A Quiet Janitor
William Crawford, or Bill, as he was more commonly known, was a janitor in Colorado Springs at the prestigious US Air Force Academy. Bill was always polite and mild-mannered, keeping a low profile among the young cadets who he would clean up after. There were approximately 100 cadets on the base, and Bill would sometimes get a passing hello or goodbye from them, and often nothing at all, but he went about his work quietly and diligently.
Bill went about his daily tasks without attracting much attention. He would mop the floors, wipe down surfaces and make sure the base was kept in good condition. Those around him paid little notice as to what he was doing. To them, he was part of the furniture and just blended into the background. What they didn’t know, was that Bill was keeping an astonishing secret about his past.
Inconspicuous and Hard-Working
Bill was dedicated to his job as a janitor at the US Air Force Academy base, and although it was not a glamorous job, he worked hard to keep the place in top condition. He was very good at his job and as a result, would just go about his work unassumingly. There was always lots of activity on the base, and Bill was just one small part of that, blending into the background.
As the years went by, the cadets who passed through the academy paid little or no attention to this unassuming character. They had no idea of the extraordinary events of Mr Crawford’s life. This was not something he spoke about to the young cadets, but his personal life and the secrets of his past were soon to become known to those who had previously ignored him.
A Mysterious Presence
William Crawford, or Bill, was born in Pueblo, Colorado in 1918. He had had a busy career, travelling all over, but when decided to retire, he chose to come back to his home state and look for a job that would not involve too much stress or hard work. He wanted something to allow him to go unnoticed by those around him, and quietly pass under the radar.
When the opportunity of a role as a janitor at the US Air Force Academy presented itself, he gladly accepted, knowing that this was exactly the kind of job that would keep his former career a secret. Those who had been at the academy during his time as a janitor there, had said that he was just part of the background, “an old man working in a young person’s world.” They had no idea about his past, and would surely be stunned when it was revealed.
Not Just Your Typical Janitor
To those around him, Bill Crawford was just the janitor who was shy and kept to himself. Retired Air Force Colonel, James Moschgat, who was a cadet at the time when Bill was a janitor at the academy, said he had a subdued demeanour. He was obviously much older than the cadets around him, and made little effort to engage with them on a personal level or build any kind of relationship.
As Colonel Moschgat put it, “The Academy, one of our nation’s premier leadership laboratories, kept us busy from dawn until dusk. Mr Crawford… well, he was just a janitor.” The cadets had no idea about Bill’s previous career, and once they found out, their perception of him would surely change.
Simple, Yet Extraordinary
To all intents and purposes, Bill Crawford looked like your run of the mill janitor. He was just someone looking to supplement his pension and give back to his country. He was an ordinary guy, doing an ordinary job, but his background was actually something quite extraordinary. Those around him had no idea, and would be amazed when they found out about his past.
There was always so much going on at the academy, no one had any time to stop. They didn’t give a second thought to the guy mopping the floors, changing the garbage bags and wiping down services. The cadets didn’t even know his full name, and though they assumed him to be “retired military”, he certainly didn’t tell them anything about himself, especially not stories from his past.
A Change of Life
Bill Crawford had enjoyed his own successful career, and once retired, was happy to take on a more low-key role in familiar surroundings. He undertook his job as a janitor with grace, and saw the value to keep the base clean and tidy as the cadets went about their tasks, preparing for exams and training for their athletic events. Bill kept to himself and rarely spoke to the cadets unless they spoke to him first. It wouldn’t be long, however, until they all found out about his past.
It wasn’t until 1976 when the truth was revealed about Bill Crawford and his career. Until this point, he had happily gone about his work, without complaint or comment. When the cadets discovered who he really was, their perception of him would change forever, and things would never be the same again.
It was just a regular Saturday afternoon and the then-cadet, Moschgat, was relaxing and reading a history book about the allied ground campaign in Italy during the Second World War. As he was reading, he realised there was something familiar about the story, and when the penny dropped, he exclaimed, “Holy cow!” to his roommate.
Moschgat, who had been consumed by finishing his training to be an F-16 pilot and his nearing graduation, had failed to notice the janitor who had been part of the background at the academy. As he read his book, he said, “The words on the page leapt out at me”, and he started to uncover the secret past of the unassuming janitor.
A Strange Connection
Moschgat was drawn to the name, “Private William Crawford”. Could it be that this was the same man who had been quietly sweeping the floor and going about his day-to-day tasks with a reserved nature? His name was written in bold letters on the page, and suddenly Moschgat started to piece the different parts of his story together.
It wouldn’t take long for word to spread about the past of “Mr Crawford”, the quiet janitor who the cadets referred to as “Old grandpa”. They could barely believe there was a connection between the trooper featured in these history books and the janitor whom they had paid no attention to for all this time.
Bravery and Courage
As Moschgat had been studying his World War II history, he came across the story of the US Army’s 36th infantry division and their battle with the enemy forces at Altavilla, Italy. This story had taken place some 30 years prior, and was a story worthy of mention in the history books.
Moschgat read on about the attack and couldn’t believe the words on the page. The story stated, “in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire…with no regard for personal safety… on his own initiative, Private Crawford single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions.’
An Unpraised Hero
Moschgat was quite taken aback by what he had read. Could it be that this unassuming janitor was also a hero from a battle during the Second World War? Moschgat felt the need to find out more, and prepared himself to speak to Mr Crawford about whether he was the hero mentioned in the story. What happened next surprised everyone.
Moschgat and his roommate decided to go and speak to the janitor, and located Bill Crawford on the base, as he was performing one of his menial tasks. They presented him with the book and asked him to confirm or deny if he was the same Private Crawford mentioned in the story. At first, he resisted telling them the truth, but the cadets continued to probe him and eventually, they discovered the amazing truth about his past.
The Grudging Truth
Moschgat and his roommate presented Crawford with the book, and he looked at the page for a few moments, taking in the story. The two cadets stood there with their mouths wide open in shock and amazement. They kept looking at one another, at the book, at Crawford, and then back at each other, until Bill looked up from the page and gave them an answer.
With the simple words, “Yep, that’s me,” Crawford had forever changed his status on the base. The cadets started to question him about why he had never mentioned his past experiences as a war hero, to which he simply answered, “That was a long time ago and one day in my life.” He said so without causing a scene, and endeavored to go back to his work. However, the story continues…
Reliving the Past
It was July of 1942, and the Second World War was raging across Europe and the world. Young Crawford had just enlisted, and in less than a year, he would find himself on the front lines in southern Italy, as part of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division. Prior to his enlisting, Crawford had enjoyed some time in the ring, working on his boxing skills. He was unaware at the time that they would serve him during his time on the front lines.
The scene was set for the US attack on an enemy position at Hill 424, by Altavilla Silentina in Italy. The date was the 13th of September, 1943, and Crawford was a squad scout for his division. As the attack progressed, the unit came under intense enemy fire. The 36th Infantry Division was trapped, and Crawford felt this to be an almost hopeless situation. They were being bombarded by machine-gun and mortar fire, and the situation became very grave indeed.
A Brave Superhero
It was when it seemed all hope was lost and they were to surrender to the enemy, that Crawford took a crucial role in reversing the fortunes of the division. Exhibiting extraordinary bravery, and without being told to, he located the center of the enemy threat that had been firing against his platoon. With one swift throw, Crawford threw a grenade, and with perfect aim, destroyed one of the enemy firing posts.
Crawford did not end there. Even though his actions had saved the lives of his fellow soldiers, he decided to courageously continue his advance against enemy fires. With skill and pin-pointed accuracy, Crawford crawled on his belly passing underneath the spraying bullets, until he was able to launch two more grenades. The precision targeting managed to destroy two more German strongholds.
From Courage to Danger
It was thanks to Crawford’s incredible bravery and actions that the enemy forces fled their positions. They had already lost three of their firing posts, and one man had managed to destroy them on his own. It was thanks to this that the Allied forces felt they could proceed with caution. Crawford had put himself in a position of danger, and this was not to be made any easier as they progressed their attack.
With Crawford out in front, he had made himself a prime target for capture, and indeed the German troops found him and took him hostage. The Allied forces thought his chances of survival were very small, and Crawford was labelled as Missing in Action and presumed dead. Having made this assumption about Crawford, the rest of the story becomes even more amazing.
Disaster and Distinction
It looked as though Crawford had died a hero at the hands of the Nazis, as a Prisoner of War. The US army recognized his great contribution to the war effort and decided to award him with one of the highest accolades for a soldier. In 1944, Crawford was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, one of the highest accolades in the US Army, and marked the gratitude felt towards him and his extraordinary bravery.
The US Army had US Major General Terry Allen present the medal to Crawford’s father, George, as is protocol, in a short but impressive ceremony which honoured Crawford’s bravery in the face of extreme danger. His actions were said to have saved the lives of many in his platoon, and he was honored accordingly. However, this was not to be the end of the story, and there was to be a twist in the tale.
As time passed, Crawford’s family, friends and fellow soldiers started to move on with their lives, but they continued to think about what might have happened to him at the hands of the German army. It came out of nowhere, but one day, as the war progressed and the Germans started to lose ground, a group of soldiers were liberated. Crawford’s family learned he was among them and had not died, as they thought, but was actually alive.
Crawford was hailed as a national hero for his role in battle and for surviving as a Prisoner of War at the hands of the German army. Once liberated from the internment camp, he was sent home to his family to recover. He had no idea that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his brave acts, and there were to be further surprises in store.
Hero of the Nation Comes Home
Having returned to his life in America, the dust started to settle and he got back into the routine of life. He met and married a girl called Eileen Bruce, in January of 1946, and life seemed to be moving along nicely. However, Crawford felt the pull of the military again and decided to sign up for service once more, just a year after he and Eileen wed.
Crawford had an illustrious military career, and served for a further 20 years until he retired from service in 1967. He had achieved many things during his time in the army, included being awarded the rank of master sergeant. Once he retired, the Crawfords decided to move back to his home state of Colorado and set up home in Palmer Lake. There he took up the role of janitor at the Air Force Academy, as well as the director at the Lucretia Vaile Museum. This was plenty to keep him busy.
Even during the rest of his career, he rarely wore the Medal of Honor he had gained for his bravery during the Second World War. He felt unworthy of such an accolade, despite the fact he was more than deserving. When his military career came to an end, he sought a job that others like him might have thought was beneath them. Being the patriot that he was, he didn’t feel this way, and carried out his role without complaint, and with honor.
When the cadets discovered the truth about Bill Crawford’s past, they were astonished that such a quiet and unassuming gentleman had such a renowned career, and they started to approach him, asking him questions about his experiences in the war and engaging with him more. The cadets also became more conscientious about making a mess, and they didn’t want him to have to clean up after them all the time. However, there was to be another twist in Bill’s tale, which he was unaware of.
As the Cadets started to get to know Bill better and warmed up to him, he transitioned from being a member of the staff who they ignored, to a beloved colleague. He started to be invited to more events at the academy, including squadron functions. Bill remained conservative and never showed up in his uniform with his medal, choosing instead to wear a plain dark suit. Bill himself was starting to feel more welcome, and warmed up to the cadets, as they showed him more notice. Bill just wished for one thing, but he never thought it would happen.
He never actually thought it would happen, but at some point, Bill had mentioned to friends that one day, he would very much like to receive his Medal of Honor, in person, from the President. At the time it was awarded to him, he was presumed dead and presented to his father. Bill Crawford was someone special, and while he never expected things to happen, his friends went about planning a special surprise for him.
An Unexpected Surprise
Some 40 years after he was first awarded his Medal of Honor, war hero and janitor was invited as a guest to the Air Force Academy’s annual graduation ceremony. He had no idea that a surprise had been arranged for him. The ceremony was taking place in the Colorado Springs Falcon Stadium, and the place was packed out with proud families and friends of the cadets who were graduating that day. They would also be in for a treat, as the unsuspecting veteran had a surprise in store for him.
Bill had gone about his daily tasks without complaint, and those around him felt he should be properly honored. He was now 66 years old and had given many years of service to the military. Those around him now knew the full extent of his achievements, but he still had not been honored in a full and proper way. The cadets and staff at the Academy decided they wanted to show him the full extent of their appreciation, and so prepared something special for him.
Recognition That Was Long Overdue
The ceremony was about to start, and the stadium was filled with friends and family members of the graduating cadets, the staff, generals and alumni of the Academy, and the President of the United States at the time, Ronald Reagan. During the ceremony, the Commander in Chief turned his attention toward honouring Crawford’s achievements during his army service. The president spoke about how Crawford had conducted himself with humility and respect, and remarked on how he was a true example of leadership.
The crowd listened and applauded, as he was shown as an example to those graduating of a true leader, and someone for them to look up to and admire. The President spoke of his loyal service and said he had gone “above and beyond the call of duty.” To be showered with such praise from the President was something Crawford never believed would happen.
The president started to recount how Crawford had bravely acted during the Second World War. It was something of an amazing moment hearing the Commander in Chief speak with such emotion about the war hero, turned janitor. He said to the crowd, “Now, there’s something I want to do that means a lot to me and, I’m sure, will mean a lot to you…”
The President proceeded to speak about Crawford’s contribution to the war effort, his selfless acts of bravery and how he survived being a Prisoner of War. It was amazing for the cadets and Academy staff to hear, because for so many years, he had just been the janitor who went about his work without comment or complaint. Now everyone knew the extent of Crawford’s bravery, and it was about time, too!
40 Years Later
During his address, President Reagan explained why he was giving the Medal of Honor to Mr. Crawford now, because at the time it was initially awarded, he was being held by the German army as a Prisoner of War. Amending the mistakes of the past, President Reagan decided this was his opportunity to honor the war hero and veteran.
As he spoke to the cadets, he referred to Bill Crawford and said, “Well, nearly 40 years have gone by, and it’s time to do it right.” The President then invited Bill up to the podium to receive his long-awaited Medal of Honor, which he did so with pride and respect. This was a moment Bill had dreamed of for years.
Everyone who was in attendance and watching the proceedings was filled with delight, as Bill Crawford quietly and politely received his Medal of Honor. The President presented the medal to Crawford, and hung it around his neck. The two men shook hands and Crawford took his seat once again. It wasn’t until the end of the ceremony that he relaxed, and a huge smile appeared across his face.
As Crawford received his Medal of Honor, the crowd erupted into rapturous applause, with both Bill and The President appearing moved by the reaction. This kind of recognition had not been his motivation, and he had never sought out praise for his actions in war. He had gone about his day-to-day tasks with dignity and respect, and as President Reagan put it, “conspicuous gallantry.”
No Small Achievement
Bill Crawford had always been a modest man, and had not wanted to draw attention to his achievements. The records would state otherwise, and his actions would make him a revered war hero. Amazingly, Crawford had never had an official ceremony or any formal recognition for his Medal of Honor, perhaps due to the fact that at the time, it was presented posthumously.
Once Crawford’s merits were officially acknowledged, in public, with him present, he became part of a prestigious and exclusive group who are saluted by all members of the uniformed service, no matter whether they are ranked higher or lower than him. This was an amazing moment for Crawford. What was even more amazing, was his reaction to the whole experience.
Kind and Humble Hero
Bill Crawford’s extraordinary achievements had finally been recognized in his presence. If his actions in battle weren’t proof enough that he really was an all-American hero, his reaction to receiving the Medal certainly was. Crawford was quoted as saying, “I was just glad that I was doing my part.” It was truly incredible to witness such humility and modesty with regard to his own achievements. Crawford really saw his role as serving part of the greater good and the overall war effort.
Astonishingly, he didn’t even realize he had gone above and beyond. When he was finally awarded his medal he said, “I figured it was just a normal call of duty… I happened to be in the right place at the right time.” What he doesn’t realize, is that not many others would have had the courage to act as he did. It was precisely this modesty that make his achievements all the more impressive. However, there was more recognition to come…
The Story of a Legend
Crawford’s behaviour had inspired many of those around him, not least the cadet who made the discovery, Colonel James Moschgat. He was the one who had uncovered the truth about the unassuming janitor’s past. When asked about what he thought of Bill Crawford's heroism, he said it had taught him “some valuable leadership lessons.”
Moshgat later went on to include his discovery in some of his writings. In an essay where he refers to the clearly pivotal experience in his life, he says, “Bill Crawford was a janitor. However, he was also a teacher, friend, role model and one great American hero.” It was clear that Moschgat thought very highly of Crawford, but he was not the only one.
A Happy Life
After serving his country for the majority of his life, first in the military and then in the less glamorous role as a janitor for the US Air Force Academy, Bill Crawford died peacefully at his home in Colorado, on March 15, 2000. He was survived by his adoring wife Eileen, who would live for a further nine years and would eventually be laid to rest next to him, in 2009. He was 81 when he died.
Bill Crawford was a man who earned his place in history and in the hearts and minds of the American people, and all those who had the pleasure of knowing him. His legend will surely live on long into the future, and will serve as a story of bravery and humility. As a mark of respect and honor, he was buried at the US Air Force Academy Cemetery, in Colorado Springs. He was the only non-airforce enlistee to be buried there, alongside his beloved wife, Eileen.
An Icon That Will Not Be Forgotten
As a mark of respect for Bill Crawford at the time of his passing, the Governor of Colorado, Bill Owen, issued a special directive for all of the flags across Colorado to be lowered to half-mast. This symbolic act of honor for Bill was quite opposite to how he had lived his life, drawing little or no attention to his achievements. However, the people of Colorado felt this was a fitting way to honor the state’s legendary resident.
In a further effort to immortalize Bill Crawford, a bronze statue was commissioned in his likeness and installed at the Hero Plaza, located at the Pueblo Convention Center. The Hero Plaza features statues of all of the residents of Colorado who have received the Medal of Honor. This includes Raymond G. Murphy, Carl L. Sitter, and Drew Dennis Dix.
A Testimony That Would Last Forever
Crawford may have been an unassuming character, but his legacy was felt throughout the Air Force Academy. The cadets would speak of his story and memorialize him. Perhaps one of the most significant pieces created in his honor was a commemorative essay written by Moschgat, who had made the discovery about Crawford’s past. In the essay entitled, “A Janitor’s ten lessons in leadership” Moschgat spoke of the respect and kindness Crawford exhibited in his lifetime.
Speaking of his character in the essay, Moschgat reflected that “Private Bill Crawford didn’t pursue glory; he did his duty and then swept floors for a living.” This was real food for thought to the readers of the essay, who could think about their own pride. For, as Moschgat continued in the essay, “If Bill Crawford, a Medal of Honor winner, could clean latrines and smile, is there a job beneath your dignity? Think about it.” This summed it up, for no matter what your background, no job is too small for someone who knows their self-worth is not diminished by the taking on of menial jobs.
Other Long Overdue Dedications
Bill Crawford’s story is one that will go on and inspire future generations to act with humility. His long-awaited recognition and loyal dedication to his country is truly inspiring. He wholeheartedly deserved the attention he received towards the end of his life and his career, and indeed the respect he was given in death. However, he is not a unique case, and in fact, there were other loyal servicemen who had to wait decades to receive their Medal of Honor, for their bravery in the US Army during the Second World War.
There are a number of other veterans who had to wait some time to receive this most prestigious of awards from the US Army. One such veteran was a soldier from Wyoming, who had to overcome many difficult, and sometimes tragic situations to succeed. Through his bravery and courage, he may well have changed the course of history.
Another Hero's Story
Born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1919, Vernon Baker was the youngest of three children. At just the age of four, he was tragically orphaned when both of his parents died in a horrific car accident. His grief-stricken grandparents decided to take care of Vernon and his two older sisters in Iowa. It had not been an easy start to life for Vernon.
Vernon graduated from high school in the town of Clarinda, Iowa. Post graduation he took on a number of menial roles, which included being a railroad porter. Then, in 1941, Vernon decided to enlist into the US Army. Initially, he was faced with rejection, and with segregation still prevalent he was told, “We don’t have any quotas for you people.” This didn’t extinguish his eagerness, and Vernon persisted.
Perseverance to Complete His Duty
Vernon, waiting a few weeks and refusing to take no for an answer, attempted to enlist again, this time at a different military recruitment office. The recruiter must have seen his potential and thought past the color of his skin, as he was accepted into the military. When years later people would reflect on the story of Vernon Baker, they would take particular pleasure in knowing how persistent he had been.
When he enlisted, Baker had originally wanted to become a Quartermaster, but with the Second World War raging in Europe, his role would be to join the infantry on the front lines. This strange twist of fate would lead to a course of events that would change his life forever. Not only that, it would set the scene for Baker to prove that he was a true hero of his time.
An Honorable Service
Vernon Baker registered for duty in 1941, six months before the US entered the Second World War. Baker worked hard in his training, and completed the Officer Candidate School before being given the rank of Second Lieutenant, in 1943. It wasn’t until the following year that he was deployed to the front lines to serve in Italy, with the famous 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated unit.
Baker suffered an injury to his arm early on in his deployment, and he was treated at a field hospital near Pisa. He rejoined his division on December, 1944, as the Allied Forces were pushing forward against their fascist enemies. It was during this campaign that Baker was sent into battle, and what would take place there would change the course of his life, forever.
A Fearless War Leader
The War was coming to its bitter end, and on April 5th, 1945, Vernon Baker found himself with his platoon high up in the Apennine Mountains and the beautiful Aghinolfi Castle, a position which was being held by the Germans. The soldiers knew this was a strategically important place for them to try and win, but the castle was heavily guarded. It was also difficult to approach the castle, as it overlooked one of the main access roads to the Gothic Line. This battle was to be of crucial importance to the war effort, as the Allied forces looked to overturn the German position in Italy.
Here, Vernon Baker came into his own, as he courageously led 25 fellow soldiers behind enemy lines. They were laden with weapons and machinery, which would help them in their battle for the strategic post. As they made their way closer to the castle, they had to dodge landmines, snipers and barbed wire fencing. Ducking and diving along the way, Baker successfully led the men to a short distance from the castle.
Hero of the Day
Vernon Baker showed extraordinary bravery and leadership, carefully guiding his platoon to a position where they could now see the enemy. The had avoided attacks from several German posts, and now he and the platoon would be able to launch a counter attack. They had reached a good vantage point and had located where the Germans were situated.
The platoon had been spotted by the Germans and was now under heavy attack and mounting fire. At this moment, Baker exhibited extraordinary bravery. Without a moment's hesitation, he took the lead and launched an attack on several German positions, including a machine gun post, two observation points and two bunkers, as well as a network of telephone lines being used by the German army, severing their communication with other units.
A Brave Hero That Never Gave Up
Baker was under intense fire, and as he looked around for his fellow soldiers, he realized he was alone, as they had not joined him. The platoon had dropped back and Baker sought cover to protect himself. The remaining soldiers pulled back and the attack was paused. They decided to wait until the next day when they would launch a further attack, which Baker would again volunteer to lead. This time, he and his platoon would be more successful, and the enemy would desert their posts.
This was a brave affront, and Vernon Baker was not left unharmed. He sustained multiple injuries during his time on the front line, but even once victory had been declared, Baker felt it his duty to remain as part of the Allied occupying forces in Europe, until 1947. He had proven himself to be an integral part of his unit, with an understanding of military strategy and personal strength, both physical and emotional.
An Unusual Role Model
Vernon Baker had never received a college degree, and for that reason, despite his heroism and mental aptitude for military strategy, he was removed from his commission. He was, however, reinstated, when he was called up to serve in the Airborne Division during the Korean War. Vernon Baker suffered further humiliation, when in 1953, he was reduced to the enlisted ranks.
Vernon Baker was not a man of ego, and did not let this affect him or his dedication to the service. He was loyal to the army and remained in service until 1968, where he reached the rank of Master Sergeant. When he left his position in the military, he decided he wanted to give something back. He went to work as a counselor for the Red Cross, helping underprivileged military families. Vernon Baker had made a real difference in people’s lives, and he would be recognized for this in an amazing way.
Serving his Country after the Army
Vernon had returned to live in the US, and settled down with a wife and family in a small cabin in Idaho. Together with Fern, he had three children, and they were living a happy and settled life together. Tragically, Fern passed away, but Baker was able to find love and companionship once again, with a lady called Heidi. He met her three years after Fern’s death, and she was a German tourist. They would eventually marry.
Vernon Baker was happy and content with his life. He enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle in his retirement, taking in the Idaho countryside, where he enjoyed going hunting. It wouldn’t be until a few years later, when he received the recognition he so richly deserved for his contribution to the military. There would be a strange sequence of events that would lead up to his commendation, which he would have never guessed.
History in the Making
It took 52 years for Baker to be recognized for his brave actions during the Second World War, but in 1997, he received the award he so deserved. Baker was awarded a Medal of Honor by the President at the time, Bill Clinton, in an emotional and heartwarming ceremony, which took place at the White House.
The ceremony had been a poignant tribute to Bakers’ contribution. As the Medal of Honor was hung around his neck by President Bill Clinton, a tear rolled down his cheek. The normally stoic soldier was visibly moved by the significance of the moment and the importance of the day. Those in attendance felt pride and honor to be present at such a special event.
A Hero's Humble Words
It had felt special from the moment Vernon Baker entered the room. As soon as he stepped into the East Room of the White House, he received a standing ovation. The Marine Corps band played “God Bless America”, and there was an air of excitement in the room. Still, Baker held his composure. Now, at the age of 77, he hadn’t lost any of his humility, and his behavior showed exactly why he was being honored as a hero.
As he reflected on his times in battle, he said, “I was thinking about what was going on up on the hill that day… I was an angry young man. We were all angry. But we had a job to do, and we did it.” What he didn’t realize, was that channeling that anger into brave action is not something everyone can do, and for that reason, he was a special kind of person. He continued that, “I knew things would get better and I’m glad to say that I’m here to see it”.
A Respected Place in History
Vernon Baker was indeed a special kind of person. He received the military's highest award, and it took more than 50 years for him to be presented with it.
What makes this even more amazing, is that he was the first African American veteran of the million or so who served during the Second World War to receive such an award.
A Solitary Legend
On that day, Vernon, along with seven other African American veterans, received their long-awaited Medal of Honor. It was during an emotional ceremony that President Bill Clinton corrected a 50 year wrong, and presented these heroes with their awards. Unfortunately, Baker was the only surviving veteran, and the other six awards were awarded posthumously.
Vernon Baker was among esteemed company with his fellow Medal of Honor recipients. Sadly, the other six veterans, named, John R. Fox, Edward A. Carter, Rubem Rivers, George Watson, Charles L. Thomas and Willy F. James Jr. had either died in action, or in the fifty years since their service. As a result, the medals were presented posthumously.
A Life of Bravery and Inspiration
As Baker was being presented with his medal, a speech was delivered, referencing his courage and bravery. The citation read, “Second Lieutenant Baker’s fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the Armed Forces.” Vernon Baker was now part of history, and his legacy of heroism would live on.
Baker had faced difficulties throughout his life. From the loss of his parents at a young age, to demotion during his military service, segregation, and a battle with cancer in 2004. Vernon Baker had always displayed a fighting spirit and a desire to achieve what others would consider impossible. This was an attitude that stayed with him throughout his life.
Honoring His Legacy
Sadly, he would once again have to face cancer, and at the age of 90, on July 13, 2010, Vernon Baker passed away peacefully in his home. To honor his life and service, he was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. This is a renowned place where many Heads of State and servicemen and women have been laid to rest. There could be no more fitting tribute to his service than burying him among his fellow countrymen.
The funeral was attended by his family and fellow Medal of Honor recipients. Baker was a symbol of not just bravery and heroism throughout his military career, but through his life. He was a true patriot and a fighter for civil and human rights. The emotional ceremony paid tribute to all he had achieved in his life, and how his legacy continues to shape America today. <>