two bunkers, and German telephone lines. At the end of the assault, only six of the platoon’s 25 soldiers survived.
For his service Baker earned the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, and the Croce Al Valor Militare. He later became one of the first African American officers to command an all white company. Baker remained in Europe with the Allied Occupation forces until 1947 and then joined the Army Airborne forces. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1968 as a first lieutenant and spent the next twenty years working for the American Red Cross.
Although Baker was a highly decorated veteran, it was not until January 13, 1997, that Baker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his deeds at Castle Aghinolfi after a 1993 U.S. Army commissioned study found that racial discrimination was evident in awarding of Medals of Honor during WWII. Vernon Baker, who had moved to St. Maries, Idaho with his wife, Heidi Pawlick, passed away on July 13, 2010 after a long bout with cancer.