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Col. Charles D. Allen
Military scholar

Col. Charles D. Allen

Colonel Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, Ret.) is the Professor of Cultural Science in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College.

Medal of Honor: It's never too late to honor a fallen hero

An evening TV news broadcast caught my attention this week and since then I have followed the reports of the death of Vernon Baker. Mr. Baker, an African American who served in World War II in the segregated units of the U.S. Army, died after 90 years of very full life. He enlisted in the Army prior to the start of WWII and was commissioned through its officer candidate school in January 1943.

In 1945, he was assigned to the C Company, 370th Regiment in the 92nd Infantry "Buffalo Soldiers" Division, which was the only all-black infantry division (black enlisted soldiers with mainly white officers) to fight in Europe during WWII.

On April 5-6, 1945, Lieutenant Baker's actions in combat against enemy forces at Viareggio, Italy earned him a combat citation of the Distinguished Service Cross. Baker continued to serve his nation in uniform until 1965 when he retired as First Sergeant.

His story grabbed me because of what happened nearly 20 years after his retirement and 50 years after his WWII combat experience.

A study by Shaw University found that there was racial disparity in the awarding of the Medal of Honor and that "the political climate and Army practices during the war guaranteed that no black soldier would receive the military's top award."

The Shaw University study and recommendations were reviewed by a board of general officers. The Army as an institution took note and acted on the principle that "It is never too late to do the right thing." Of the 10 recommendations, the Army board selected seven black Americans to receive the Medal of Honor.

On 13 January 1997, President Clinton posthumously presented the awards in the names of:

Maj. Charles L. Thomas, of Detroit
First Lt. John R. Fox, of Cincinnati, Ohio
Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, of Oklahoma City, Okla.
Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr., of Los Angeles
Pfc. Willy F. James Jr., of Kansas City, Mo.
Pvt. George Watson, of Birmingham, Ala.

The last Medal of Honor was presented that day to the only living member of that group of black soldiers who served selflessly the nation and their comrades. That soldier was former First Lieutenant Vernon Baker.

So amid today's press about pop stars, corporate woes, and daily challenges in our lives, I offer a simple hand salute to an American soldier and hero--rest well!

By Col. Charles D. Allen

 |  July 16, 2010; 12:07 PM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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to: thedefendantX.

Thanks for your note.

I was born in the mid-1950's so am not your guy from Ft. Devens. I assume that he was someone you respected.

WA Post Metro Column offered another piece about LT Baker on 21 Jul. see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/20/AR2010072005489.html.

Posted by: charlesdallen | July 23, 2010 8:22 AM
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Col Allen,

Thanks for posting this column. It is a shame that Lt. Baker's story never got more publicity. Would have nice if Spike Lee would have invested the budget wasted in the awful Miracle at St. Anna movie to portray this real hero.

Posted by: keirreva | July 19, 2010 11:49 AM
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Steven7753 with all due respect to your father,the discussion of discrimination faced by Black servicemen in WWII has nothing to do with your father. You are either stupid,ignorant or worse to think that the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to African American soldiers who were denied the honor simply because of the color of their skin in some way diminishes your father's service.
I would suggest that you read the citations of Lt. Vernon Baker and the other Black men who were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor nearly fifty years after the war. If you were to do so, it would be evident to you that the conspicuous bravery and gallantry displayed by those men in combat made them worthy of receiving the Medal of Honor during the war.
President Clinton did the right thing to belatedly recognize the heroism of these African Americans !

Posted by: ellislawoffice | July 19, 2010 11:41 AM
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Great untold story. Sure, many white heroes of the Great War have languished unrecognized for their actions. But that is not because of the color of their skin. Baker's recognition is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the nation recognizing and honoring the contributions of soldiers who remain our unsung heroes. BTW: Your name strikes a bell. Were you ever at Fort Devens, Ayer, Massachusetts in the 1950s-60s?

Posted by: thedefendantX | July 19, 2010 10:28 AM
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I (hopefully) remember correctly an interview with Vernon Baker done by the network broadcasting the Torino Olympics. When asked what he considered the important elements of leadership, Lt. Baker stated:
1. If you want respect, you have to give respect
2. Treat each man as you would want to be treated yourself.
3. Remember the mission.
4. Lead from the front.
5. Always go forward.

Lincoln and Truman would be pleased with this plain-spoken eloquence.

Posted by: jpeder | July 19, 2010 10:17 AM
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Thank you for telling the story of a brave hero who nobody cares about because all they read about is the pathetic lives of celebrities and sports stars.

What made the news lately. Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods, Al Gore and Lohan.

Who cares.

Another real hero who deserves the MOH and who's exploits are well documented is Major Dick Winters. His WW2 experience's were in the mini-series, Band of Bothers. Because of politics and not awarding to many MOD awards, only one was awarded for the D-Day invasion.

Maybe one day our nation will take pride in itself. I think that may happen when we put aside "celebrating diversity" and celebrate Unity", after all, it's harder for many backgrounds to work as one. Diversity is an excuse for not working hard in life.

Posted by: bruce26 | July 19, 2010 10:08 AM
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My father was a poor white 17 year old who joined the Navy when he was 17 in 1941. He spent the whole time of WWII in the Pacific fighting the Japanese and he's buried in Arlington right across the Highway from the Pentagon. Nobody knows his name and when I'm gone probably nobody will remember him. But he doesn't need any politically-motivated pats on the back, or any further recognition than the medals we buried him with.

Posted by: steven7753 | July 19, 2010 9:59 AM
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There has always been unequal treatment as to the award of medals etc in the military,my father never received a distingushed flying cross for ww2 aviation and refused to request it.Officers in my Bn in Viet routinely turned each other in for medals and thanks to a brave in touch clerk those forms were sent around the world from iceland to south america,keeping those phonies from helping each other.
Yes Cheney the non serving draftdodger is honored by his lemmings and the history changers ,most of whom share his avoidence of the military.

Posted by: gonville1 | July 19, 2010 9:54 AM
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NBC News covered his death - they had a nice story on him. I did not see it on any other major network nor on any cable show. What a shame.

Posted by: rlj1 | July 19, 2010 9:45 AM
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Col. Allen,

Thanks for this column. Here is a bit of irony regarding Mr. Baker. He was born in Cheyenne, Wy. Here in Wyoming there was no publicity regarding this native hero. Yet, everywhere you go here you see references to Dick Cheney who claims Wyoming as his home. On the U of Wyoming campus there is a 6 million dollar center for international studies named after Cheney and a Cheney plaza. Cheney was not born in Wyoming and he gets the hero treatment. Ha! Cheney of course famously avoided military service. And Wyoming is a red state where a majority of people seem uncomfortable with having a black president. Mr. Baker's story blows the lid off this crazy situation. The real Wyoming hero is a black guy - son of a carpentor who loved to hunt. Cheney the white guy gets the recognition and its all fake. When will we learn?

Posted by: Buckston | July 19, 2010 8:02 AM
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