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Seven Black World War II Heroes Receive Medals of Honor

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 16, 1997 – Tears streamed down Vernon Baker's face as President Clinton hung the Medal of Honor around his neck during White House ceremonies honoring seven African-American World War II veterans denied the medal until now.

Baker is the only one still alive. The others honored were Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr., 1st Lt. John R. Fox, Pfc. Willy F. James Jr., Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, 1st Lt. Charles L. Thomas and Pvt. George Watson.

Baker said he was crying because he was "remembering what happened on that hill" on April 5 and 6, 1945, near Viareggio, Italy. That's when he single-handedly destroyed two German machine gun nests and led an attack on two others. He also drew enemy fire on himself to permit the evacuation of his wounded comrades and led a battalion advance through enemy minefields.

Characterizing Baker and the six deceased recipients as "among the bravest of the brave," Clinton said no black soldier who deserved the medal during World War II received it until now. But now, history has been made whole by the nation bestowing honor on those who have long deserved it, he said.

Clinton noted 52 years ago, President Truman awarded 28 Medals of Honor to veterans of World War II in the largest such ceremony ever held. Truman described the recipients as a great cross section of the United States. Clinton called Truman one of the nation's greatest presidents, and said he didn't have a shred of discrimination in his bones. "But that day," Clinton noted, "something was missing from his cross section of America. No African American who deserved the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II received it. Today, we fill the gap in that picture and give a group of heroes who also loved peace but adapted themselves to war the tribute that has always been their due.

"Now and forever, the truth will be known about these African Americans who gave so much that the rest of us might be free," the president said.

As Medal of Honor recipients, their names join the rolls of America's heroes, along with World War I heroes Alvin York and Eddie Rickenbacker; World War II heroes Jimmy Doolittle and Audie Murphy; and Vietnam era Medal of Honor recipients Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and current Army Maj. Gen. Robert Foley, the Military District of Washington commander, the president said.

"It's a great day, and we've all been vindicated," Baker said during a meeting with the media. "Those who are not here with me, thank you, fellas. Well done, and I'll always remember you."

Serving in a segregated unit was "kind of rough," he said. "As a black soldier, I fought a war on two sides. I was an angry young man, and all of my soldiers were angry. We were all angry, but we had a job to do and we did it."

His anger started to subside when the Army started to be integrated, Baker said. "I began to find out that we're all human beings regardless of the color of our skin, and we were all soldiers and had a job to do. Regardless of whether I look like a man from the moon or something else, when orders were given, they were carried out."

Baker, awarded the nation's second highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross, said he never thought about getting the Medal of Honor.

He joined the Army in 1941 from Cheyenne, Wyo., because he was a 21-year-old black man without a job, Baker said. "I needed a job, and that was the only way I could take care of myself," he said.

African Americans were treated badly during World War II because, Baker said, "it was the atmosphere of the country at that time. Segregation was a way of life in the United States.

"We fought a segregated war, but I knew things would get better, and I'm glad I'm here to see it," Baker said.

Another witness to history was former Capt. David Williams, the white commander of A Company, 761st Tank Battalion. Williams commanded Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, another black soldier to receive his long overdue honor. Williams said he recommended Rivers for the Medal of Honor, but it was never approved. Williams vowed he wouldn't stop fighting for the medal.

Williams said Rivers and the other black soldiers were angry about they way they were treated. "He was a Negro, he was humiliated, and I was humiliated with him," Williams said. "But my daddy told me you don't quit. You stay with them. Don't take any special privileges.

"I had the best tank company in the whole 3rd Army," Williams said. "One of my sergeants told that to Gen. George Patton, and [Patton] almost had a heart attack. We were good, but [Rivers] was a cut above. He was destined to be killed, you know. He always wanted to point the attack, and I told him you don't mess with the Germans like that.

Williams said fighting for the medal for Rivers was the toughest battle he ever fought. "With the Germans, I knew my enemy," he said. "But racism is a hard enemy to defeat. Ruben was killed Nov. 19, 1944."

Clinton said soldiers who receive a Medal of Honor usually need no further description, but America must remember something else here today. "These heroes distinguished themselves in another, almost unique way: In the tradition of African Americans who have fought for our nation as far back as Bunker Hill, they were prepared to sacrifice everything for freedom -- even though freedom's fullness was denied to them," he said.

He said the U.S. military is among the most integrated institutions in America, a beacon to society.

"I must say Mr. Baker has not quite abandoned doing the impossible," Clinton said. "He's 77 years young, but last year he got the better of a mountain lion that was stalking him."

"He's in the freezer," Baker joked with reporters after the ceremony. "It was rough. He was stalking me, and I was stalking an elk. I lost the elk and he lost his life."

 

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSeated on the dais waiting to receive the Medal of Honor from President Clinton are, from right to left, Vernon J. Baker; Sandra Johnson, niece of Maj. Charles Thomas; Arlene Fox, widow of 1st Lt. John Fox; Edward Carter II, son of Staff Sgt. Edward Carter; Grace Woodfork, sister of Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers; Valencia James, widow of Pfc. Willy James Jr.; and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Gene McKinney, who accepted the award on behalf of Pvt. George Watson. The Army was unable to locate any of Watson's relatives. Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageVernon J. Baker wipes away a tear after receiving the Medal of Honor from President Clinton during ceremonies at the White House Jan. 13, 1997. Baker was one of seven African-American soldiers who received the award more than 50 years after their World War II heroics. Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageVernon J. Baker, wearing the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Italy more than 50 years ago, speaks to the press outside the White House after receiving the award Jan. 13 from President Clinton. Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution image"He's in the freezer," Vernon J. Baker tells reporters about a mountain lion that was stalking him. Baker, from St. Maries, Idaho, received the Medal of Honor from President Clinton Jan. 13, 1997. Clinton mentioned the mountain lion during his remarks about the 77-year-old hero. Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageFormer Army Capt. David Williams, center, tells the press of Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers' heroism during World War II. Rivers' commander during the war, Williams said he recommended the black sergeant for a Medal of Honor at the time -- and made the award a personal quest. Holding a display case on the right is Grace Woodfork, Rivers' sister. Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imagePresident Clinton congratulates Vernon J. Baker after awarding him the Medal of Honor. Baker, 77, was a first lieutenant with the all-black 92nd Infantry Division in Italy during World War II when he performed the acts of heroism that earned him the award. Rudi Williams  
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