“Lasting Valor” by Vernon J. Baker with Ken Olsen (Genesis Press Inc., 294 pp., $24.95)
“Lasting Valor” is a remarkable accomplishment.
Far more than a story of battlefield heroics, this book is an unflinching, sometimes bitter, look at a black American coming of age in the World War II era. The war scenes are riveting, but the landscape of Vernon J. Baker’s mind, still pockmarked after 50 years, is even more riveting.
“Lasting Valor” is Baker’s story of how he became the only living black World War II veteran to be awarded the Medal of Honor. It was awarded belatedly, last January, when the U.S. government finally made up for its longtime refusal to give World War II’s black heroes its highest honor.
In some hands, this book might have become a long, boring thank-you, stuffed with praise, self-congratulation and mellow feelings tempered by 50 years. Instead, this book is a catharsis in which Baker, now a resident of St. Maries, finally allows the feelings inside of him to come spilling out. Yes, he praises the brave men who fought with him and died. But he is as unmerciful toward the hypocritical Army of his time as he was toward the German machine-gunners he wiped out.
The book even contains what amounts to a stunning revelation at the end. It is set up earlier in the book, when Baker is unsparing in his bitter denunciations of his white captain, Capt. John F. Runyon, who spent most of the battle huddled fearfully in a hut and who then retreated and left his men to die.
Yet in the epilogue, Baker writes:
“Standing at that castle (the scene of the battle) in April 1997, I saw his retreat differently. If I had been in his boots, I, too, would have left. Abandoning the field at that point was a prudent move. He wasn’t a Buffalo soldier (a black soldier), a man who lived under the accusation of always running. He was a white man; he could leave with honor when the odds were overwhelming. We were Buffalo soldiers; we had to fight to the last man to retain any shred of dignity.”
This passage encapsulates Baker’s profoundly mixed feelings about his role in the war. He also admits what few other Medal of Honor winners would be willing to admit: That running may have been the smart thing to do.
Far less than half the book is about the war. I will admit to a sinking feeling when I realized that we had already experienced Baker’s key battle, at Castle Aghinolfi in northern Italy, and we were only on page 184 of a 294-page book. Yet it is a tribute to Baker and co-writer Ken Olsen that the non-war parts of the book will stick with me longest.
Here are just a few of the vividly told scenes from Baker’s life:
Young Vernon and his dog, heading out into the coulees outside his hometown of Cheyenne, Wyo., to walk and to read.
Young Vernon, newly arrived at Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home, treated with sensitivity by a lanky priest who turns out to be Father Flanagan himself.
Baker’s first encounter with Southern racism, when a Texas bus driver screams at him to “get to the back of the bus.”
A comical moment on patrol when he and his buddies gorge on abandoned German C-rations, only to find out later they were grubs.
The writing is compelling throughout, and the credit for that goes not only to Baker but also to co-writer Olsen, a Spokesman-Review staffer. The prose is lean and colorful and you’ll find yourself racing through the pages.
In the first two chapters, I felt that Baker and Olsen were overreaching at bit, trying to be too lyrical. One of the book’s first sentences begins: “The August air wore itself Louisiana thick and heavy as we picked our way across …”
What? Can air wear itself? Yet after the first few chapters the writers settle into a more natural rhythm and soon I was convinced that I was hearing the true, unvarnished voice of Baker himself. This is a credit to Olsen, too, because the job of a co-writer is to present the voice of the subject as accurately as possible. In addition, Olsen must have had at least something to do with Baker’s remarkable honesty and candidness; long-buried feelings such as Baker’s do not come out without prodding.
Racism is the constant theme of this book, and it’s a theme that is often dispiriting and ugly. Yet Baker does impart some hard-earned wisdom, learned mostly from his hard-working grandpa in overalls.
“Years later, when I woke up and realized how ugly anger made me, I realized Grandpa had taught me something about dealing with such wrong,” Baker writes. “Show quiet strength, as he had with the railroad strikers, and continue living honorably and patiently. Time and fate takes care of those who abuse.”
Baker’s belated Medal of Honor seemed to impart a similar lesson: Time rights all wrongs. Justice prevails.
But as anyone who reads this book will realize, it’s not that simple. Nowhere near that simple.
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