It was still dark on the morning of June 6, 1944, as Corporal Waverly Woodson squinted into the distance. For hours, he had stared into the blackness. From the deck of the boat somewhere in the English Channel, the young medic could see little. Thick clouds seemed to press in from all sides and Woodson, soaked and weary, found serenity, even beauty, as the first light of dawn striped the eastern sky. All around him, the greatest armada of ships ever assembled was steaming toward the French coast, and planes buzzed overhead. It would be Woodson’s last moment of peace on this very long day.
Two years earlier, Woodson had had left his studies at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University in his second year and enlisted in the Army. The United States military, like much of the country, was segregated. One of the few integrated sectors of military service was officer training. Given the Army’s well-documented low opinion of black men as intellectually and physically inferior to whites, commanders did not bother to create a separate school for black officers. They believed that there would be too few African Americans smart enough to win admission. One 20-year-old man who did qualify was Waverly Bernard "Woody" Woodson, Jr., who enrolled in Anti-Artillery Officer Candidate School after passing an exam weighted heavily to favor whites.
When he finished the program, Woodson learned there were no positions open to him in the AAA corps. Instead, he was sent for training as a medic in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion.
On the morning of the D-Day invasion, he was one of five medics aboard a Landing Craft Tank (LCT) steaming toward Omaha Beach. The medics would be the first African Americans ashore. On the approach to beach, Woodson’s LCT hit a mine and then was blasted by a shell, killing scores of men. Shrapnel sliced open Woodson’s buttocks and inner thigh. A fellow medic patched him up. The ramp fell with a bang and Woodson splashed into four feet of water. Just ahead of him, a tank crawled onto the beach and burst into flames, its crew doomed. Woodson ran, machine gun fire spraying the sand. He found a tank roll in the water and set up a medical station in the shelter of the shingle, the rocky embankment that provided some cover from the German gunners tucked in the rocky bluffs. Under withering fire, Woodson worked through his pain and saved many lives. He pulled out bullets, patched gaping wounds, and dispensed blood plasma. He amputated a right foot. When he thought he could do no more, he resuscitated four drowning men. Thirty hours after he set his boots on Omaha Beach, Woody Woodson collapsed.
Woodson was taken to a hospital ship, where he was treated for his wounds. Three days later, he asked to go back to the beach. In a news release dated August 28, 1944, the Army recounted Woodson’s heroics and noted that he “was cited by his commanding officer for extraordinary bravery on D-Day.” News of Woodson’s heroics spread. The black press hailed him as “No. 1 Invasion Hero.”
Unbeknownst to Woodson, he was nominated for the Medal of Honor. A sole existing record tells the story. It is a note believed to be written by Philleo Nash, an assistant director in the Office of War Information, to Jonathan Daniels, a White House aide. Nash writes that Woodson’s commanding officer had recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross, but the office of U.S. Gen. John C. H. Lee in Britain upgraded the recommendation to the highest decoration. Nash wrote:
“Here is a Negro from Philadelphia who has been recommended for a suitable award. … This is a big enough award so that the President can give it personally, as he has in the case of some white boys.”
In the end, Woodson received the Bronze Star, the fourth-highest award. There is no record of what happened to Woodson’s high honor.
More than one million African Americans served in World War II yet not one received the Medal of Honor. An independent Army investigation in 1995 concluded that pervasive racism was to blame. On Jan. 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to seven African Americans. Waverly Woodson, the 320th’s undisputed hero, was not among them. Woodson died in 2005. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where every Memorial Day his marble headstone is adorned with red roses that his widow, Joann, trims with care.
“It is never too late to say thank you," President Barack Obama said in June 2015, when he awarded the Medal of Honor to Henry Johnson, an African-American hero of World War I. Now it is time to honor Waverly Woodson. If you agree, please "sign" this online petition begun by his family here.