D-Day, June 6, 1944, is known as the longest day. Today we look at the invasion and a renewed effort to recognize a hero’s valor.
Waverly B. Woodson Jr. of Pennsylvania was in his second year of college when he enlisted in the Army a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He tested high enough for Officer Candidate School, but after basic training was told there were no spots available.
Instead, Woodson trained as a medic for the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, an all-Black unit that would eventually be a part of the D-Day landing and receive a commendation from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe.
On D-Day, 320th members were dispersed over 100 landing craft and had balloons in the air by 11 a.m. during the invasion. Barrage balloons were a new technology that performed well at protecting cargo lines and troops on the beach from constant attacks by German aircraft.
But Woodson’s training as a medic got him detached from the 320th and moved to a landing craft with tanks landing in the early morning of the invasion.
Wounded and saving lives
Woodson told the Associated Press in 1994 about how his landing craft hit a mine on the way to Omaha Beach. “The tide brought us in, and that’s when the 88s hit us (German artillery). They were murder.
“Of our 26 Navy personnel there was only one left,” he said. “They raked the whole top of the ship and killed all the crew. Then they started with the mortar shells.”
Woodson’s groin and back were injured by shrapnel, so he patched himself up before leaving the landing craft and then got to work.
Woodson worked for 30 hours.
He set limbs, removed bullets, amputated a foot and dispensed plasma. He revived several men who nearly drowned.
By some estimates, he treated about 200 men that day. He eventually collapsed from his own injuries. But days later he requested to go back to his unit.
Woodson told ABC News in 1994: “There is no hero, it’s just that you’re there and you do what you can. There is no such thing as a color barrier if I’m sitting here with material that you need as a White person. A bullet will kill you, it’ll blow your head off.”
Woodson’s commanding officer recommended him for a Distinguished Service Cross, but the office of Gen. John C. H. Lee determined Woodson’s actions were worthy of the Medal of Honor. Neither happened. Committees in Congress during segregation in the 1940s would not approve them.
The U.S. Army did award Woodson a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, which is significant.
The criteria for Medal of Honor recipients is “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” But for Congress to approve the award, it usually reviews several written witness accounts, which in Woodson’s case, it doesn’t have now.
In 1973, a fire burned the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and 16 million to 18 million official military personnel files went up in smoke.
So, Woodson has even less of a paper trail for people to follow. (That he wasn’t with his own unit on D-Day already complicated things.)
More than 1 million African Americans served in World War II and not one received the Medal of Honor at the time.
But in 1997, after a four-year study of military records, President Bill Clinton awarded seven African American World War II veterans the Medal of Honor, only one was still alive. Woodson was not included. Those who received the award were previous recipients of the Distinguished Service Medal and were upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
After the war, Woodson finished his degree, rejoined the Army during the Korean War and left in 1952 as a staff sergeant. Woodson worked as a medical professional in his civilian career. He died in 2005 at 83. Woodson’s widow, Joann, advocates for her husband’s valor because she says it matters that Black heroes are recognized alongside their White comrades-in-arms during a war to defeat fascism and ethnic genocide.
After Linda Herviex’s book, “Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War,” was published in 2015, momentum began to increase for recognizing Woodson’s valor. In September 2020, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., introduced “a bill to authorize the president to award the Medal of Honor to Waverly B. Woodson Jr., for acts of valor during World War II.”
An online petition:
The petition was started by the Woodson family: sign.moveon.org/petitions/congressional-medal-wwii
If interested, encouraging your representatives to vote in favor of the bill could help, supporters say.
Source: Orange County Register