Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum

Book Review

Lasting Valor: The Story of the Only Living Black World War II Veteran to Earn America’s Highest Distinction for Valor, the Medal of Honor

Written by Vernon J. Baker
Published by Bantam Books; (February 1999)
ISBN: # 0553761986

The prologue begins with Vernon Baker’s thoughts about his participation in the war - “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 & fighting Germans was picking cotton.” He remembers the 19 soldiers he saw die & knows that the reason he received the Medal of Honor was due to their deaths. He thinks - “my hero’s mantle has been crafted out of carnage…” These dead soldiers nag his thoughts. He is a loner who moved to the back woods of Idaho to escape the attention from receiving the Medal of Honor. Nevertheless, he must wear the badge of honor to represent heroism for today’s youth.

His story is written like a diary with the date & location starting each chapter. It begins in the summer of 1944 in Northern Italy when Vernon Baker & men from the 370th Infantry Regiment arrived in the Arno River & learned to climb the rocky hills of Italy. Although they were preparing for war, he notes that his home was in the officers’ quarters aboard the USS Mariposa - a luxury liner turned troop ship that carried them from New York to North Africa & on to Italy.

His company - called Charlie Company - was poor, black, rural Southern men with no other way to make a living. The only exception among the enlisted men in the 92nd Division was the men who went through college programs to become engineers. The black officers’ rank included a group of second lieutenants - like Vernon Baker - promoted from the enlisted ranks who attended Officer Candidate School.

Regiments of the 92nd Division were the first black troops to go to combat for the US in World War II. Their first mission was to push the German Panzer, paratrooper & mountain expedition troops out of the northernmost third of Italy; but, the Germans did not go quietly. They fortified Italy with their best soldiers & 8,000 American soldiers were wounded, dead, or missing in the first month of the Italian campaign.

He describes marching up the gentle slopes of Mt. Pisano feeling like a boy scout. With few paved roads & pools of dust turning to pools of mud, mules were often used to maneuver through the mountains. Their job this night was to assess German strength; the soldiers were carefree & unaware until they were ambushed. Two men were dead & Baker felt lucky since they were unprepared. Shortly afterwards, a Sergeant Napoleon Belk joined their unit. He was with the troops that suffered many casualties in Bangi di Lucca, Moriano where serious German attacks occurred. His arrival was good news for the troops since he arrived on a supply truck.

The people in Italy were quite compassionate to the American soldiers. After one battle, with three loaded stretchers roped down & attached to the jeeps, the front doors of homes opened & Italian women & children with armloads of flowers poured out. In the Fall of 1944, his company moved to the west to Pietrasanta, Italy; they were positioned in the mountain village of Seravezza - called Boulevard 88 because the Germans saturated this route with highly accurate 88mm cannon fire. The destruction in these battlefields continued for months while thousands of Italians were caught between the US & German line. The German genocide moved to other areas including the Versilia & Massa-Carrara areas where at least 1,500 people were killed.

In October, 1944, his regiment, the 370th, was reassigned to the First Armored Division of the 92nd. They were ordered to take over a hillside house across a badly damaged bridge. During the take over, one of his men was killed. They decided to return across the bridge but the Germans opened fire. A rifleman was hurled from the bridge while Belk & Baker laid on the ground. As soon as it was dark, they reunited with the platoon. The next day under more gunfire, Baker was shot in the wrist. He spent two months in the Army hospital & received a Purple Heart.

Baker returned to the front the day after Christmas, 1944 & witnessed an American attack on the village of Sommocolonia under the direction of 1st Lieutenant John Fox who was black. Fox stayed at the observation post directing artillery to shield the American retreat. He ordered them to aim at the observation post & shoot; they did. When they found Fox’s body, they also found 100 German soldiers he had taken with him. It took 40+ years for the Army to recognize his courage with the Distinguished Service Cross & 52 years until John Fox received the Medal of Honor.

The front had changed since his stay in the hospital. What the Germans didn’t demolish with dynamite was razed by guns with 152mm cannons. Italian children regularly appeared out of nowhere & attached themselves to their platoons. After trust grew, these kids packed ammunition or completed undesirable chores the soldiers handed off. Baker resisted the idea of Emilio helping in the war. He had enough deaths on his hands without the weight of Italian children’s deaths, too. Emilio went anyway & in the battle, a bullet scarred the tissue under his nose. Baker was perplexed why he nor some of the others were not shot at; he later, surmised that Emilio’s light skin gave the Germans the appearance that he was the officer in charge. By killing him, the platoon would be in chaos. When Emilio left the hospital, he wanted to return to fight but Baker would not let his conscience get a second chance. Baker received the Bronze Medal for that mission. When he went to the battalion observation post, he learned that the intelligence officers could see everything from that post that he had been sent to find. In fact, they had watched the battle & could recount their every move. He felt that the Bronze Star was more an admission of his commander’s guilt rather than recognition of valor.

In April 1945, Japanese-American fighters from the 100th&the 442nd bounced from Italy to France to Austria, taking the most dangerous missions. They arrived to help take over the area called the “Triangle of Death.” Baker’s location was one leg of the triangle - Castle Aghinolfi & the Japanese troops were to invade the other two legs. Baker led his platoon up a hill & after a short break, bombs exploded on the land they had just climbed. They continued through the trees to the castle & spotted an unmanned 50 caliber machine gun. Baker shot the two men in gray Nazi uniforms who were sitting eating breakfast unaware of their presence. His platoon stole three miles behind the enemy line with no casualties. More battles continued & many American soldiers were killed or wounded on Hills X, Y & Z.

For the April 5, 1945 diary entry Baker says “Oblivious to the world around me. I shuddered & heaved… seeing the men you live with, eat with & fight beside blown to pieces, hour after hour, seizes your soul & finds the place where anguish lives, no matter how artfully you hide it.” He asks “Why did I coldly kill Germans one day & mourn the …people we had maimed & killed next? He tried to ignore his mind games.

After the war, the US trained 2,500 Italian men to defuse the mines throughout the hillsides of Hills X, Y&Z. It took three years & killed 1,000 men. Baker’s shooting war ended the day his platoon helped chase Germans from Castle Aghinolfi. He was summoned to Major General Almond’s office & ordered to write a report about the battles on the hills. Eventually, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross & was the most highly decorated black soldier in the Mediterranean.
In mid-July, Baker took a leave & went to Viareggio. One morning while walking to breakfast at the USO a few blocks away, the USO building exploded. He ran to the scene & helped put bodies on stretchers. Several men from his company were dead on the USO dance floor after enduring the battles at the castle.

In February 1947, he boarded the USS Henry P. Stevens to cross the Atlantic Ocean. They stopped in England & seven days later, he could see the Statue of Liberty in the New York harbor. There was no fanfare or confetti. Baker returned home to Cheyenne, Wyoming & bought a brown Chevy sedan. He moved to Lincoln, Nebraska & considered enrolling at the University under the GI Bill.

Eventually, he returned to a recruiting station & began his new career as an Army photographer & master sergeant. He was sent to Ft. Bragg near Fayetteville, NC where he finished jump school & graduated from NCO school at the top of his class.
Fayetteville was segregated & full of hate. His introduction to the city came when he walked a Fayetteville street & a colonel rammed himself in Baker’s face & told him to remove the DSC ribbon. Baker refused & told him to check the record. The colonel did not bother him after apparently checking the record.

The Korean War broke out in 1950. Baker went to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky& joined the 11th Airborne Division. He volunteered to go to Korea but the Army refused to send him because he had earned the DSC. (White soldiers who had the DSC had gone to Korea.) He wondered “Did the Army want a few decorated black soldiers around to prove it had a broad, inclusive outlook?”

The 11th Division took him places like Alaska to practice winter paratrooping. However, on September 10, 1951 the order to desegregate the 11th Airborne finally hit. In 1948, President Harry Truman’s decreed by executive order that the military desegregate but the Army had ignored the order. Being in an Airborne unit, he was able to make transitions & the military asked him to re-enlist in 1952. When the Korean conflict ended, he returned to the Signal Corps & photography. He went to Ft, Huachuca, Arizona to run the photo lab & married Fern Brown from Tucson, Arizona.

When Baker met Fern she talked little about her ex-husband. She & her four year old daughter were perfect for him. One day Fern’s ex-husband burst in the front door &pulled a revolver when he saw Baker & Fern. Baker dove across the floor, caught his midriff with his shoulder & jammed him into a small table lamp. He started swinging & moments later, Fern pulled Baker off of him. The former husband stumbled to his feet & they never saw him again. Fern & Baker were married the following summer - June 1953 & their daughter was born four days after Christmas. The memories about the war returned when Fern packed the household for the move to Ft. Ord, California. While on a house hunting tip, his white colonel was called in before the closing on their new home.

Baker dreamed of spending some time in Germany, so at age 47, he & his family moved to Mainz, Germany in the fall of 1967. About 6,000 American soldiers had been killed in the war when he arrived. Baker worked for the Red Cross & was dispatched to Vietnam in 1969. He lived in Pleiku, South Vietnam & spent hours in a helicopter, flying to the Army artillery bases strategically located on old volcanoes, to tell men of trouble back home - a parent was dead, a brother was killed, a girlfriend was pregnant. He later went to Da Nang. He spent about a year in Vietnam before returning to Ft. Ord.

In January 1986, Baker’s wife died at age 68 from a heart attack. He moved to Idaho where he could hunt elk & walk in the woods. For three years, he puttered, painted, sawed, hammered, reflected & healed. In March 1994, he received a phone call from a Shaw University professor conducting a study who asked why no blacks in World War II had received the Medal of Honor. The professor stated that the cases of the soldiers who received the Distinguished Service Cross were being reviewed to determine if they deserved the Medal of Honor. Baker participated in many difficult interviews & had to relive the details of his memories. Newspaper articles, television stories, letters from supporters & phone calls from churches & community groups were non-stop. In September 1996 Congress waived the 1952 deadline for WWII soldiers to receive honors. President Bill Clinton signed the legislation & held a White House ceremony in January 1997. When Baker met President Clinton he was glad he did not ask him about the war; he was sincere & treated him like a regular guy. When the President placed the Medal around his neck, Baker cried - he cried for the real heroes that he left behind on that hill in 1945. After the ceremony, they were whisked off to a luncheon at Ft. Meyer, Virginia where a galaxy of generals’ stars lined up to shake the Medal of Honor recipients’ hand. The next morning, they went to Arlington National Cemetery to visit a fellow soldier’s grave. Before the week ended, he would stand before a display in the Museum of American History that talked of the 442nd Infantry Division - the Japanese-American unit.

Vernon Baker was the only man among the black Medal of Honor recipients to survive to see this day. He was one of only two men in his platoon who were alive; the other was Napoleon Belk who was too sick to attend the ceremony. Belk ends saying “I do not welcome these memories but I do not shun the responsibility for carrying them. We did the best we could….”

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