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Vernon J Baker

May 2, 2004

'Beyond Glory'

"BEYOND GLORY," adapted from Larry Smith's oral history of the same name (published by W. W. Norton), is the rare play that summons up the actual experience of fighting in a war. Most plays that touch on the subject — the current "Embedded," "Mrs. Farnsworth" — are written from the perspective of a critic. But this solo docudrama features heroic stories from seven American veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, all of whom have won the Medal of Honor. The actor Stephen Lang adapted the book and performs the monologues through May 31 in the theater of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Among those portrayed are the former vice presidential candidate James B. Stockdale and Vernon J. Baker, an African-American soldier who, in the following excerpt, describes training and combat in World War II.

I was on the bus to Camp Wolters, and I put my duffel down and went to take a seat and the bus driver said, "Get out of that seat, nigger, and get in the back where you belong!" Now, if it had gone to fisticuffs, which it could have, I probably would have gotten killed. They probably would have hanged me — I mean, Texas was pretty bad then. But I kept my temper in check. It wasn't easy at the time, but I remember something else my grandfather told me. . . . "Don't hate. Because if you hate, hate will destroy you."

After basic I was sent to Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where because I could read, write, spell and operate a typewriter I was made a company clerk. Then sometime in '42, a white officer, I don't recall his name, told me to sign up for officer candidates' school, so I did. I was commissioned a second lieutenant on Jan. 11, 1943. See, what was happening was, they were organizing an all-black division, the 92nd. It was the Buffalo Division, and we were Buffalo Soldiers, a name given to black units during the Indian wars because our black skin and nappy hair made them think we were buffaloes.

This is June or July of '43 and the division had come together at Fort Huachuca, and on this particular day all the officers were called up to headquarters. At the time when you went to headquarters and you were black, even if you were an officer, you went in the back door. You don't walk in the front door at division headquarters. On this particular day, they wouldn't even let us in the back door, so we were sittin' under a tree, and the chief of staff, I can't remember his name, I don't want to remember his name, came out, gathered us all together and said: "Well, you know why we're all here. We're getting organized. All the white boys have been going overseas, and now it's time for you black boys to go get killed." Time for you black boys to go get killed. That what he said.

The entire Buffalo Division crossed the Atlantic without an escort, landed in Naples, and from there up the west coast of Italy, toward Pisa, Lucca and the front lines. Our first four months in combat was nothing but night patrols. Reconnaissance. They said blacks couldn't fight at night, but that's all we did. I lost three men early on, and I mean I lost them because I placed them in a bad position. They were exposed. It was stupidity on my part. I still feel it.

Combat is a learning thing. If you give an order and people get hurt or killed, you better learn from that, and keep it in the back of your mind. Watch out for that kind of situation and don't repeat it. If you repeat your mistake, you shouldn't be giving orders, because somebody's gonna get killed.   

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