Waverly B. Woodson, Jr.

West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Waverly Woodson’s first Army portrait.  Photo: Courtesy of Joann Woodson

Waverly Woodson’s first Army portrait. 
Photo: Courtesy of Joann Woodson

Waverly Bernard "Woody" Woodson, Jr., left his studies at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University in his second year and enlisted in the Army on December 15, 1942. He won a spot in Anti-Artillery Officer Candidate School after passing an exam weighted heavily to favor whites. When he finished training, he 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. He was one of five medics aboard a Landing Craft Tank (LCT) that left England on June 5, 1944.

On the approach to Normandy, the LCT hit a mine and then was blasted by a shell, killing scores of men. Shrapnel sliced open Woodson’s buttocks and inner thigh. He was patched up and followed a tank onto Omaha Beach, machine gun fire spraying the sand as he ran. He found a tank roll in the water 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. As Linda Hervieux writes in Forgotten: “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 Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to seven African Americans. As Hervieux writes, “Waverly Woodson, the 320th’s undisputed hero, was not among them.

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. 

Waverly Woodson is buried at Arlington National Cemetery where American buries its heroes. Each May around Memorial Day, his widow, Joann, arranges the red roses her husband loved so much beside his grave. And then she falls to the grass and prays.
Photo: Linda Hervieux

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