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Lasting Valor, by Vernon Baker and Ken Olsen, Genesis Press, Columbus, Ohio, $24.95.

To be awarded the Medal of Honor because of an exceptional act of courage during combat is an extraordinary event and highly unlikely for the average soldier. For an African-American soldier during World War II (in a segregated army) to receive the Medal of Honor was even more unlikely.

The odyssey of Lieutenant Vernon Baker began with his childhood in Wyoming and the loss of his parents. He spent his early years in a Wyoming boardinghouse operated by his grandparents. After hearing a marching band from Father Flanagan’s Boys Town, he asked his grandfather if he could be sent to the home to learn how to play music, further his education and escape the adolescent gangs that caused him to get into trouble. After two years, Baker became disillusioned with the orphanage and returned home to the boardinghouse. He worked as a shoeshine boy and a porter on the railroad, and it must have seemed as though he had not much of a future ahead of him.

Baker joined the Army in June 1941. After 28 years of active duty, he became a representative of the Red Cross and was assigned to South Vietnam. His story is that of a black man in America attempting to make a life for himself during a turbulent and ever-changing climate of segregation, prejudice and acceptance.

Baker’s formative years were strongly influenced by his grandfather–a simple, straightforward man who taught him the values of common sense and quiet simplicity. Baker’s life is like that of many young men in the years before World War II. In the late 1930s the Midwest was rife with joblessness. Baker was intelligent, could write well and chose a career in the military after deciding not to attend college. His biography is filled with honest self-examination of his many failures, his often poor relationships with women, and his bitterness at the Army and commanding officers over prejudicial treatment. These events deeply affected his outlook on life. He fought his own demons and inner struggles by escaping into the north woods of Idaho, seeking a self-healing process in hunting, fishing and isolation. He buried the awful experience of watching men die in battle who were considered second-class citizens by the nation for which they fought.

During World War II, Baker distinguished himself in the now famous 92nd Infantry Division in northern Italy. Lieutenant Baker led a platoon of 25 men into a heavily defended area near Viareggio, on April 5-6, 1945. Of the 25 men in Baker’s platoon, 19 were killed. Baker braved continuous enemy fire as he led his men in an assault against heavily defended Castle Aghinolfi. For his heroism, the young lieutenant was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and Purple Heart. The DSC was eventually upgraded by a military board, and Lieutenant Baker was finally awarded the Medal of Honor by President William Jefferson Clinton on January 13, 1997. It was an honor that was totally unexpected by Baker and difficult for him to accept after so many years. Six other African-American members of the armed forces received the Medal of Honor posthumously that day.

After Baker received his medal, he stated: “War, however, is a most regrettable proving ground. For the sake of my 19 comrades, I hope no man, black, white, or any color ever again has the opportunity to earn the Medal of Honor. War is not honor. Those who rush to launch combat, and those who seek to create heroes from it, should remember war’s legacy. You have to be there to appreciate its horrors. And die to forget them.” This biography is an important contribution to the overall history of the American armed forces.

Gerald R. Costa