Lasting Valor

Lasting Valor

by Vernon J. Baker, Ken Olsen

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553580624
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/28/1999
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 547,682
Product dimensions: 4.68(w) x 6.92(h) x 0.95(d)

About the Author

Orphaned at age four, Vernon J. Baker (1919–2010) was raised in Wyoming by his grandparents, in a town with just a dozen other black families. During adolescence, he spent two years at Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home in Omaha, Nebraska. He graduated from high school in Iowa, then worked as a railroad porter. He fought to join a segregated army, and was sent to Europe with one of the few all-black regiments to see combat in World War II.
 
Mr. Baker fought in Italy, earning a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Distinguished Service Cross. He was one of the most highly decorated black soldiers in the Mediterranean Theater. On January 13, 1997, fifty-two years after Mr. Baker’s World War II military service, President Clinton presented him with the nation’s highest decoration for battlefield valor, the Medal of Honor.
 
Mr. Baker stayed with the Army, lived through its desegregation, and became one of the first blacks to command an all-white company. He joined the Airborne Division along the way and made his last jump at age forty-eight.
 
After retiring from the Army, he spent nearly twenty years working for the Red Cross.
 
Ken Olsen’s award-winning series on Vernon J. Baker in the Spokane Spokesman-Review became the launching point for Lasting Valor. Olsen and his border collies live in Portland, Oregon, where he continues to write about veteran’s issues.

Read an Excerpt

Lasting Valor


By Vernon J. Baker and Ken Olsen

Random House

Vernon J. Baker and Ken Olsen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0553580620


Chapter One

PROLOGUE

There is a pain-so utter,
It swallows substance up,
Then covers the Abyss with Trance,
So Memory can step
Around-across-upon it.


-EMILY DICKINSON

I am haunted by the memory of nineteen men; men I left on a ridge in northern Italy five decades ago.

I still hear a German commander scream "Feuer," howitzer shells whistling in, followed by the whish, whish, whish of mortars, the trees around us shredding. Wounded and dying men screaming. My only medic killed by a sniper as we try to withdraw.

A film of burned cordite covers the roof of my mouth and cottons my tongue. It's April 1945 in Italy's Northern Apennine Mountains and my men and I have been trading bullets and grenades with the German Army for so long that the air is more spent powder than oxygen. I know, as soon as this taste bites my tongue, the images will follow.

I gather dog tags from my dead comrades, time after time, figuring their bodies probably never will be recovered, that their families deserve to know where and when they died. I see the living wrestle rifles and ammunition from the dead and mortally wounded, taking from those who have given everything, so the rest of us can live and fight a little longer.

I hear, over and over again, my company commander telling mehe is going for reinforcements. I stare long and hard at Captain John F. Runyon as he gives me that story. He trudges away, disappearing forever into the late morning haze, the haze of exploding shells, bodies, and blood. Yet today, I cannot remember a detail from his face, except that it was a white man's face, whiter yet, nearly translucent, with fear.

Blame? Rage? Perhaps. I am angry and aghast that he never returned. But more likely this memory lapse is habit. There was no reason to memorize anything distinguishing about Runyon or any other white commander. A white officer in charge of black troops could ask to be relieved of his command at any time and that wish had to be granted immediately.

The rest of us were black Buffalo Soldiers, regarded as too worthless to lead ourselves. The Army decided we needed supervision from white Southerners, as if war was plantation work and fighting Germans was picking cotton.

Harsh as those words seem, I can't work up much bitterness anymore. Yet, I cannot forget the faces of the men who died beside me, nor can I stop wondering if, as their platoon leader, I am responsible for their deaths.

I am haunted by what I cannot remember. Everywhere I go, people ask me to recite the names of those nineteen men I left in the shadow of Castle Aghinolfi. No doubt studio audiences and readers would be more satisfied if I could give dramatic discourse about how several men, closer to me than brothers, died agonizing but glorious deaths, imbued with heroism that stirs God Bless America in every soul.

I cannot.

I cannot remember the names of the men of my platoon who fought with me and died at the castle or the dozens of other villages and canals, ridge tops and mountain valleys. I only remember bringing back handfuls of dog tags.

I cannot stare down those battles in search of every emotional detail. I now realize the mistakes I made, the recklessness of my bravado, the myth of invincibility that only existed when I was young and naive-which is why we send the young and naive to fight our wars. If I put fifty-two years of knowledge and perspective next to the names and the memories of the men for whom I was responsible I court insanity.

After the first combat death splattered blood across my face I realized there is no glory. I numbed myself in order to go on. I divided my mind into compartments, putting emotion into one, soldiering into another. I lived and worked from the compartment of soldiering. If I made the mistake of getting too close to somebody, I forced myself to forget about it after his face exploded or his intestines spilled. I didn't dare sit and mourn. I had to keep my wits about me or I would end up being carried out on a stretcher or left for the vultures and blowflies.

Fatigue at first disarmed me-making me more vulnerable to grief. Soon fatigue was my friend, helping to deaden my brain and the part of my soul that wanted to well up, overflow, and drown me with grief. Occasionally I could not quell it and ended up heaving my guts out, first with bitter gushes and then racking, dry retches. It felt horrible, not so much for the stomach spasms or bile rushing out of my mouth as for the fact that I was losing control.

I never feared dying. I always feared losing control.

It's not that I don't love these men and mourn their passing. It's not that I don't count the ways I might have prevented their deaths. That's the luxury and the damnation of having the time and opportunity to look back. That's part of the haunting. But gunfire, mortar rounds, artillery shells, and booby traps don't allow any perspective. I focused on the desperate need to survive that moment, capture a few hundred feet of hillside, a trench, a machine gun nest. If I survived one minute, I figured out how to deal with the next.

After years of trying to forget, of regretting many deaths, I have been handed the hero's mantle. I wear it uneasily. People have considerable expectations of heroes. We are not to falter in the spotlight; we are not to have made many mistakes in the past. Being a black American raises the ante.

"Black youth so desperately need heroes such as yourself," well-wishers constantly tell me, as if this is the ultimate compliment. It is not. It is the ultimate pressure to constantly re-examine memories long buried in emotional self-defense. It magnifies my shortcomings and my guilt.

I did not seek this final chapter to my life. I moved to a remote cabin in the backwoods of Idaho, with easy access only to good elk hunting, to escape attention. The Army came looking for me as part of its own self-examination. Its historians created this heroic image, and the media happily made additions. The public added another measure.

Once handed mythical stature, I have not been allowed to step out of the spotlight. Even if the mantle fits me as sloppily as a father's shirt fits his infant son, I am expected to stroll about my stage as if my outfit was tailor-made. If I ask for something more my size, I will be cast as ungrateful. And with enough hype, media attention, time as a poster boy for this cause or that, I have magically grown into the shirt, this stature. At least in the eyes of the public.

I am not an icon for any ideal. I am an old soldier, a loner, a man more fit to fight wars than deal with peacetime society. My mistakes are as numerous as any man's. My regrets likely loom larger.

My hero's mantle has been crafted out of carnage, the senseless sacrifice of young men and my mad-dog desperation to outlast the enemy and disprove the fiction that black soldiers were afraid to fight. It is not cause for national celebration nor the incarnation of heroes. It is reason for us to mourn our losses and question our motivations.

I love those nineteen men like no other souls. I cannot give their names, but I carry their faces in my mind with nagging clarity. They visit me in the night, or when I'm sitting on a downed tree awaiting an elk. Or when some other small event triggers a memory of what we shared. The faces say nothing. They only stare at me with the final look they gave death.

These men, these faces, are the reason I am here today, the reason I was selected for the Medal of Honor. They are the heroes.



ONE

All that troubles is but for a moment. That only
is important which is eternal.


-Inscription in Milan Cathedral

Summer 1944, Northern Italy

The August air was Louisiana thick and heavy as we picked our way across the Arno River on the remains of a bridge demolished by the retreating Germans. The jagged shards of concrete rose and dove in the muddy channel as if they were razorback tombstones rather than a passageway. This awkward jumble was the only option. We were in too much of a hurry to wait for the engineering corps to pull together a pontoon bridge. The river was all that stood between us and our crack at the shooting war.

The Arno runs at a pleasantly slow pace from the mountains of north central Italy, through Florence, down to Pisa and on west to the Ligurian Sea. It traverses cultivated fields, grape arbors, and the ever-present olive groves that stood sentry even when legions from the Byzantine era fought Germanic warriors here 1,500 years earlier. The chocolate water added one more stirring contrast to the collage of hazy blue mountains, deep-green fields, dusky trees, and glassy, aqua ocean.

The wrecked bridge was a regular element of the German's insurance policy-delay or divert us as long as possible-often taken to hideous extremes. The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, an ancient, stunning structure that is part art, part bridge, survived only because a German commander defied Hitler's orders to destroy everything as his troops pulled out. No telling what Der Führer planned for Michelangelo's works.

Standing within squinting distance of the leaning tower of Pisa, our company-Charlie Company-proudly led the 370th Infantry Regiment as it traversed the obstacle course over the Arno. Much of what remained of the bridge was submerged, making the crossing more swim than hike. Sergeant Willie Dickens, the diminutive company comic, ended up neck-deep in water, leaving visible only his head, his rigidly upthrust arms, and the submachine gun he was trying to keep dry. He reminded me of a cartoonish prairie dog who had just popped out of a burrow, holding its front paws high as if surrendering to the sheriff.

Dickens was from North Carolina or Mississippi, the way I remember it. He was the youngest of a large family that had subsisted with a team of mules on forty acres so pathetic that no white man cared that they were black folk with property. There hadn't been enough side pork, biscuits, and red-eye gravy to go around when Dickens was growing up, so the family didn't wring its hands when he joined the Army.

That story was repeated throughout my rifle platoon. Poor, black, rural Southern men with no other way to make a living. Men whose families had lived a Depression since the day they were freed from slavery. Poor, black rural Southern men with nothing to lose by being drafted into a segregated, racist Army and going to combat. The only exception among the enlisted men, in the rest of the 92nd Division, were members of an Army program that sent even black men to college to become engineers. When political uproar shattered the program, most went from student with slide rule to infantry private with rifle and sixty-pound field pack. The black officer ranks included a batch of second lieutenants like me-promoted from the enlisted ranks and run through Officer Candidate School because, unlike most of the rest of the men, I could read and write-or the occasional National Guardsman or ROTC graduate.

"Hey, Dickens, get off of your knees," the men hooted when they discovered that, for once, they could give the sergeant a hard time. Dickens always was dealing it out. So, faced with opportunity, we all joined in.

"Yeah, Dickens, you're a soldier. Remember, the Army moves on its feet."

Dickens shifted his submachine gun to one arm and made a stroking motion with the other, as if he were leisurely doing the front crawl stroke. He jutted his chin forward and upward, drew his thick lips and chubby cheeks to an exaggerated "O," and opened and closed his lips in a guppy-like pucker.

"You sorry soldiers just wish you could swim," Dickens retorted good-naturedly. That generated more catcalls.

"We just glad we not gonna drown pretendin'," Corporal Minor Martin sang back in his lyrical drawl. Martin grinned, surprised at himself for successfully getting a shot in at Dickens. His mischievous look magnified the cleft in his chin that women likely loved to run an index finger down.

Foolish as this clowning was, so close to enemy lines, we were lightheartedly enthralled. Dickens's antics defused the tensions we masked with bravado. He showed us that this was an outing, a lark. By the time we stopped to rest and pull slugs of tepid water from our canteens, we were giving the Germans three weeks to a month before they begged for surrender. Or skedaddled.

Dickens's humor also helped us feel less conspicuous in our stiff new field gear-not yet softened by sweat and months of nonstop use-that stood us in stark contrast to the weathered likes of the First Armored Division. No doubt an outsider would have seen similar contrasts between our fresh faces and the hardened, detached looks of the combat veterans.

The First Armored was our temporary home until the rest of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division could be rustled out of Arizona and dropped in Italy. Meanwhile, as the first black troops to go to combat for the United States in World War II, we were as awkward as boys in Sunday clothes meeting a girl's parents on the first formal date of our lives. Fidgety, goofy with pride, trying to wear it all under a poker face. And failing.

Our first day in enemy territory passed with our company untouched, although we heard the distant percussion of artillery and mortars. Cockiness notwithstanding, this thunder got the attention of my men. Unlike our training days, I never again yelled to get foxholes dug. Whenever we stopped for the day, the clink of shovels against stubborn Italian soil became automatic. And it was astounding what a little excavating did for our peace of mind. We could sleep knowing we had a burrow. It didn't matter whether that burrow was an ironclad guarantee of surviving the night.

War is built on such illusions. The illusion of strength, the illusion of immortality, the illusion of easy victory with invincible weapons. Or, from a shallow trench, the illusion of protection. Those early, bucolic days north of the Arno River strengthened our illusions.

Our mission was to push the German Panzer, paratrooper, and mountain expedition troops out of the northernmost third of Italy. We were supposed to accomplish this before winter with the help of the South African, Brazilian, British, Indian, Canadian, and free Polish forces strung eastward the width of the country. Never mind that a similar strategy failed miserably the previous winter, elsewhere in Italy, even before the Italian front was robbed of seven crack divisions and relegated to secondary status in the European war.

This strategic schizophrenia matched Italy's political shroud. Or perhaps was prompted by it. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, goaded by delusions of empire building, had officially joined forces with Hitler in 1940. By July 1943, the King of Italy and many of his subjects had a bellyful of fascism and its chief fanatic.

Continues...


Excerpted from Lasting Valor by Vernon J. Baker and Ken Olsen Excerpted by permission.
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Lasting Valor 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
MetalgoddessAMB on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Bittersweet story of a man who waited 50 years for recognition from the american military for his bravery and courage during a decisive battle in WWII. A true American hero. The only living Black solider from WWII to finally recieve the Medal of Honor.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago