Vernon Baker Hailed: African-American World War II Hero

Vernon Baker Hailed: African-American World War II Hero

On September 11th, 2008, the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, Wofford College, a small liberal arts college in Spartanburg, South Carolina, paid honor to Vernon Baker. Baker is the only living African-American to have been awarded the World War II Medal of Honor. Describing Vernon Baker as “the greatest hero you or I will ever meet in our lifetime,” Bernie Dunlap’s voice choked with emotion as the Wofford College President spoke about Vernon Baker in front of a standing-room-only crowd last Thursday at Leonard Auditorium in Wofford’s historic Old Main Building.

Dunlap presented Baker, the only living African-American recipient of the Medal of Honor for valor during World War II, with the college’s third annual Sandor Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service to Humankind to a thunderous standing ovation during Wofford’s opening convocation ceremony. Dunlap and Wofford College Dean David Wood also presented Baker, 89, with an Honorary Doctor of Humanities degree, and Spartanburg’s Mayor William Barnet followed by giving Baker a key to the city. “It is September 11, and we remember that this is a difficult and challenging world,” Barnet told the crowd. “But we will always remember our heroes, whether they admit they’re heroes or not, and today we honor one.”

Dunlap first learned of Baker’s story by watching an NBC documentary about Baker that was broadcast during last Winter’s Olympics and later reading Baker’s autobiography, Lasting Valor. Baker, has “endured decades of some of the worst this country offered to 20th century black America,” Dunlap said. Baker served in the Army as a lieutenant with the 370th Regiment. On April 5th and 6th, 1945, he destroyed four German machine gun nests near Viareggio, Italy, at Castle Aghinolfi, a German mountain strong point on the high ground. He killed nine enemy soldiers with a gun and hand grenades.

For his service, Baker also earned the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Cross in addition to the Medal of Honor. However, It took 52 years before those heroics were recognized. Baker, because he was an African-American, was not officially honored for his bravery until 1997 when he and six of his comrades finally received the Medal of Honor from then-President Bill Clinton. Of the group honored by Clinton, Vernon has the only honoree still living.

The Sandor Teszler Award, which was also given to Baker, carries with it a $10,000 gift and honors the late Sandor Teszler, a Jewish immigrant who came to the Carolinas after he and his family were nearly killed by the Nazis during World War II. Teszler, for whom Wofford’s college library is named, was a friend of the college and a textile businessman who was one of the first to desegregate textile mills in the Carolinas. Previous recipients of the Teszler Award have been Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund, in 2006, and Paul Farmer, Founding Director of the international charity organization Partners in Health, last year.

Wofford College Honors WWII Hero Vernon Baker

Interview with Vernon Baker: WWII Medal of Honor Winner

NBC Documentary: Vernon Baker Honored after 52 Years

Wofford College’s Sandor Teszler Award

Wofford College, in Spartanburg (SC), honored Joseph Vernon Baker, the only living African-American recipient of the Medal of Honor for valor during World War II. Wofford presented Baker with The Sandor Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service to Humankind during the college’s opening convocation ceremonies on September 11, 2008.

The Sandor Teszler Award represents the highest ideals that the Wofford community embraces, and it carries with it a $10,000 award. Sandor Teszler was born in the old Austro-Hungarian empire, and during World War II Teszler, his wife and two sons were taken to a death camp on the Danube River, where the Nazi victims were systematically beaten to death. They were prepared for imminent death, but then they unexpectedly were rescued by an official from the Swiss Embassy. Immigrating to America and coming to the Carolinas, Sandor Teszler became a leader in the textile industry, soon becoming one of the very first to desegregate the textile mills. During the last decade of his life, Teszler graced the Wofford campus, “attending so many classes that the faculty, acknowledging a wisdom and experience greater than their own, honored themselves by making him a professor.”

Historical Notes on Wofford College’s Tribute to Joseph Vernon Baker

Wofford College is one of only a handful of colleges and universities in the United States that were founded prior to the Civil War, which still operates and remains on its original campus. The Wofford campus has been designated a National Historic District, and five of its six original college buildings are still in use today. Wofford has become known in the wider academic world as a true “Phoenix rising from the ashes.” The college was devastated by the loss of almost its entire endowment as a result of the Civil War. However, despite its meager financial resources, Wofford proudly struggled through the next twelve decades to provide an academically challenging education to its small student body. One illustration of the sterling academic quality maintained by the college is the fact that forty-two Wofford College alumni have gone on to serve as college and university presidents.

The commemoration of Joseph Vernon Baker and the courage exemplified in his life carries a special confluence with a certain aspect of Wofford’s own history. Founded in 1854, for over a century Wofford was a small private liberal arts college that was segregated, attracting almost all of its white students from the Old South. In 1962 and 1963, public colleges and universities throughout the region had begun to desegregate, almost always forced to do so at the direction of federal court orders and accompanied by significant resistance and often violence. In the face of strong and heated public sentiments against desegregation, as well as by anticipated bitterness concerning the college’s plans for integration and withdrawal of financial support for the college on the part of some of its alumni, supporters and friends, Wofford’s officers were undaunted and forged ahead, quietly beginning to make plans for desegregation. In the fall semester of 1964, the college opened its doors with an admissions policy that was equally applicable and nondiscriminatory to all students who might wish to apply, regardless of their race or creed. Steadfastly committed to its decision to make a stand for human equality, Wofford thus became one of the very first private colleges in the Old South to peacefully integrate.

Vernon Baker is now 89 years-old and lives in St. Maries, Idaho. Mr. Baker had earned the Medal of Honor 52 years before he and six of his military comrades actually received the award in 1997 from then-President Bill Clinton at a special White House ceremony. Mr. Baker was the only one who was still living to accept the Medal of Honor in person, the military’s highest award for bravery in battle. “They helped America to become more worthy of them and more true to its ideals,” Clinton said at the White House observance.

Vernon Baker, who had served as a lieutenant with the 370th Infantry Regiment, was cited for his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life” for his actions on April 5 and 6th, 1945, when he destroyed four German machine gun nests near Viareggio, Italy, at Castle Aghinolfi, a critical German high-ground mountain defense post. He killed nine enemy soldiers with a gun and hand grenades. Mr. Baker also was awarded the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroic actions in Italy.

Lt. Joseph Vernon Baker: An Honor Long Deferred

In the January 14th, 1997 edition of The New York Times, James Bennett wrote a moving article about the White House ceremony, which came a half-century after most of them had died in combat. On January 13th, 1997, seven soldiers finally were awarded the Medals of Honor that they deserved, but which had been denied after World War II because they were African-Americans. Of the seven men, Joseph Vernon Baker was the only one of the decorated soldiers who was still alive.

Their abilities and courageous actions in combat had been routinely derided by white officers. The very soldiers who were finally honored on that day had been forced to fight in segregated units, protecting the very freedoms that they did not fully share.

History has been made whole today,” Mr. Clinton declared, while standing in the East Room of the White House in front of Gilbert Stuart’s full-length portrait of George Washington, ”and our nation is bestowing honor on those who have long deserved it.”

Lt. Vernon Baker: An Honor Long Deferred

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