Vernon Baker lives outside of St. Maries in rural Benewah County. He is the first black man to receive the Medal of Honor, awarded more than 50 years after his heroic deeds in Italy.
Note: Mr. Baker uses language that, while common in military settings, some may find offensive.
Jim: Where did you grow up?
Vernon: I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was born and raised there and I left Cheyenne when I was 21 years old joined the Army and I haven't been back maybe a couple of times. The first time I went back I was coming back from overseas in 1947 and I was by myself and I was driving and I turned off the highway and I got lost because the place just it just grown up and spread out all, all over the prairie there.
Jim: How, how did you end up joining the Service?
Vernon: Well I couldn't find a job. I finished high school in Clarinda, Iowa. I went to Clarinda by reason of my grandfather's brother died - Uncle Will - and when I went back and I went back with him to Clarinda, Iowa, for my Uncle's funeral and I found out that was half full of Bakers and I never knew I had so many relatives. I had another a cousin named Vern Baker also and he convinced me that the best thing to do was to come back to Clarinda and go to school. Which in-between doing porter jobs on the railroad in the summertime I went back to Clarinda and I stayed with my grandfather's older sister Aunt Elsie and I went there and I finished school in Clarinda, Iowa.
Jim: And how did you get from Iowa into the Service?
Vernon: Well after I finished high school I went back to Cheyenne and I was running on the road as a railroad porter and I after a while I quit because of how I was being treated, I didn't like to be a servant. I was living with my sister in Cheyenne there and so she had told me to look in the newspaper and see some of those ads and dress up, put a tie on and go see if you can get a job. Which I did and it was very discouraging, because of the fact that my skin color was not right. I would go in and I'd sit and people or youngsters, young ladies and young men, would come in and be interviewed and I'd still sit there until all of the interviews were finished. I'd be told "well the job is taken, the interviews are over with." I never got an interview and I became very, very discouraged. I told my sister that and she said, "Well why don't you join the Army. And you'll join the Army and you'll go into Quartermaster and, and you'll stay right here brother." Well at that time Fort Russell was a Quartermaster base outside of Cheyenne there so I said oh okay I'll try that. So I went in and the first time I went to the recruiting station I walked in and this big fat ugly rascal sitting there, a big sergeant. And he looked at me and said, "What you want?" I said, "I'd like to join the Army." And he went on back to what he was doing, said, "Well we ain't got no quarter for you people." So that kind of discouraged me a bit. I went back and kept trying to find a job and couldn't find a job so my sister said, "Go back to it and see if you can join the Army." So I did and this time there was a young man sitting behind the desk of the Sergeant, but he was about my age too and I had my hand on the knob to leave when he would tell me we ain't got no quarters for you people. So I said, "I'd like to join the Army." He said, "Oh well come on in and sit down," and I sat down and I said, "Well maybe," and so all the questions you know were, where were you born, how old are you, how much education do you got and this, that and the other and then he said, "What branch of the service would you like to enlist in?" I said, "Quartermaster." And I watched him write Infantry. So, so but I didn't protest because I was in.
Jim: You watched the guy write down infantry?
Vernon: Yeah, uh huh. And I didn't protest because I was in. And so I left Cheyenne on the 26th of June 1941, and went to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, received my uniform and then at the post there was a nice swimming pool and we were allowed to go in the swimming pool and have ourselves a lot of fun while we were getting ourselves set for our Basic Training Unit. I said to myself, "Boy, now I'm sure glad I joined the Army because this, this is it!" You know? But I didn't know. I didn't know what was coming.
Jim: A lot of people have the feeling that people joined because they had a real sense of patriotism or they wanted to pitch in and help. Was that part of it also or were you just trying to find a way to make money?
Vernon: I was trying to find a job so that I could exist because I was living off my sister and she and her husband had jobs. But we weren't living like I would say like the rest of the people because we were poor, very poor. And we were just getting by. And I didn't want to become a bump on the log with my sister and my brother-in-law. He was a fairly nice fella, but I could tell that he wasn't very happy because I was there and so I said I might as well just get the heck out of here and find myself a job and or do something and I followed my sister's advice and joined the Army.
Jim: How long were you in Kansas and how long before you ended up overseas?
Vernon: Quite a while. I finished basic training at Camp Wallace, Texas, and I went from Camp Wallace, Texas, to Fort Huachuca, Arizona. When I finished my basic training at Camp Wallace they took us to Fort Huachuca. We stayed in a train overnight and the next morning the sergeant came and lined us up and marched us up the hill. And as we were standing out there he walked by and looked at each one of us and he said, "Can anybody here type?" And I raised my hand with four other people. And he said, "Okay come on out here." And I will never forget that sergeant's name, his name was Sergeant Espy, E-S-P-Y. He lined us up and marched us down to the area that they were building and he dropped us every one of us off from A to D Company 25th Infantry and I was the last one in line and I my first assignment was Company D 25th Infantry. I walked in the room and Sergeant Espy said to the First Sergeant, the First Sergeant's name was Allen and he walked in and said, "Sergeant Allen, here's your new clerk," and Sergeant Allen looked up at me and said, "Okay, sit down over there," and I went to work. The company commander's name was Captain Green and I did all the paperwork for the supply room and for the unit itself. So one day the supply sergeant took off and went to OCS because the war was just getting ready to go and I was sitting there behind my clerk's desk. I heard Captain Green say, "Private Baker come in here." And I got up and walked in. He said he had a pair of sergeant's stripes sitting on the desk. Well I didn't pay any attention to ‘em and he said, "Put those stripes on, you're my new supply sergeant," just like that. And I did. I became the supply sergeant and when December of 1941 came around we were all brought another stripe, and I loved my job. I don't know what whether you know anything about being a supply sergeant, but you could wheel and deal and I really liked that job. And so in the summer of 1941, our unit was sent up to Washington to furnish security for Geiger Field you know where Geiger Field is?
Vernon: Well we stayed up there until about September of '41 and then we were sent back to Fort Huachuca. But I fell in love with this part of the country because the people up here were . . . well they were human beings and treated us like human beings and I put it in the back of my mind, I said, "I'm coming back up here when the war is over."
Jim: And that's something it sounds like you had been looking for. I mean, the place where you felt . . . I mean its funny to say, "to feel human," but that's what you're saying?
Vernon: Yes. Yeah I was looking for a place like that and I found it up here in this northern part of the country. And we went back in September of '41, we went back to Fort Huachuca and in the process I was called up to the regimental commander's office. Well I was a young man then and I had, I did a lot of Dido's if you want to call ‘em that.
Jim: Explain what that is.
Vernon: You've got yourself in things. And being a supply sergeant, I did a lot of wheeling and dealing. And so this particular day I was called up to the regimental commander's office and I went in to report. He said, "Sergeant Baker?" "Yes sir!" And I was waiting for either an ass chewing or a court martial or something. And he shoved this set of papers at me and said, "Sign these," and you didn't argue with a full Colonel. When you were told something by a superior officer you did not ask questions. And so I signed ‘em and I wondered when I was going to jail. He said, "These are your application for OCS. You're going to OCS and become a second lieutenant." And I said, "Oh shit," because I was a supply sergeant I had it made. I could wheel and deal and I said, "Well I hope," said to myself, "I hope to heck that they lose these dang gumb papers!" But it didn't happen. So in October of 1942 I went to OCS and on the 11th of January 1943 I graduated from Staff Sergeant to Second Lieutenant.
Jim: You were talking about graduating from OCS. I want to take you just back for a second. Tell me where you were and what was happening when you heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Vernon: I was a Supply Sergeant at Fort Huachuca and when Pearl Harbor was bombed I just said, "Well lets go whip the shit out of ‘em and come on back home," and at that time on the 7th of December 1941 everybody in the Army, I think, was promoted one grade higher and I was promoted from buck sergeant to staff sergeant and like everyone else was, was promoted. PFC's were promoted to corporal and so my feeling was, well, lets get it on and go over there and kick their ass and come on back home. And our whole unit, the whole regiment, was packed up and sent up to Spokane, Washington to furnish the security for Geiger Field. And we stayed up here about three months and when we went back to Huachuca I got my orders for OCS and I went to OCS in October 1942 and I graduated Second Lieutenant on the 11th of January 1943.
Jim: What was that like to make that step? You'd gone from not being able to get a job, to getting turned down by the first recruitment officer to going into infantry, which wasn't quite as you requested. And now you're graduating from OCS and you've got all kinds of stuff on your arms and all that stuff.
Vernon: Yes. Yeah well things went pretty fast then. I think because of the war and when I graduated Second Lieutenant I can't remember what we went from, no they sent me to Fort Huachuca, I went back to Fort Huachuca and then they packed us up and sent us up here to furnish security for Geiger Field and then we left and we stayed up here about three months, about three months or so and we went back to Fort Huachuca, went to OCS, I graduated on the 11th of January 1943 and I came back to Fort Huachuca. Then they packed us up to get ready to go overseas and this was late 1943. And we went through some of the most exhausting training that I had ever seen. So one day all the officers were called up to headquarters. We were in the 92nd Division then, and the officers were called up to headquarters one morning. The chief of staff came out and he said, "Well all the white boys have been going overseas and getting killed now its time for the black boys to go get killed." Half of the Officers or I would say half or a little more than half the officers that were in that group requested a transfer out to the 372nd, the 371st and 372nd. Our unit was in the 370th and was packed up to go overseas. And that, that trip overseas, was the most pleasant trip I ever took in my life. We were all packed on one ship called the Mariposa which is a converted luxury liner. The 370th Combat Team which consisted of about 5,000 men were packed on that one ship and when we left Newport News, Virginia, the sun was shining and the sun shined all the way across the ocean. It didn't seem like there was a ripple in the ocean, it was smooth as glass, you could look down and see the fish swimming. And then the question came up about why are we out here by ourselves, just this one ship in the middle of a war? The answer was that we can outrun any submarine there is. But we made it, and in June of 1943 we landed right outside of Naples, Italy. And every ship that I saw at that time was sunk in the harbor of Naples. And we walked from one sunken ship to the other, across gang planks to get to get to shore. And they gave each officer a manual of the Italian language so that we could study and learn to speak the language, which I didn't learn a word. And we went from outside of Naples to a place on the east shore of the Mediterranean Ocean. We set there for, oh, maybe two or three weeks and then one morning, or one night at about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning we heard airplane, after airplane, after airplane going over. They started at about 1:00 in the morning and it kept on until about 4:00 the next afternoon. We finally found out that, that was when the invasion of Normandy had begun.
Jim: When did you first see battle after getting there?
Vernon: We first, we first saw battle at the Chingqually Canal just outside of Viareggio. That was our time to say, "Well we're going to kick the German's in the ass and then we're going home." But it wasn't that simple. We when we moved into battle that was when I began to realize that we weren't over there to play games. And looking back on it everybody was told that black soldiers were afraid of the dark, they couldn't fight and real ironically that all of our action for the first three months of battle we were in were night patrols, night excursions. I never did anything in the daytime, but sleep, but all of our action was at night.
Jim: So that sun that shone on you on the whole trip over, you didn't seen it much after you got there?
Vernon: Didn't see it much after that no. And then we were . . . we were slated for night patrols when I first began to realize that war wasn't a game. That war was a very serious thing. We had some pretty tough times then. It's kind of hard for me to talk about it. I'd like to take a break.
Jim: You were talking about seeing battle and the fact that iit's difficult to talk about. And at the same time, I think people want and sometimes need to hear some of that stuff. I think that there's a tendency, especially with World War II, to sort of think about it as a golden time when everything was wonderful in America and everybody felt great about everything that was going on.
Vernon: Yeah as far as I'm concerned it wasn't great because the people that I trained, the people that we were close together in the beginning it was, it was kind of rough on me because I was the youngest man in my platoon and most of the men were 7 to 10 years older than I. I was only 23 years old. And we had a heck of a time because they figured that they knew more than I did and what in the hell is this, this little nigger out here trying to get smart with me? Well going back, it happened to me when I was a staff sergeant in Fort Huachuca. Most of the men, this was before the war, most of the men in the unit had been in the unit maybe some of ‘em been in 15 and 20 years, had never got any farther up the ladder than maybe a Corporal or POC. Well the majority of ‘em were illiterate, they couldn't read or write and then all of the sudden here come these real young niggers in here, they think they're smart, they've been to school, and but we've been here longer than they have and they come in and take our job. I had the misfortune of coming back from a movie one night at Fort Huachuca and I was jumped on by three of the older fellas and I got my butt whipped because I was a smart nigger. They say, "Here you come in here and take our jobs and you think you smart. Well we'll show you how smart you are." And I got the hell beat out of me. And then shortly after that we got orders for heading out and going overseas. Well I'm glad those guys didn't go with me because they would either shot me or I would've shot them. It was that simple. It was just a simple thing of . . . one side and a little bit of education on the other which doesn't go together. But I weathered it and on the boat going over those particular guys didn't go overseas because they were over 35 years old and anybody over 35 or 35 and over didn't go overseas at that time.
Jim: And those were other black men as well?
Vernon: Yeah black men. And it kind of rankled me a little bit. And then I began to look at those men as they didn't have the opportunities that I had coming up and getting an education and learning how life was and on the boat going overseas we got together and I spent more time with my men down in the hole where they were than I did up on the upper decks with the rest of the officers because I figured when we got overseas these people in my platoon and I'm leading ‘em supposed to be leading ‘em, I'd better find out what the hell is happening. And the most joyous thing, and I can remember, I was down in the hole talking to the platoon one day and one guy stood up . . . these are about 30, between 30-35 years old . . . he stood up and he said, "Lieutenant you got, you got an accent." I said, "What do you mean I got an accent?" He said, "Well, when you talk you, you don't pronounce your R's right." I said, "What do you mean I don't pronounce my R's right?" "Just like I said there Lieutenant. You got an accent." And from then on we were together. That was it.
Jim: So what was that like, with these guys? By that point you guys had come together. Then head into what you guys had to head into?
Vernon: We well we got together. And most of those guys couldn't read or write and I began to write letters for ‘em. I read their letters from home to them and it was as if I was their father. And when we . . . when we landed in April in Naples . . . we were together. And we took that all the way down on the front lines. When I said something, it was done.
Jim: Tell me a little bit about the front lines.
Vernon: What do you want to know?
Jim: What was it like? What happened?
Vernon: Hell. I was in the first battalion, the 370th, and when we got up there the second and the third battalions were to take Hill X. There were three hills they called X, Y and Z. The 370th, 1st and the 366th had tried to take the hills away. And the second and third battalions were given the mission to do this. The third, second and third battalions failed after several attempts to even get halfway up Hill X. The hill was only about 400-600 feet high, but it was . . . it was some tough terrain. And the second and third battalions were given the mission to take Hill X, Y and Z which they never could do. And after we set and watched, and set and watched, this one particular day I was told to go to the OP and watch what was going on. And I never seen . . . I never seen so many people lose their lives on that one little hill, going up it, trying to get there. The word was that the Germans were running short of ammunition and it wasn't . . . it wasn't going to be anything to take that hill. Well the second and third battalions got up on the Hill they took. They took the Hill that day. And I remember looking through the binoculars from the OP, the second battalion's OP. And I could see the men cleaning out dug outs, taking prisoners out of fox holes, shooting people and I was real happy. I said, "Well shit, they're going to do this, we don't have to go." But when evening came about, just about sunset, the word was that the Germans were running out of ammunition and just about sunset . . . I call it . . . the lion roared. There was a third, second and third battalions half way up the hill and the Germans started at the top of the hill and they covered that whole hill with artillery fire. They started at about ¾ from the top of it and they moved that artillery or that fire or that artillery fire from ¾ of the bottom of the hill down. And they piddled around on the bottom of the hill and then they . . . they went back up. But the thing about it is that the second and third battalion in essence took the hill, but they couldn't hold it and the Germans were supposed to be short of ammunition, but they covered all three of those hills from the top to the bottom and then they went back up and we lost practically two battalions of men. They just chewed ‘em up. I never seen anything like that before in my life. And I was in the OP. It was our turn next and I don't know what happened, but we got lucky and I think because the second and third battalions missed cutting communication lines. We went up and we cut the communication lines all the way up. And when we got up to the top the corpses that we found, there was a strange thing, everyone, every one of the corpses up there was barefooted. Which I'm I guess I meant that the Germans were running short of essential supplies. We cut communication lines going all the way up to the Castle. When we got up to the castle Captain Runyon, my company commander, I didn't know where he was on the way up, but I was sitting on the edge of the draw that went up to the castle and he appeared and then we were sitting there figuring out how to go. There was maybe a 100 foot draw between us and the castle and we were planning on getting our troop down in that draw and, and get ‘em up to the castle before they knew we were there. And we were trying to figure out how to get there, but there was a path . . . maybe down or 15-20 feet below us, but we couldn't see it, it was brush covered. And a German came out, came out underneath us and I looked, saw him and Captain Runyon saw him at the same time and he jumped and I was swinging my riffle around to shoot him and he knocked the rifle out of my hands almost. I was lucky enough to get a hold of it and he took off and I shot the German in the back . . . which I didn't like to do . . . and I followed. I went down and followed the path down to where he was, where this dead German was laying there, and the only thing I wanted to do was to see what he looked like. And I turned him over . . . and guess what? It was a kid about 15 or 16 years old. He was so young he hadn't even began to shave yet. And to make a long story short I went down and got a couple of dugouts out and I came back up and when I came back up Captain Runyon was gone. I don't know where he went and I saw Sergeant Dickens and I asked him, "Where where's Runyon?" And he looked at me like he didn't know who I was talking about. I said, "The company," I said, "Where's the CO?" And he said, "Oh he's in the, he's in the that house up there." And there was a couple of stable houses, stone stable houses and he, Captain Runyon, was sitting in there and when I walked in he looked at me and said, "Baker can't you get those men together outside?" And I'm not going to tell you what I said to him, even though he was a Captain.
Jim: You can tell us.
Vernon: Well I told him, "Shit Captain, I'm doing the best I God Damn best I can out there!" And he said, "Oh, oh well okay, okay." And then about two minutes later he said, "Baker, I'm going back for reinforcements." And he didn't know how close he come to getting killed. I couldn't . . . company commander going back for reinforcements . . . and he did. He left. And we fought up there on that hill for two or three hours. I went up with 26 men and I came back with six.
Interviewed by Jim Peck, producer of The Idaho Homefront: World War II