Badass of the Week.

Vernon J. Baker

"Vern was the finest combat leader I saw in World War II.
And I haven’t seen too many in the Korean War or my two tours in Vietnam that were any better."

It was a cold, rainy April afternoon in 1945 when Lieutenant Vernon J. Baker of the 92nd Infantry Division led his small, 25-man weapons platoon high through the smoke and crater-swept mountainside leading to the ominous German-controlled fortress known as Castle Aghinolfi – a foreboding old-school Dracula-style castle that was kind of like Castle Wolfenstein, only real and sort-of Italian. A heavily-fortified enemy stronghold high in the Appenine Mountains of Italy, this intimidating medieval Castle overlooked one of the few major roads that led through the ferociously-defended Gothic Line – an almost impenetrable wall of machine guns and artillery that blocked the Allies from charging straight up through Italy into the soft, delicious, peanut-butter-stuffed underbelly of the German Reich. If this position were to fall, it would spell the end of German power in Italy forever.

Lieutenant Baker and his team carefully picked their way through the barbed wire and minefields that lay between themselves and the sniper-filled Mountain Fortress of Doom. Baker had already been badly wounded during a battle a few months earlier, and after seeing the rest of his Division get mowed down attempting full-frontal assaults on the this stone-walled Nazi Death Lair, he resolved to be a little more careful on his approach. It worked – using his badass stealth skills, staying low and picking his way through well-defended arias, Baker led his men deep through enemy territory, past patrols, and somehow emerged through the fortified front lines, climbing up the mountain to a position a mere 250 yards from the castle. Along the way, he found a concrete German observation post (he stuffed his rifle in the viewport and emptied the clip, smoking both Germans inside), and also stumbled into a camouflaged Italian machine gun nest (the crew were eating breakfast and he waxed them faster than they could cough up their disgusting sauerkraut and Nutella-slathered omelets). Neither presented Baker with much of a problem.

After getting his team in position, Baker ran back and linked up with his commanding officer, a total flaming douchebag Captain named Runyon who only got this far behind enemy lines by simply following along behind Baker. Runyon started issuing orders to advance on the castle when suddenly a German potato-masher grenade came flying in out of nowhere and clanked right off Runyon's helmet. Runyon ran for it and/or crapped himself (probably while crying) while Baker smoked the dude who threw the grenade, then calmly told his C.O. that the grenade was a dud. On his way back to his team, Baker stopped for a second to blow up a German bunker with a few well-placed grenades of his own (these ones didn't have any trouble blowing up), and cut a telephone wire that connected front-line weapons teams with the headquarters unit back in the castle.

With the Castle looming ominously in the distance Dark Tower-style, Baker ordered his team to move up into the olive groves at the base of the castle itself. His team moved up, careful to watch for ambush, but once they reached the orchard all of a sudden all goddamned hell broke loose – all at once a Chuck-E-Cheese animatronic jug band nightmare of machine guns, snipers, and mortars rained down on him from concealed positions in the fortress and on the mountain, and suddenly Lt. Baker found himself in the middle of an insane-as-hell killzone.

Well despite being surrounded on all sides by dudes trying to kill him, totally cut off from his own lines, and with his tiny squad taking casualties from every direction, Vernon Baker still wasn't about to go down without a fight. This was a guy who'd dealt with all the bullshit life had to throw at him and still always emerged on top – when his parents died in a car accident when he was four years old, he survived by working tough jobs like railroad porter and shoeshiner. When his family needed food, he went hunting in the woods with his grandfather Vasily Zaitsev-style, shooting everything from elk to cougars.

This wasn't a guy who was just going to give up and die.

First, Lieutenant Baker did the sane thing and radioed in for help, calling down artillery to the coordinates of the German and Italian weapons teams. His request was denied. Apparently, the dude on the other line couldn’t possibly fucking fathom the idea that Baker had reached the Nazi Castle Death Mountain by himself, especially considering that any Allied soldier who stood within ten miles of the damn thing spontaneously combusted. So, he raced over to Captain Runyon and asked him for orders. Runyon told Baker he'd bravely run the hell out of there, and that he'd send reinforcements when he got back to American lines. He lied. When Captain Runyon returned to his command post, he reported Baker's platoon had been annihilated. Awesome.

Left for dead, Baker fought on, battling the Germans for hours, deep behind enemy lines, totally oblivious to the fact that he had absolutely no hope of reinforcements or relief. Finally, after several hours of constant firing against an impossibly-gigantor, heavily-equipped enemy force, almost completely out of ammo and with 19 of his 25-man team lying dead, Baker ordered a withdrawl.

Naturally, in order to make sure his six surviving men got out of there alive, Baker stood up in full view of the enemy, screamed like a maniac, and sprayed a hail of bullets in every direction. The Germans concentrated their fire on him, letting Baker's men slip out safely.

Baker was shot a couple times during his epic diversion, but he somehow managed to achieve the Steven Segal Singularity (complete immunity to all bullets, i.e. the "IDDQD God Mode Rule") and get out of there with his life. All told, he had single-handedly killed at least nine Nazis, and destroyed six machine guns nests, two observation posts, and cleared four enemy dugouts. When he reached HQ safely, after everyone had already written him off for dead, dudes were all like, "WTF how the shitballs did this happen?" They nominated him to lead another attack the following night – despite having two bullet wounds in him, Baker complied, leading a full-strength battalion of white soldiers on a night attack through the enemy minefield and right up to the front doors of the castle. The position fell the next day. It was one of the first times in American history that a black soldier was placed in command over white troops (even though it was technically "unofficial")

For his ultra-badass deeds getting Medieval on a fucking German castle, Vernon J. Baker would receive the Distinguished Service Cross – the second-highest award for bravery offered by the United States government. He'd finish out the war, spending the later days with the army of occupation in Rome and hooking up with a smoking-hot Italian babe, and by the time he was done, he also had a Polish War Cross, a Bronze Star, and the Croci de Guerra, which kind of sounds like an appetizer at a pasta joint but is really just the Italian version of the Medal of Honor. Baker would serve with the Army until 1968 (airborne no less, jumping out of planes until he was 48 years old), return home, move to Idaho, marry a German woman, have some kids, and survive a ferocious battle with brain cancer, which, I can only assume is the only thing in the world deadlier than a life-or-death struggle with a rampaging battalion of blood-raging panzergrenadiers entrenched in a 16th century castle.

Eventually, many years after the war ended, some enterprising, moderately-observant human being suddenly noticed that while African-American soldiers received the nation's highest award for military valor – the Medal of Honor – in every single damn war since the American Civil War, out of the 433 Medals of Honor awarded for action during WWII, the nation's highest award for valor was not issued to any of the 1.2 million black soldiers who fought and risked their lives for their country in the global struggle against totalitarian Fascism. It wasn't until 1993 that the Army ran a full investigation into this ridiculous discrepancy, and decided to review many of the Medal of Honor recommendations that had been passed over during the war. So, finally, in 1997, fifty-two years after the destruction of Nazi Germany and the fall of the Japanese Empire, the U.S. Army officially upgraded the Distinguished Services Crosses of seven African-American war heroes to full-fledged Medals of Honor.

Vernon J. Baker was the only man still alive to receive the award in person.

"Give respect before you expect it. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Remember the mission. Set the example. Keep going."


Spokane Spokesman-Review

New York Times



Putney, Martha S. Blacks in the United States Army. McFarland, 2003.


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