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  • Lasting Valor
  • Written by Vernon J. Baker and Ken Olsen
  • Format: Paperback | ISBN: 9780553580624
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Lasting Valor

Written by Vernon J. BakerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Vernon J. Baker and Ken OlsenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ken Olsen

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Lasting Valor tells of some of the most dramatic acts of courage attempted in the entire Mediterranean theater during WWII–acts that resulted in Baker’s being awarded the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Cross. On April 15, 1945, as part of one of the last segregated outfits to go to war for the United States, Lieutenant Baker knew he and his men were being deserted when, during the battle for Castle Aghinolfo in Northern Italy, his white commander told him he was going for reinforcements. Caught three miles behind enemy lines, and with half their comrades in arms dead, they refused to turn and run. Although he was decorated for his efforts, the army quietly surpressed this action until 1997, when Baker was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

Lasting Valor also reveals Baker’s early life. An orphan raised by grandparents in nearly all-white Cheyenne, Wyoming, he survived a rocky adolescence and went on to live in Father Flanagan’s Home, and then to fight to join a segregated army. His years in the army are recounted, and give us a rare glimpse into the life of a World War II black infantryman. It is a powerful book; as The Washington Post praised: “Whites should read this book to learn of Baker's accomplishments against a background of severe prejudice. Blacks should read it for the heroism it reveals. Everybody should read it for the power of its narrative."

Excerpt

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 me he 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. The king deposed Mussolini and, in early September, made peace with the Allies. Mussolini fled to northern Italy with his black-shirted loyalist troops and established a fascist enclave behind the German lines my soldiers now faced.

Encouraged by Mussolini's rapid departure, and by victory in North Africa and Sicily, the Allies pounced on southern Italy the moment the king's treaty was announced. They believed the German Army--now largely deserted by the Italians--would retreat at least to the Alps as soon as the Allies touched Italian soil. But this was the first Allied landing on the European continent and the Germans did not go quietly or quickly. They fortified Italy with their best soldiers and extracted a bitter price for every bit of ground.

American forces alone sustained more than 8,000 wounded, dead, and missing in the first month of the Italian campaign. With the help of the worst weather on record, the Germans immobilized American, British, and Canadian troops the winter of 1943Ð44.

The Allies broke through German defenses in spring. The German's destructive retreat and the Allies' destructive advance obliterated nearly every building, vineyard, farm, and orchard along the way. Rome finally was liberated in June of 1944. Barely a month later, we black soldiers had arrived in Naples, at the shin of the Italian boot.

All manner of half-sunken ships still tangled the harbor. Listing cargo boats jammed against wrecked fishing vessels. Some ships sat perfectly upright--and half submerged. Others left only a bow or stern poking precariously from the water. The jumble was so thorough that our troop ship could not dock but pulled alongside the most convenient hulk. Our path to land was a haphazard network of catwalks and gang planks that crossed several of the ruined ships.

Not only had the Germans clogged the waterway with these scuttled ships during their retreat, but they demolished every dock in the port of Naples. The city lay in worse shape than its harbor. The Germans smashed the city water and sewer system, fouled the electrical lines, and tore apart anything else they guessed useful to their foes. They also exacted revenge on the Italians, whom they considered traitors, destroyed most of the museums and libraries. More than 200,000 books were doused with gasoline and torched.

The only public building left intact, the Naples Post Office, was rigged with a time bomb. A week after the Germans had departed, in October 1943, tons of explosives erupted during the busiest hour of the day. The blast had such force that the streets nearest the building heaved a tornado of cobblestones. More than a hundred men, women, children, and soldiers died. General Mark Clark, commander of the American's Fifth Army, barely escaped a similar fate. Soldiers discovered the 1,500-pound time bomb in the hotel he used for his headquarters shortly before it was set to go off.

Most of our brief stay in Naples entailed frustrating hours pulling our gear out of the ship holds and carting it over the precarious catwalk system to shore. And plenty of accompanying jokes about Army engineering.

We clambered into trucks and lumbered and jolted to an old volcano crater outside the city. The crater was rumored to be the traditional hunting grounds for the king. The bottom of this bowl afforded ample level territory for the 5,000 men of the 370th Regimental Combat team to set up camp alongside the newly arrived Brazilian Expeditionary Forces. And there was plenty of room left over.

A ring of rocky hills formed the perimeter of the crater and provided perfect terrain for Army busy work.

"Just like those Huachuca Mountains," the men grumbled as, day after day, we shouldered our packs for training hikes. "Up, down, up, down. Lieutenant," they asked me, "is this all we're going to do? We coulda stayed in that Arizona snake pit if we were just goin' to march around. We thought we were coming to fight Germans."

I had no answers.

This ritual persisted for ten days, probably to give Army brass time to decide where to send its first black combat troops. The only action we tasted was a German bombing raid on Naples, and that we heard more than we saw.

The infantryman's limousine, those huge, two-and-a-half ton trucks with the suspension of a concrete sidewalk and available only in dull Army green, finally reappeared at "camp crater" and gave false hope of ending our boredom. We repacked, reloaded our gear, and climbed on the trucks for an unknown destination.

"They find us another crater to climb?" the men joked. Again, I had no answers, but we all hoped this was it--our move to the front line.

Our convoy traced the coastline of the Tyrrhenian Sea on a narrow tree-lined road that passed war-gutted farmhouses, monasteries, and villages. These warnings of what was coming didn't register with us. The warm Mediterranean day and the rolling, green farm fields rushed our senses with a dash of euphoria about the notion of going to war. Everyone who longs to be a soldier should be blessed with the good fortune of such conditions, we decided.

Our journey ended near the small port city of Civitavecchia, on a gentle stretch of coastline that melded easily into the ocean. Another week of waiting included hours of checking weapons, C-Rations, and munitions and learning to live with the taste of warm canteen water flavored with Army-issue purification tablets. My buddy, Harry Cox, hasn't chanced a drink of water since.

One night, while camped near Civitavecchia, we heard the nonstop rumble of Allied airplanes taking load after load of soldiers from Italy to join the invasion of southern France. We felt excitement reverberating earthward from that impressive airborne flotilla, not realizing we had lost seven top-notch divisions from our front to the French front, seven divisions sorely missed by the time winter hunkered in.

Eons later, new orders told us to whittle our belongings to the essentials of battle and pack the rest for storage. I went to my tent and levered open the big, battered brown suitcase I'd dragged overseas. With great care, I folded and packed my pinks and greens, as we called our dress trousers and shirts, along with my few civilian clothes.

Many of the men lingered over the task, sorting through letters and personal belongings. Most of them kept something small to remember home or family--a special letter or the sweat-stained, creased black-and-white photograph that was bragged around the platoon a minimum of a dozen times. Most men tolerated others' stories and photographs because they wanted the chance to show off their own mementos.

I kept nothing. My family never had money for pictures, everyone but my sisters were gone, and Helen hadn't written a word since I'd left Camp Rucker, Alabama--much less sent anything I could carry as a keepsake of our bond. Helen was my wife, but my estimation that time and distance would strengthen her feelings for me was flawed. It was as if, in her eyes, I was already a combat fatality.

The Italian heat was mindful of twenty-five-mile forced marches in the Arizona desert with fully loaded field packs, and that staved off the inclination to tote much more than memories anyway. I soon put those away, in a place far off in my mind, in order to function in battle. Focus and fortitude, not sentiment and memories, propel the infantryman.

Officers received a kind of shoulder satchel, called a musette bag, instead of field pack. I easily managed to fit in a spare olive-drab Class A uniform--our battle dress--my Eisenhower jacket, a pair of long johns, and a few field manuals. One of the perks of being a second lieutenant was that my bedroll and other essentials were supposed to arrive with the supply trucks each night instead of burdening my back. A rarely fulfilled promise. The worse the weather became, the longer the lag between the troops and these trucks. I saw far more of the Italian mud than I did of my bedroll. Often I borrowed a blanket from an enlisted man or relied on the generosity of an Italian villager.

A few months into our war, I lost a musette bag with several souvenirs, including a German luger, when the jeep carrying my bag hit a mine. I didn't care much about the stuff. The death of the men in the jeep, supply sergeant, Frankie Washington, and his driver, Zach Lewis, ripped at my guts.

It was an accidental friendship that began the first time I handed them my musette bag and Lewis ribbed me about its contents. Washington chimed in. We established a deep rapport and ate supper together and talked of home anytime we could. They were the sort of men I made the mistake of believing I'd spend time with after the war. Their deaths taught me to quit thinking about "after the war."

After several days of preparation at Civitavecchia, we piled into the ever present Army trucks and spent another couple of days grinding our way to the front. We rode with less anticipation, considering our weeks of disappointment. Well after dark that second day, the Army deposited us east of Pisa, on the south side of the Arno River, on the edge of our shooting war.

Despite the previous winter's failures and setbacks, our commanders expected us to do in a matter of months what better trained, more experienced troops had not been able to accomplish in a year. We were perfect to throw at the task. Few of us knew what had transpired at Salerno, Anzio, Monte Cassino, and the rest of Italy. And we hadn't spent enough time in Naples to fully appreciate that we were headed for the same menacing embrace.

Beyond running the Germans out of the mountains, our task was tying down maximum number of enemy troops so they couldn't be sent to other major fronts. Our commanders didn't share that part of the mission with us. But it may explain, in hindsight, why we were repeatedly thrown into senseless frontal attacks.

That came later. Early on, we deluded ourselves into thinking the Germans didn't know our position and that we stealthily tracked them for the easy kill.

At first our progress was an agreeable four or five miles a day, north from the Arno River. We marched up the gentle slopes of Mount Pisano feeling no more peril than a Boy Scout troop. We claimed the mostly abandoned German bunkers and observation posts for ourselves. It was disappointing. We expected to at least kill or capture some Germans. It would be cheap to waltz into Switzerland without a few harrowing tales to tell.

Harrowing for the Germans and never for us. We didn't even plan to bother with prisoners. On the voyage to Italy my platoon leaders and I had settled on a more simple course.

Officers had the privilege of bunking, two-to-a-room, in the cabins above deck on the U.S.S. Mariposa, the luxury liner turned troop ship that took us from New York to North Africa and on to Italy. During the day I fought the inevitable boredom by dropping into the holds to visit my platoon. I hoped familiarity could breed trust and tried to build a feeling that we needed to hang together and fight for each other in order to survive. Keeping them occupied also kept them from gambling and other trouble.

My platoon sergeant and the four squad leaders formed a rough circle--sitting on their berths, sprawled out on the floor, or leaning against the columns of floor-to-ceiling bunks--and we talked hour after hour in the sweltering, stagnant air of the crowded hold. My men made a dashing lot, most with pencil-thin mustaches and jaunty smiles. All dwarfed my five feet five inches, one-hundred-forty-five-pound frame, and if I hadn't been strong, wiry, and self-confident, I'd have made a weak-kneed effort as a platoon leader.

Most of these men were older than I was. Most grew up expecting the racism that continued to shock and surprise me. In our lighter moments, they made fun of the way I talked, accusing me of having a strange accent, of mispronouncing my R's. The teasing over my Wyoming inflection felt fine. I took it as their indirect way of showing they accepted me.

The experience was easily more mystifying for me than for them. I had never spent so much time in close contact with so many black people. During my three years in the segregated Army I had kept to myself as much as possible, uncomfortable with a situation growing up in the rural West did not prepare me for.

My platoon sergeant, Jacy Cunigan, mostly sat quietly during our conversations, his eyes somber, his words measured and authoritative. I could see my grandfather in his serious ways and warmed to that likeness.

Corporal Martin was the opposite, both with his boyish face and his unabashed demeanor.

"Lieutenant," he asked, clasping and unclasping his hands as he rocked forward on his bedside seat, "when we get over there into the fightin', are we going to take any prisoners?"

"No, corporal, not if we don't have to," I replied.

The other men nodded in agreement, voicing their approval. In our minds, we had already overwhelmed enemy lines; we were immortal, untouchable, and too busy crushing our foes to be burdened with taking custody of whoever miraculously survived our perilous onslaught. We loved war, as only men who have not experienced it can.

That seemed sage foresight as we moved from our easy overrun of Mount Pisano to a broad valley floor littered with the remnants of German tanks and trucks, and plodded through half-tended farm fields toward the Serchio River and the city of Lucca. It was a classic medieval north-central Italian city. Narrow cobble streets that refused to allow two vehicles side-by-side. Clay-tile-capped white, gray, and pink adobe buildings crowded so tightly together that a toothpick couldn't find a space between them. At least the buildings that were standing.

The Germans had reduced most of the city to rubble. Our advance artillery did the rest. My platoon found practically nothing, not even frightened peasants, as we filtered building-to-building looking for any remaining Germans. Only a few startled chickens were flushed out.

We forged through the verdant Serchio River valley, toward Mount San Quirico and Ponte a Moriano, going as far as our feet would take us. Here the settlements were more typical topographically, hanging off hillsides from where centuries of warfare had taught the natives they would best survive and repel intrusion.

But we were not repelled. This was part of the German plan. In reality, they were observing our every footstep and eventually sucked us in, again and again, with the same tactic. They fell back, we advanced, and they closed in and kicked the stuffing out of us. Our progress depended upon whether the Germans were falling back or kicking us. Our best gain soon was measured in city blocks, if we advanced at all.

By some miracle, however, my platoon and my company were escaping casualties. War didn't feel deadly. We continued to be heady about this outing.

The U.S. Army came to Italy with other illusions. One was that the jeep, truck, and tank could take us anywhere. The other was that we could pound any German position to pieces, in a matter of hours, with enough mortars or artillery. We weren't prepared for the Italians' thick stone-and-adobe construction, perfected through centuries of invasion and siege. Our supposedly modern weapons carved numerous pocks in the outer layer of stone and rough adobe. Piercing it required a much more dedicated pounding, which made it that much more difficult to dislodge the Germans.

As for easy motoring through Italy, there were few "paved" roads in all of northern Italy, and they were heavily defended. The summer and fall dust was so deep everywhere else that we felt as if we waded more than we marched. If there was a road passable to tanks, top speed was a few miles an hour. Anything faster created lofty rooster tails of dust--a magnet for enemy gunners.

As we advanced up the mountain valleys, we found the circuitous tracks often too narrow for a jeep. When fall turned to winter, the legendary pools of dust became axle-sucking pools of mud. Mules, not motors, kept us maneuvering through the mountains.

This was workable but considerably less desirable. Not only were mules slower to resupply us than trucks, they hauled a lot less. The errant mule occasionally pitched over the side of a steep switchback, taking the rest of the train and our supplies on a one-way trip to oblivion. And a mule train loaded with ammunition was a skittering, unpredictable bomb when German mortar rounds and artillery shells found us. Ammunition trucks could be abandoned. Mules had to be controlled lest their panniers caught a spark and the frightened mule danced shrapnel from its exploding load through an entire company. Fortunately, most Italian mule skinners had the steel to unload their animals under the most withering deluge while the rest of us selfishly looked for cover.
Vernon J. Baker|Ken Olsen

About Vernon J. Baker

Vernon J. Baker - Lasting Valor
Orphaned at age four, Vernon J. Baker 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, worked as a railroad porter. He fought to join a segregated army, and was sent to Italy 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 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 Read Cross. Today, he lives in Northern Idaho with his wife. Heidy.

About Ken Olsen

Ken Olsen - Lasting Valor
Journalist Ken Olsen also grew up in Wyoming. He is an award-winning writer from Spokane, Washington Spokesman-Review, which featured his widely hailed series on Vernon Baker. His free-lance work includes essays published in the Left Bank series of literary anthologies produced by blue Heron Publishing Co. He also is the coauthor of a winter guide to Yellowstone National Park. Mr. Olsen, his sweetheart, Samantha, and their faithful dogs live in northern Idaho.

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