January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

ALTHOUGH THEY WEREN’T ALLOWED to serve with the white GIs—let alone sleep in their barracks—the 25 men Vernon Baker led from the all-black 92nd Infantry could fight as hard as any platoon. And while they all performed bravely at northern Italy’s Castle Aghinolfi on the morning of April 5, 1945, it was Baker, the 25-year-old second lieutenant, who took out a German observation post, two bunkers and three machine-gun nests. Then, his company nearly destroyed, Baker ordered his seven remaining men to retreat while he drew enemy fire. With trees exploding around him, Baker somehow escaped. “I was a soldier with a job to do,” he says. “And I did it.”

Now his country has finally given that soldier his due. On Jan. 13, President Clinton presented Baker, 77, with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award for valor. Posthumous Medals of Honor were also presented to six other World War II heroes who had been denied them, it appears, because they were black. Although such slights were common during his 27-year military career, Baker looks back without rancor. “I didn’t go to war expecting a reward,” he says. “Afterwards I blocked out the ugliness of the battle and went on with my life.”

Baker’s life had been a battleground of sorts even before the attack on the castle. Orphaned when he was 4, Baker and two older sisters were raised in Cheyenne, Wyo., by grandparents Joseph, a railway brake inspector, and Dora, a homemaker. The young Baker had a nose for trouble, and his grandfather agreed to pack him off in 1930 to Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha. “He thought it would straighten me up—and it did.” Baker spent three years at Boys Town, then earned a high school diploma while living with an aunt in Iowa. In 1939 he returned to Wyoming, where he took a job as a porter on the Union Pacific Railroad. There, Baker felt the sting of racism firsthand. “They’d call me ‘boy,’ ” he says. “And I absolutely hated it.”

Desperate for a challenge, Baker joined the Army in June 1941. What he joined, in fact, was the black Army, in which even officers were relegated to using back doors and rattling around in the back of the bus. Eventually stationed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, Baker rose to staff sergeant, but success only introduced him to black-on-black prejudice. One night a group of black sergeants shouting “Uppity nigger!” jumped Baker and beat him up.

Bruised but unbowed, Baker left for Italy in 1944. That October he was shot in the wrist by a German sniper but managed to kill him before passing out. After two months in a segregated hospital, Baker returned to lead his men into battle. And even when the odds were against them—as they were before dawn on April 5, 1945—Baker and his men fought like heroes.

Presented with the Distinguished Service Cross for his work in Italy, Baker made the military his career, marrying swimming instructor Fern Brown in 1953 and helping to raise their four daughters. After retiring from the Army in 1968, Baker took a job with the Red Cross at Fort Ord, Calif., counseling needy military families. After Fern died in 1986, he left the Red Cross and moved to a cozy A-frame house in an isolated corner of northern Idaho. Remarried to German immigrant Heidy Pawlik, 48, in 1993, Baker rarely mentioned the battle at the castle, let alone his heroics. Nor did he ever think about getting the military’s top honor, but Army officials decided in 1990 to start reexamining World War II records for black Medal of Honor candidates. “What most impressed me about Baker was that there was no bitterness in him,” says Daniel Gibran, a Tennessee State University historian commissioned by the Army to find prospects. “When I asked why he fought so courageously for a country that treated him so badly, he broke down and said, ‘I did it for the men I was leading.’ ”

Now Baker says he has once again found faith in his Army and his country. At the White House he accepted his medal in the name of all who gave their lives in World War II. “It’s a great day,” he said afterward. “We’ve all been vindicated. Those who are not here with me, ‘Thank you, fellows, well done, and I’ll always remember you.’ ”

PETER CAKLIN

CATHY FREE in Benewah County, Idaho

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