Un general, four members of Congress, a writer…, this should give due recognition to the bravery of Waverly B. Woodson Jr. This African-American nurse is one of the unsung heroes of Omaha Beach where he landed , on June 6, 1944, which the American army did its best to forget.
It’s not every day that General Thomas S. James Jr. takes the front line. The Commander of the First United States Army took the feather in the Washington Post, June 20, to right the injustice done to Corporal Waverly B. Woodson Jr: “More than any other, [son] story moved me and broke my heart ”, he writes, evoking the lack of loyalty of the institution to which he belongs to this black soldier.
“History has largely forgotten the approximately two thousand black soldiers who were at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach on June 6, 1944”, underlines Linda Hervieux, author of Forgotten : The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War (Harper Collins Publishers, in English), in which she mentions the journey of Corporal Woodson. The world recalled in 2009 that 143 black soldiers are buried in the cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer (Calvados), overlooking Omaha Beach.
Facing the Nazis and Racial Segregation
The injustice suffered by Waverly B. Woodson is a reflection of the racial segregation within American society. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he was prevented from studying medicine and joined the army with his brother Eugene on December 15, 1942. Admitted to an officer training school, he cannot exercise this function of command: under the Jim Crow laws (promulgated by the Southern States to hinder the effectiveness of the constitutional rights of African-Americans, acquired after the war Secession), then a black cannot command white soldiers.
He trained as a nurse before being incorporated into 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only combat unit made up of blacks – commanded by white officers – to participate in the D-Day landings. Even before reaching the beach, the barge where he is located is hit by a shell. He is injured in the groin and lower back. There he received first aid and reached the beach, where he managed to set up a first aid station. During the next thirty hours, he will extract bullets, heal wounds, transfuse plasma, amputate a foot, revive four drowning men.
In the process, his superior recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross, the second most important medal of the army, awarded to anyone who has distinguished himself by a heroic act. In the United Kingdom, General John CH Lee believes that Woodson’s actions deserve more, namely the Medal of Honor, the highest American military honor, presented by the President of the United States. The army which refused him an officer post issues a press release praising a “Modest black American soldier” who has “Helped to treat more than two hundred wounded on the D-Day landing beaches in France”.
The African-American press recounts his exploits and sees in him the “Number one hero of the D-Day”, recalls Linda Hervieux. The journalist unearthed a note prepared by the War Department of 1944 for the White House noting that Corporal Woodson deserves the Medal of Honor and suggesting that the President “Give it to him personally”. This distinction is supposed to reward “Bravery and fearlessness at the risk of the soldier’s life, beyond the call of duty. It is neither more nor less what Woodson did in Omaha Beach ”, underlines the general in the Washington Post.
The medic ultimately only received the Bronze Star, the fourth highest honor for bravery, heroism and merit in the US military, as well as the Purple Heart, because he was injured. “The only reason not to award him the Medal of Honor is due to racism in the ranks of the army in 1944”, observe Linda Hervieux. “It is almost certain that Waverly B. Woodson was denied the highest award. (…) because of his skin color “, nods General Thomas S. James. Indeed, of the 472 Medals of Honor awarded during the Second World War, none was awarded to a black soldier. Yet of the more than 16 million American soldiers, over 1.5 million were African Americans.
After the war, Waverly Woodson returned home, but no medical school accepted blacks. A reservist, he was recalled for the Korean War and had to train military doctors in combat. When he arrives at his duty station, the officers realize that he is black, he is reassigned. He remained in the army until 1952 and left it with the rank of master sergeant, before working for the American Military Medical Center of Walter Reed, then the American Institutes of Health.
Recognition by France, support for elected representatives in Congress
Recognition will come late. In 1994, when France invited three American veterans to the ceremonies of the 50e D-Day anniversary to present them with commemorative medals. Waverly Woodson is one of them. “I suppose it bothered him a bit that his own country had never honored him like the French did”, said his wife, Joann. “He was very proud to have been invited”, recalls Linda Hervieux. In 2009, one of his brothers in arms, William Dabney, received the Legion of Honor.
Waverly Woodson died on August 12, 2005 at the age of 83, without having received the Medal that was claimed for him. The army explained that its file could not be reexamined, because in 1973, many archives of the Second World War were destroyed in the fire of the center of the archives of the personnel of the army, in Saint-Louis ( Missouri).
In addition to Linda Hervieux who helped publicize her story, the Democratic Senator from Maryland, Chris Van Hollen, has been struggling since 2015 to have the merits of Staff Sgt. Woodson recognized. With a Republican colleague, he tabled a bill in September 2020 to authorize the president to award him the Medal of Honor. An identical initiative was presented to the House by two elected Democrats from Maryland.
If passed and ratified, Waverly B. Woodson will join seven other black soldiers from this conflict to whom President Clinton belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997. His wife, Joann plans to donate it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“The army has changed a lot since 1944”, resumes, in his gallery, General Thomas S. James, who succeeded Lieutenant-General Stephen Twitty, a black general. “Yet she still has a long way to go. Finally, recognizing the value of Woodson would say a lot about the diversity of the men and women who wear our uniform today. “