Heroes one and all

Stanley O. Williford | 11/9/2011, 5 p.m.

In 1877, he was assigned to the Tenth U.S. Calvary--Buffalo Soldiers--one of two Black regiments formed after the Civil War. He was the first non-White officer to lead the regiment. His promising career was brutally hijacked when he was wrongfully court-martialed and discharged dishonorably from the military on the charge of embezzlement. It was the last of several major attempts to drum Flipper out of the military.

In spite of this injustice, and after several attempts to have his commission restored, Flipper found other ways to serve his country. Both in life and in death there were many attempts at a pardon. Fifty-nine years after his death in 1940, he received a posthumous pardon issued by President Bill Clinton in 1999.

World War II

Shaw University [in Raleigh, N.C.] led a research study to investigate why Black WWII veterans had been overlooked as recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor. Of the more than 400 Medals of Honor awarded, not one of the 1.2 million African Americans who served in the war was a recipient.

The study concluded that racism was the reason Black soldiers did not receive the award. The Shaw study named 10 soldiers whose military records warranted the Medal of Honor.

The Pentagon chose seven of the 10 soldiers recommended. All of those nominated had received less distinguished awards for their military service. President Clinton awarded them Medals of Honor on Jan. 13, 1997.

Only one of the seven nominees, 1st Lt. Vernon Baker of St. Maries, Ida., was alive to receive the Medal.

The posthumous Medal of Honor recipients were: 1st Lt. Charles L. Thomas of Detroit, Mich.; Pvt. George Watson of Birmingham, Ala.; Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr. of Los Angeles, Calif.; 1st Lt. John R. Fox of Boston, Mass.; Pfc. Willy F. James Jr. of Kansas City, Ka.

Vernon J. Baker was born in 1919 and raised in Cheyenne, Wyo., by his grandparents. However, during his adolescence he spent two years in Boys Town, a suburb of Omaha, Neb., in a home for boys founded in 1917 by Father Edward J. Flanagan.

After graduation from high school, he began work as a porter on the railroad, but grew tired of the job and enlisted in the Army.

While serving with the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division near the northern Italian village of Viareggio, Baker and his 25 men were ordered to lead an assault on Castle Aghinolfi, a heavily guarded mountain fortress with a series of fortified bunkers, considered to be the one of the last lines of German defense.

The men fought their way within 300 yards of the castle. Noticing two rifle barrels protruding from a concealment in the rocks, Baker crawled toward them, popped up and killed the two German sentries. Another German soldier threw a hand grenade that landed near Baker and ran. Unmoved, Baker fired and killed the fleeing German. Fortunately, the grenade did not explode. Baker then crawled to another bunker and threw in a grenade. When a wounded German emerged, he killed him. He threw in a second grenade and killed two more Germans. After Baker rejoined his men, most of whom had been slaughtered by German fire, he and his remaining men eliminated two more machine-gun nests and killed four more Germans.