The picture captures the essence of the man: quietly confident, ready for anything, who knows who he is and what he’s done. Lt. Vernon Baker led a heavy weapons platoon in a real-life ‘Dirty Dozen’ style commando raid on a German-occupied castle in Italy. The raid broke the German hold on the “Gothic Line,’ the fortified German machine-gun, artillery, and bunker positions that stretched across northern Italy.
Lt. Vernon Baker was given the mission to take Aghinolfi Castle, but he had seen whole companies mowed down by German defensive fire. So at 5:00 a..m. on 5 April 1945, he led 25 men through the minefields, bunkers and machine gun nests that protected the castle from a frontal assault. He slipped up under the first bunker and shot the guards as they were looking through a telescope for signs of American forces. He then attacked several more bunkers in the same way.
After he had destroyed several bunkers and machine gun nests, and made it close to the walls of the castle, the Germans were suddenly aware of his platoon and counterattacked. One threw a grenade that hit Baker’s white company commander in the head, but failed to detonate. Baker killed him before he could attack again, saving his captain’s life.
In the heat of the battle, the captain left “for reinforcements.” But upon returning to American lines, he told the regiment that Baker and his men all were killed. When no reinforcements arrived, and 19 of his men were killed, Baker called a retreat.
In order to guarantee his remaining six men a safe retreat, Baker stood up and challenged the enemy. He fired his machine gun, drawing their fire. Meanwhile, his men were able to retreat. Miraculously, Baker was hit only twice, and was able to escape.
The following day, with two bullet wounds, Baker led an entire company of white soldiers back to the castle. It was nearly the first time that a black officer had commanded a company of white soldiers during those days of institutional racism and segregation, but there is no record of any complaint. He knew what he had done, and so did they. Somehow, nobody looked at his color when he was keeping them alive. The castle fell that day, and the Gothic Line had finally been breached.
Vernon Baker was not awarded the Medal of Honor for over 50 years. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. No black soldier or officer was given a Medal of Honor during all of World War Two. President Bill Clinton ordered an investigation, and an independent team of researchers awarded the Medal to seven of ten candidates. Vernon Baker was the only one of the seven still alive. There is a slideshow below from the Vernon Baker YouTube channel that gives a great deal more insight into the life of this extraordinary man.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life own life above and beyond the call of duty in action on 5 and 6 April 1945, Lieutenant Baker advanced at the head of his weapons platoon, along with Company C’s three rifle platoons, toward their objective; Castle Aghinolfi—a German mountain strong point on the high ground just east of the coastal highway and about two miles from the 370th Infantry Regiment’s line of departure.
Moving more rapidly than the rest of the company, Lieutenant Baker and about 25 men reached the south side of a draw some 250 yards from the castle within two hours. In reconnoitering for a suitable position to set up a machine gun, Lieutenant Baker observed two cylindrical objects pointing out of a slit in a mount at the edge of a hill. Crawling up and under the opening, he stuck his M-1 into the slit and emptied the clip, killing the observation post’s two occupants. Moving to another position in the same area, Lieutenant Baker stumbled upon a well-camouflaged machine gun nest, the crew of which was eating breakfast. He shot and killed both enemy soldiers.
After Captain John F. Runyon, Company C’s Commander, joined the group, a German soldier appeared from the draw and hurled a grenade which failed to explode. Lieutenant Baker shot the enemy soldier twice as he tried to flee. Lieutenant Baker then went down into the draw alone. There he blasted open the concealed entrance to another dugout with a hand grenade, shot one German soldier who emerged after the explosion, tossed another grenade into the dugout and entered firing his submachine gun, killing two more Germans. As Lieutenant Baker climbed back out of the draw, enemy machine gun and mortar fire began to inflict heavy casualties among the group of 25 soldiers, killing or wounding about two-thirds of them.
When expected reinforcements did not arrive, Capt. Runyon ordered a withdrawal in two groups. Lieutenant Baker volunteered to cover the withdrawal of the first group, which consisted of mostly walking wounded, and to remain to assist in the evacuation of the more seriously wounded. During the second group’s withdrawal, Lieutenant Baker, supported by covering fire from one of his platoon members, destroyed two machine gun position (previously bypassed during the assault) with hand grenades. In all, Lieutenant Baker accounted for nine dead enemy soldiers, elimination of three machine gun positions, an observation post, and a dugout. On the following night, Lieutenant Baker voluntarily led a battalion advance through enemy mine fields and heavy fire toward the division objective. Lieutenant Baker’s fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the military service.