“Give respect before you expect it. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Remember the mission. Set the example. Keep going.”
That powerful statement by Vernon J. Baker not only exemplified his view of his military career, but life in general. A 1939 graduate of Clarinda High School, Baker was one of the first seven African American soldiers to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during a ceremony in 1997.
“That quote sums ups what he accomplished and what we would hope everyone would accomplish in life. In my opinion it is extremely short on words and long on meaning,” Charlie Richardson of Clarinda said.
A former history teacher, Richardson has done extensive research on Baker because of Clarinda connection. Richardson said he first read the quote by Baker in his biography Lasting Valor by Ken Olsen.
Baker, who was 78 at the time of the ceremony in 1997, was the only living member of the seven Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. He was presented the honor by former President Bill Clinton.
“Being a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient is a really big deal, especially in Vernon’s case. He was one of the first and only African Americans to be awarded this medal for World War II, even though it came 52 years later. What a blessing it was that he was able to receive such an award in person,” Clarinda mayor Lisa Hull said. “What a milestone that day marked for the African American soldier. History was made that day, and one of our very own citizens was a part of that.”
Baker would have celebrated his 100th birthday Dec. 17. He was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1919. He died July 13, 2010, in Saint Maries, Idaho.
After his parents died when Baker was still a young child, he lived with his grandparents in Cheyenne before spending some time at Boys’ Town in Omaha, Nebraska, Baker then came to Clarinda, his grandfather’s hometown, to live with relatives. Baker distinguished himself as an outstanding scholar athlete while attending Clarinda High School.
Baker enlisted in the United States Army in 1941. However, when reporting to basic training at Camp Wolters in Texas, Richardson said Baker was first confronted with his first example of racism.
“Growing up in Wyoming and Clarinda, he was not exposed to the kind of racism he found in the south,” Richards said. “People of my generation and generations thereafter do not realize how bad racism was. The military was segregated until 1954. More than 1 million African Americans served in World War II in segregated units. They were assigned duties like cooks and truck drivers, so Vernon’s platoon was unique. He risked everything for a country that was not willing to give him the freedoms we are accustomed to today. It’s quite a deal to risk your life like that when you are not treated as a full citizen.”
Following basic training, Baker complete officer candidate school and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was later promoted to first lieutenant.
While serving near Viareggio, Italy, on April 5-6, 1945, Baker led the heroic advance of an all-African American platoon toward Castle Aghinolfi, a German mountain strong point.
“In all, Lieutenant Baker accounted for nine dead enemy soldiers, elimination of three machine gun positions, an observation post and a dugout,” according to Baker’s Medal of Honor citation posted on themedalofhonor.com.
Then, one night later, Baker volunteered to lead a battalion advance through enemy mine fields and heavy fire toward Castle Aghinolfi.
“Lieutenant Baker’s fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the military service,” according to the citation.
Besides the Congressional Medal of Honor, Baker also earned a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Cross in honor of his efforts in Italy.
Baker later served as a paratrooper during the Korean War and remained in the Army until 1968. He later served for almost 20 years with the American Red Cross.
“He had some rough times in his life, but he did a lot of great things. He represented himself and those around him very well,” Richardson said.
In 2006, the Winter Olympics were held in Turin, Italy. NBC anchor Tom Brokaw reviewed Baker’s heroic advance that helped pave the way for the liberation of Turin.
Later, in June 2006, Clarinda its famed citizen by dedicating a three-block section of Main Street from 14th to 17th Street in Baker’s honor. The section of street was officially named Vernon J. Baker Main Street. A monument was also placed on the lawn of the Page County Courthouse detailing all of Baker’s accomplishments.
The section of street is designated by a special street signing that reads “Vernon J. Baker Medal of Honor Recipient Main Street” and features a photograph of Baker in his military uniform. The street sign is located at the corner of Main Street and 16th Street, which is also named Glenn Miller Avenue in honor of Clarinda’s other famous son that served in World War II.
“I think it’s so cool to have signs with Glenn Miller and Vernon Baker at the same intersection. Having two heroes from World War II like that, people visiting our town would have to look at that and be impressed,” Richardson said. “Everyone goes to 16th and Main. That is the best street that could be named after him.”
“Many citizens have passed through our town throughout the years. Some reside here from generation to generation, never leaving at all. Others reside here just for a short while. Vernon Baker was one of those citizens that had the generational ties that brought him to Clarinda. Although he only resided here for a short while, his legacy and memory live on,” Hull said.