Veteran's Family Denied White House Tour Because of Shorts

September 30, 2010 - 4:37 PM

President Clinton, Vernon Baker

President Clinton shakes hands with Vernon Baker after presenting him with a Medal of Honor, Monday Jan. 13, 1997 at the White House. (AP Photo/Ruth Fremson)

(AP) - The White House apologized Thursday for turning the family of a Medal of Honor recipient away from an exclusive tour last week because the late veteran's 10-year-old grandson was wearing shorts.

Vernon Baker, the last surviving black Medal of Honor winner from World War II, was buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery after dying in July from complications of brain cancer at age 90. He belatedly received the military's top award from President Bill Clinton in 1997, after historians concluded he'd been wrongly denied because of his race.

On Saturday, his widow and grandson went to the White House for a special tour of the West Wing, which includes the Oval Office and rooms that are in use.

The staffer who was to lead the family wasn't sure whether 10-year-old Vernon Pawlik's attire - shorts and a T-shirt bearing a picture of the boy's grandfather - was considered appropriate, officials said. Another winner of the military's top award, Thomas Norris, also was turned away because he was not previously cleared for the tour.

Norris and the Baker family had turned down a previously arranged East Wing tour for the more exclusive visit to the West Wing.

"This is an unfortunate misunderstanding," White House spokesman Adam Abrams said Thursday. "We would have loved to have hosted 10-year-old Vernon and his family at the White House and we have reached out to the Baker family and Lt. Norris to communicate our deep regret and invite them back to the White House."

A message left at the home of Baker's widow, Heidy, who was also on the tour, was not immediately returned.

In 1945, Baker rallied black troops after their white commander deserted and they captured a German stronghold in Italy, taking out three machine gun nests, two bunkers and an observation post. But he did not receive his award for more than half a century, and no black soldiers received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for battlefield valor, during that era. An Army study initiated in the early 1990s concluded Baker and several other men had been denied the award because of racism.

Baker and six other black World War II veterans received medals posthumously at a 1997 White House ceremony.

Baker had lived since the 1980s in a valley near St. Maries, Idaho, about 50 miles east of Spokane, Wash.

The office of Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, is working with the Baker family to help them return to the White House, said press secretary Susan Wheeler.

"The senator was upset by the news," Wheeler said. "We want to make sure they are comfortable."