Publisher: Bantam Books, 320 pages, 1999
By Vernon J. Baker with Ken Olsen
Reviewed by Lori Jablons
ome say its the meeting place of ghosts. I have to wonder if the ghosts are ours, writes Vernon J. Baker of Italys Castle Aghinolfi in Lasting Valor, his vividly examined autobiography as a lieutenant in the all-black 92nd Infantry during World War II.
Bakers heroism in the battle at the castle enabled the Allies to overtake the seemingly impenetrable German stronghold. His conduct gained him a Distinguished Service Cross; however, the Medal of Honor eluded him for more than 50 years. Baker was an exemplary soldier, leader and man. The singular reason for his 50-year-long wait to be acknowledged for bravery in fighting for his country was the color of his skin.
Three previous attempts at a frontal attack on Castle Aghinolfi were a dismal failure. The fourth assault had to succeed if the Germans were ever to be driven out of Italy. Baker was quite sure the fourth siege would be commanded by his platoon of black soldiers, and he proved right. He and his men were ready and eager to fight.
Built in the fifth century, the castle had modern armaments added: Cannons and mortars were installed in key turrets and towers. Military minds decided if they had heavy artillery in the castle, they could control the countryside. The castle ruled the mountain passes at the west of the Gothic Line and it almost abutted Highway 1, the road that the Allies needed to travel north to reach Genoa. The Nazis knew the terrain and were in expert command of it. On April 5, 1945, at 3 a.m., the 92nd set out for Castle Aghinolfi.
When the Germans began firing on the 47 men sent to overtake their stronghold, Capt. John Runyon, the white commanding officer of the 92nd, hid in a stone shed. Runyon was sitting on the dirt floor, knees pulled up to his chest, his arms wrapped around his legs. His face was translucent, the color of bleached parchment, Baker writes. Amid the thunder of mortars and the screams of the dying, Runyon asked Baker if the company was going to stay there meaning would they finish their mission or abort it. When Baker replied encouragingly that they were going to stay and finish what they set out to do, Runyon abandoned those in his command under the guise of going for reinforcements. Runyon told his commanding officer, however, when he arrived at command, that there was no reason to send reinforcements as the men were wasted.
The men were far from wasted. When Runyon abandoned his platoon, Baker and Sgt. Dandy Belk, so named for his meticulous style of dress, took over and rallied the remaining men to what was ultimately a bloody victory. Because of the advancement Baker and the 92nd made on Aghinolfi, the castle was overtaken and the Nazis flushed out. For his heroism in battle, Baker was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in a ceremony on July 4, 1945. Runyon was awarded the Silver Star for his participation in the battle, and when his nomination for the Medal of Honor was rejected, he instead received the Distinguished Service Cross. Although Bakers receipt of the Distinguished Service Cross made him the most decorated black soldier in the Mediterranean Theater, the Medal of Honor eluded him. What Baker would not find out until 1994 was that his Medal of Honor nomination had proceeded on channels during the war, but was stopped by certain unnamed white higher-ups, strictly against Army policy. All Medal of Honor nominations were to be forwarded to the War Department in Washington for review, with no exceptions.
The racism that Baker and his fellow black soldiers faced was insurmountable. The War Department had decided that white Southerners would command the black combat troops as, they know how to handle those blacks.
Baker, by his own admission, had grown into an angry young man. Being judged by the color of his skin rather than by the content of his character was not something he first experienced in the Army. Baker vividly recounts an exchange he had with his first boss, the owner of a barbershop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where Baker worked as a child shining shoes. After his first week, the owner asked Baker if he wanted a haircut, which the young boy did.
Baker was an exemplary soldier, leader and man. The singular reason for his 50-year-long wait to be acknowledged for bravery in fighting for his country was the color of his skin.
His offer came after closing time, after my polish, brushes, and rags were back in their box and after the other three barbers had gone home for the day. I expected the haircut to come sometime the following day, or later in the week, when business was slow. Instead, he crossed to the door and threw the deadbolt, hit the switch that controlled the juice for twisting the red, white, and blue barber pole out front, and pulled the shades. He walked to his chair, the one nearest the front door, and tapped the red leather back to indicate I should sit for the haircut right then.
Dont misunderstand, son, he said, sweeping the cape around me and tying it behind my neck. I want to give you haircuts. But if somebody walking down the street saw me cutting your hair? He gestured heavenward with open palms. I would lose my business. You know this is my livelihood. Only thing Ive known for nearly thirty-five years.
I shrugged, and he gently pushed my head forward and lathered up the back of my neck with shaving cream. I didnt understand.... Its fine for customers to ask, Whos your new nigger boy? But dont let them think they are going to have to dirty themselves by sitting in the chair where that new nigger boy was sitting.
That experience stuck. ... It went in that place in my mind where ... taunts were unintentionally filed. I didnt want the baggage. Somehow, it stayed around.
After the events of April 5 and 6, 1945, Vernon Baker left Italy and moved on with his life. He married, raised four daughters, continued his Army career, retired, mourned the passing of his wife, Fern, and eventually married again. In March 1994, Castle Aghinolfi, the place of ghosts, began to rebuild itself in the peaceful Idaho woods that was Bakers backyard.
It began with a phone call. A Shaw University professor named Daniel Gibran had been commissioned by the Secretary of the Army to determine why no black World War II veterans had ever received the Medal of Honor. Since Baker had received the Distinguished Service Cross, the professor wanted to review Bakers conduct and see if maybe he should have been awarded the Medal of Honor as well. Reluctant to relive the most horrific time in his life, Baker refused to meet with the professor. Gibran persisted and Baker acquiesced, realizing that his story should be told.
Gibran presented the lieutenant with an abundance of interesting and revelatory documents. Among them was a report by Runyon claiming successes on the battlefield 50 years earlier as his own, while maligning black soldiers. As Runyon wrote: In my opinion, the average colored soldier loses all control of his mind when subjected to overhead mortars and artillery fire. I also learned that the colored soldier is for some reason or other terrified to fight at night. His imagination and fear overcomes [sic] his judgment.
On January 13, 1997, Vernon J. Baker received the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II. The ceremony made the front pages of most major newspapers, with a photo of Baker shaking hands with President Clinton. Six others who had served with him were also bestowed with the medal. However, Baker was the only one who lived to attend the Washington ceremony.
While the passages in Lasting Valor on Bakers life from his early years in Cheyenne to his acceptance of the Medal of Honor are rife with pathos and wonderful imagery, the chapters on the attack at Castle Aghinolfi are particularly effective and suspenseful. The battle is recalled with impeccable detail from the calculated moves to take German machine-gun nests and the frenetic activity when the shelling began, to the inconsolable grief Baker experienced when he found nearly half his men were killed trying to take the castle. And though Baker took command of the mission after Runyon had left them all to die, and the next day the castle was taken from the Germans, Baker was not even immediately acknowledged for his immense courage. Instead, he was upbraided by regimental commander Colonel Raymond Sherman for not wearing a helmet. He looked me over and launched one of the better ass-chewings I ever received in the Army, Baker writes.
Vernon Baker recalls his life not just his time in the Army with a gift of prose many writers would sell their souls to possess. It is obvious the author has left his anger behind, as no angry man could tell this story with Bakers grace. As he sanguinely expresses: When I finally began dealing with my anger, and reflecting on my own agonizing experiences I realized that people of all races and walks of life had mistreated me. I also realized that people of all races and walks of life were quite good to me. Color doesnt determine how they will treat me.... I began evaluating people the way I wanted them to evaluate me.
Lasting Valor is the story of a man called to face an overwhelming duty, whose only tools were intelligence and integrity. It is the story of an extraordinary life, one we can all learn from and aspire to.