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It was April 1945 in northern Italy, the Germans' last stand. The Americans were desperate to strengthen their ailing 92nd Division, too weak to stop the Nazis. So, the generals added a regiment of black soldiers and another of Japanese-Americans, and together, the integrated force attacked.

Among those African-American soldiers was Lt. Vernon Baker, a railroad porter from Cheyenne, Wyo., who joined the Army to "better myself."Now, more than 51 years since that campaign, Baker, 76, is one of seven African-American nominees poised to win the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor. He also is the only nominee still living.

If Congress agrees to bend the award's statute of limitations, as the Senate is expected to do perhaps as early as this week, Baker and the others will become the first blacks to win the top honor for valor during World War II.

African Americans have earned the Medal of Honor in every other major conflict in which they have fought, said the professor who led a study that identified the seven heroes and prodded the Army to recognize them.

Daniel Gibran, principal investigator and international relations professor at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., said the reason for the hole in Medal of Honor history was the social and political climate of the time.

"During World War II there was an official policy of segregation," Gibran said. "And segregation is inherently racist, or bigoted."

Gibran and the four other authors of a 15-month study were thrilled to learn the seven had been nominated. To them, the awards will rectify the injustice done to the 1.2 million African-American soldiers who fought in a segregated Army for what was then a segregated country and who found their heroes ignored for more than half a century.

"We were blown away to bits here," Gibran said. "We were expecting two, maybe three max."

According to the Army, each of the seven African American nominees, as the award requires, distinguished himself "conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty."

There is no doubt that was the case with Baker on April 5, 1945.

Baker and his men were the first of Company C to meet the enemy, merely 250 yards from their objective, Castle Aghinolfi. Spotting two cylindrical objects pointing out of a slit in a hill, Baker crawled up, stuck his M-1 in the slit and emptied the clip, killing the observation post's two occupants.

Moving to a new position, Baker, a platoon leader, stumbled upon a well-camouflaged machine gun nest, the crew of which was eating breakfast. He shot and killed the two German soldiers.

Baker then shot twice a fleeing enemy soldier who had thrown a faulty hand grenade at the company's commander.

Continuing his attack, Baker went down into the draw alone, blasting another dugout. He shot and killed one German emerging after the explosion and two more who remained inside.

Realizing reinforcements were not going to arrive, the company's commander ordered a withdrawal, and Baker burst into tears protesting. Despite his strong desire to finish the fight, Baker volunteered to remain, covering and assisting with the evacuation of wounded soldiers.

All told, Baker's 25-man platoon killed 26 Germans and destroyed six machine-gun nests, two observer posts and four dugouts that day.

The six other nominees, according to the study, are:

- Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr. of Los Angeles, voluntarily advanced alone into enemy territory on March 23, 1945, to discover the enemy's position. Despite five wounds and heavy enemy fire, Carter managed to complete his mission, killing six German soldiers and using two others as a shield during his retreat.

- First Lt. John Fox of Cincinnati, Ohio, was killed during the night of Dec. 25, 1944, when he gave the order for his observation post to be blown up. Fox, whose commander questioned the radioed request, responded, "Fire it! There are more of them than there are of us. Put fire on my OP (Observation Post)."

- Pfc. Willy F. James Jr. of Kansas City, Mo., voluntarily advanced under enemy fire to pinpoint the enemy's position. He observed the Germans for more than half an hour and returned with vital information. He volunteered again to lead a squad in attack and was killed while trying to aid his wounded platoon leader.

- Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers of Tecumseh, Okla., took command of a lead tank, despite a leg wound that exposed the bone. When the tank was hit by enemy fire, Rivers refused to pull back, having spotted the enemy position. He was killed that day, Nov. 19, 1944, when his tank was hit by an enemy shell.

- First Lt. Charles Thomas of Detroit, Mich., volunteered to lead a tank platoon, the lead element of a task force trying to take the town of Climbach, France, on Dec. 14, 1944. When his scout car was hit by enemy fire and the task force halted, Thomas, though wounded several times, refused to leave the site until he had prepared the platoon leader to take over.

- Pvt. George Watson of Birmingham, Ala., remained in the water to assist fellow soldiers who could not swim after his ship was attacked and abandoned on March 8, 1943. Watson drowned when the suction of the sinking ship dragged him beneath the water.

Under an amendment to the Senate's 1997 defense authorization bill, the time limit for awarding World War II medals, which expired in 1952, would be waived and the president authorized to present medals to the seven nominees.

The genesis of the amendment was the Shaw study, which was commissioned by the Pentagon in 1993. The task of the research team at Shaw University, a historically black university, was to hunt through archives for any unprocessed World War II Medal of Honor recommendations for African Americans, Gibran said.

The researchers found none.

The Army was ready to quit there, Gibran said, but he pushed the issue. He made his case by noting two precedents - one in World War I and one in World War II - when soldiers who received the Army's second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, were reevaluated and upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

In January 1995, the Shaw study identified to the Army awards branch nine black DSC recipients and one Silver Star honoree as potential candidates for the top award.

Gibran said the Silver Star recipient, Sgt. Ruben Rivers, was included in the study because Rivers' former commanding officer told researchers he had recommended the sergeant for a Medal of Honor and the recommendation was never acted upon.

In February, a Senior Army Decorations Board selected the seven nominees from the 10 identified in the study.

For Baker, selection brought disbelief. For more than a year, he had discounted "rumblings and rumors" that he might be recommended.

After the war, Baker stayed in the Army another 24 years.

He now lives "in the middle of nowhere," 23 miles from St. Maries, Idaho. He enjoys fishing and hunting and also collects stamps.

Study author Gibran said Baker should be proud to be considered for the prestigious honor.

"The U.S. Army does not treat very lightly the Medal of Honor," Gibran said, adding that he is "very pleased that the Army at long last has done the right thing."

Johanna Hoadley is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service.