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Lasting Valor

Lt. Vernon J. Baker, 90, received the Medal of Honor more than 50 years after his service in Italy during World War II.

Why the long wait? Because researchers discovered a discrepancy in the way African Americans were awarded for their valor in the 1940s and 1950s.

Of the more than 400 Medals of Honor given during World War II, not one of the 1.2 million African Americans who served was a recipient.

For valor and determination leading a platoon on an assault against a heavily fortified German position, Lt. Baker received the Distinguished Service Cross, the military's second highest decoration after the Medal of Honor.

More than 50 years later, the Army recommended seven black service members for the Medal of Honor. Six received the award posthumously. Lt. Baker was the survivor.

"There was a lot of bravery going on," Lt. Baker told the Washington Post in 1996 referring to his fellow black soldiers in World War II. But, "we weren't considered first-class citizens and we weren't considered fighting men."

Indeed, when Lt. Baker first tried to enlist in the Army after high school, he was told by the white recruiter there was no place for "you people" in its ranks.

But he tried again a few months later and was sent to the Infantry where he encountered more racism including from members of his own segregated unit.

Because Lt. Baker could read and write, he moved quickly up the promotional ladder, surpassing many of his fellow black soldiers who had toiled for years in labor jobs.

In one episode, he was jumped by three other black men who beat him because he was too "smart" for his own good.

Years after his World War II service, he was walking down the street in his uniform when a white colonel attempted to strip the Distinguished Service Cross off Lt. Baker's chest.

"Ain't no ****** I ever saw deserved no Distinguished Service Cross," the white colonel told him according to the book, "Medal of Honor: Profiles of America's Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present," By Allen Mikaelian.

But Lt. Baker refused to take off the medal. It was the first and only time he disobeyed a direct order.

Lt. Baker later said he tried to keep himself centered with a simple mantra: "Give respect before you expect it. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Remember the mission. Set the example. Keep going."

Throughout decades of racism, that was how he displayed his lasting valor.

By T. Rees Shapiro  |  July 15, 2010; 10:27 AM ET
Categories:  T. Rees Shapiro , World War II  | Tags: Distinguished Service Cross, Lt. Vernon J. Baker, Medal of Honor  
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