‘Hot Steel’: Lee’s Summit romance novelist Fran Baker memorializes late husband’s World War II battalion

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LEE’S SUMMIT, Mo. — Fran Baker is a romance novelist by trade, but she made a foray into nonfiction as an homage to her late husband, Vincent Baker, and the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion’s exploits in World War II.

The Kansas City, Missouri, native now lives in Lee’s Summit. Her husband died in 2015, but not before she penned “Hot Steel,” which chronicles the battles Vincent and his battalion fought through North Africa, Sicily and eventually as part of the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944.

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“He named this,” Fran said. “They used to call it ‘highways of hot steel.’”

Dale Messing/KSHB
Fran Baker is a romance novelist by trade, but her nonfiction book, “Hot Steel,” pays tribute to her husband, Vincent Baker (pictured), and the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion’s exploits in World War II.

Baker started writing romance novels in the late 1970s after taking a creative writing class with her mom and meeting other authors in the growing genre.

Her mom was grieving her father’s death and found creative writing helpful. After the death of her oldest son and a stepdaughter in a car crash, Fran joined her mom and discovered a new vocation.

“We didn’t start out thinking of writing romance, but we wound up writing it,” said Fran, whose best-selling works include the Historical Romances “Once A Warrior” and “The Talk of the Town.”

Vincent became a Jackson County Circuit Court judge in 1981, but that didn’t stop his friends from teasing him about his wife’s books.

“The guys would give him a nudge, because I think they thought ‘uh-huh,’” Fran said.

But “Hot Steel” was different.

Fran was 20 years younger than Vincent when they were married and, initially, he seldom talked about the war until 1984.

That’s when Fran convinced him to return to Normandy, France, for the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

Vincent was blown from his landing craft and into the English Channel when the ramp on LCT 29 hit a mine approaching Omaha Beach.

Vincent lost his rifle and feared he’d be sucked into the engine and killed.

“The skipper leaned over and he said, ‘Do you need some help?,’” Fran recalled. “He said, ‘Yes,’ so he threw him a rope and pulled him back on the LCT and said, ‘Just a minute before you go.’ He went back and he came out and he had a bottle that had been full of bourbon that had about that much (half) left in it. He gave this to Vince and he said, ‘You’re gonna need this.’”

Vincent served as a forward artillery observer for the 58th and was injured five times during the war. He received two Purple Hearts with two oak-leaf clusters and two Bronze Stars with a V device for valor among many more awards and commendations.

“Gen. Omar Bradley thought they were the best artillery in the Army — and they were,” Fran said. “I mean, the things they did, it’s just incredible.”

As Vincent opened up more about the war, Fran came across several boxes packed away in the basement with paperwork, medals and more artifacts from World War II and his time with the 58th.

“The more I put together, the more I found,” Fran said. “I thought these have to be put together — all of it — and that’s what (“Hot Steel”) is.”

Fran finished the book in 2014, a year before Vincent died. Reading the names of friends he’d lost during the war in Fran’s work left him speechless, she said.

“That made him tear up,” Fran said. “I mean, there were parts of it where he lost friends and it was really difficult for him, but he was glad I did it.”

Thanks to “Hot Steel,” the sacrifices and bravery of the 58th lives on as the march of time continues to exact a toll on the Greatest Generation.