7 blacks awarded Medal of Honor for WWII battle
Jan. 13, 1997
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Vernon Baker was standing in the White House with glistening eyes and a brand new medal around his neck, but his mind was on the Italian mountainside where he earned his place in history 52 years ago.
Baker, 77, was reliving the April 1945 firefight in which he took out German gun posts and killed nine enemy soldiers with a gun and hand grenades. He thought of the other black men who fought beside him and died around him as they awaited reinforcements that never came.
``We've all been vindicated,'' Baker said. ``Those that are not here with me, thank you, fellas, well done and I'll always remember you.''
Baker, of St. Maries, Idaho, was one of seven black soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor on Monday for World War II valor that was overlooked by the Army of a tense, segregated era.
Medals were awarded posthumously to Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr. of Los Angeles; 1st Lt. John R. Fox of Cincinnati; Pfc. Willy F. James Jr. of Kansas City, Mo.; 1st Lt. Charles L. Thomas of Detroit; Pvt. George Watson of Birmingham, Ala.; and Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers of Hotulka, Okla.
Fox, James, Rivers and Watson were killed in action. Carter died in 1963 and Thomas died in 1980.
``We're just happy the country we believe in has done this,'' said Thomas' niece, Sandra Thomas. ``My uncle was an humble man. He believed in this country and he fought for it. I believe young people need to take a lesson from this.''
In presenting the medals, President Clinton praised the seven men for fighting selflessly ``to lead the forces of freedom to victory'' in spite of the freedom they didn't have in their native America.
``They were prepared to sacrifice everything for freedom even though freedom's fullness was denied to them,'' Clinton said. ``Now and forever, the truth will be known about these African Americans who gave so much that the rest of us might be free.''
A single tear rolled down Baker's left cheek as he listened to Clinton. He received a standing ovation as he entered the East Room and took a seat before a crowd that included Defense Secretary William Perry, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown, retired Gen. Colin Powell, Joint Chiefs Chairman John Shalikashvili and a number of soldiers in uniform.
Baker said he never thought about receiving the Medal of Honor _ the military's highest award for bravery in battle _ because he considered his heroic exploits his duty.
``I was a soldier and I had a job to do,'' he said.
But Clinton said Baker and the others belong alongside the nation's greatest war heroes, including Sgt. Alvin York, Eddie Rickenbacker and Audie Murphy.
``It's a long time coming,'' said Fox's widow, Arlene Fox of Houston. She said she harbors no bitterness toward the Army for its treatment of her husband. ``I don't dwell in negativism. It's a very proud day.''
Rivers' commanding officer, former Capt. David J. Williams, said he wrote a medal recommendation for Rivers and felt humiliated when it was denied.
``The Germans, I knew my enemy. But racism is a hard enemy to defeat,'' Williams said. ``This man was a cut above. He was a great soldier.''
Baker was a 25-year-old lieutenant leading his platoon through a maze of German bunkers and machine gun nests in hopes of capturing an enemy stronghold near Viareggio, Italy.
German artillery began to rain down, and the commander of Baker's all-black company in the 92nd Infantry Division went for reinforcements. Baker and his men stayed behind and beat back three enemy attacks; two-thirds of them were killed or wounded.
When he realized reinforcements were not coming, Baker ordered his surviving men to retreat. They destroyed two German machine gun nests on the way out.
Baker served 28 years in the Army, retiring in 1968. He worked for the Red Cross and ultimately moved to northern Idaho, where he enjoys hunting. He laughed Monday at the memory of his confrontation last year with a mountain lion that was stalking him.
``He's in the freezer,'' Baker said.