Heavy machine-gun fire greeted a nauseous and bloody Waverly B. Woodson, Jr. as he disembarked onto Omaha Beach the morning of June 6, 1944. A German shell had just blasted apart his landing craft, killing the man next to him and peppering him with so much shrapnel that he initially believed he, too, was dying.
Woodson, a medic with the lone African-American combat unit to fight on D-Day, nonetheless managed to set up a medical aid station and for the next 30 hours occupied himself removing bullets, dispensing blood plasma, cleaning wounds, resetting broken bones, and at one point amputating a foot. He also saved four men from drowning, reportedly pulling them from the waves and administering CPR after their guide rope broke on the way ashore.
Having treated at least 200 men, Woodson finally collapsed from his injuries and was transferred to a hospital ship. Within days, however, he asked to return to Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the five sites invaded by the Allies on D-Day. “He was a good man,” his widow, Joann Woodson, 90, tells HISTORY. “Whatever he set out to do, he made sure he was going to do it well.”
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Back home in America, black newspapers hailed Woodson as the “No. 1 invasion hero.” Other publications likewise offered praise, including the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes, which wrote that he and his fellow medics “covered themselves with glory on D-Day.” The U.S. Army issued a news release in August 1944 that called him a “modest Negro American soldier” who “was cited by his commanding officer for extraordinary bravery.”
Even Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, architect of the D-Day invasion and future president, weighed in, saying Woodson’s unit, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, “carried out its mission with courage and determination, and proved an important element of the air defense team.”
Woodson, however, never received the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military decoration given to those who display extraordinary valor in action. In fact, of the hundreds of Medals of Honor given out during World War II, not a single one went to a black soldier, even though more than 1 million African-Americans served in the conflict.
Though Woodson died in 2005, his family has been pushing the Army to award him a Medal of Honor posthumously. Their efforts kickstarted a few years ago, when journalist Linda Hervieux, author of Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home and At War, uncovered a document showing that Woodson’s commanding officer had recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross—the second-highest military award—but that the office of Gen. John C. H. Lee believed he had earned an even more distinguished award: the Medal of Honor.
“Here is a negro from Philadelphia who has been recommended … for a big enough award so that the president can give it personally, as he has in the case of some white boys,” says the note, sent by an official in the Office of War Information to a White House aide.
After being alerted to the note’s existence, Woodson’s family launched a Medal of Honor petition drive, receiving help along the way from Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. “Woodson was a hero who saved dozens, if not hundreds, of troops on Omaha Beach,” Van Hollen wrote in a February 2018 letter to the secretary of the Army. “The only thing that stood between him and proper recognition at the time was the color of his skin.” This case, he added, “is an opportunity for the Army to right a historic wrong.”
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The Army, in response to Van Hollen, acknowledged Woodson’s story as “compelling,” but said it could not move forward without “corroborating primary source material.” Unfortunately, nearly all of Woodson’s military records—and those of millions of other veterans—were destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, making that documentation all but impossible to obtain.
“The problem is they need a clear records trail, and those records are gone,” Hervieux says. “They need a first-hand witness, and they’re never going to get it, because these men are all dead.” She feels Woodson deserves the award, explaining that at least one white Medal of Honor recipient “did pretty much the same thing.”
Van Hollen has asked the Army to waive its normal rules in Woodson’s case and, as a start, to upgrade his Bronze Star to a Silver Star. In a statement, he says he plans on partnering with the Congressional Black Caucus to bring attention to this issue.
Meanwhile, Woodson’s advocates hope to drum up long-overdue interest in the black soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy, France. “The conventional wisdom of D-Day is that there were no black soldiers who landed on those beaches,” Hervieux says, pointing out that they’re virtually never depicted in World War II movies, such as Saving Private Ryan. “But the truth is that there were almost 2,000 black soldiers who landed by the end of the day on June 6.”
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Born and raised in Philadelphia, Woodson was a pre-med student at Lincoln University prior to enlisting in the still-segregated Army in December 1942, a year after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II. Although he passed an exam to enter officer candidate school, he was reportedly prevented from becoming an officer on account of his race.
Becoming a medic instead, Woodson was assigned to the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, whose job was to loft blimp-like, hydrogen-filled spheres high into the sky to protect strategic sites from Axis aerial assaults. As Hervieux reports in her book, the all-black unit trained in Tennessee during the height of Jim Crow laws, where German prisoners of war received better treatment than they did. (The Germans, for example, were allowed to eat at restaurants in town, whereas they couldn’t.)
Not long after D-Day, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion was sent back to the United States, to a base in Georgia, only to be greeted on arrival by racist slurs from white soldiers. The unit later shipped off to Hawaii, where it spent the remainder of the conflict.
Woodson, whose brother served with the famed Tuskegee Airmen, remained in the Army Reserve for years thereafter and was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, though this time he never went overseas. Following a brief stint back in Georgia—where he was supposed to do work on communicable diseases for the military, only to find out they wouldn’t give the job to an African-American—he became director of the morgue at an Army medical center in Maryland.
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At this point, Woodson met Joann at a dance: The couple would marry in 1952 and have three children together. Despite dreaming of attending medical school, very few of which were then open to blacks, Woodson chose a post-military career in medical technology. “He was always interested in medicine,” Joann Woodson tells HISTORY, adding that he spent nearly four decades at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, where he particularly enjoyed performing diagnostic tests following open-heart surgery.
An electronics whiz who once built a color TV from scratch, Woodson dabbled in photography and spent much time gardening at his Clarksburg, Maryland, home. Yet he never much talked about his war experiences until 1994, when the French government presented him with a medallion in Normandy as part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
Around the same time, a study commissioned by the U.S. Army concluded that racism was to blame for the military’s failure to honor soldiers of color during World War II. In response, President Bill Clinton awarded Medals of Honor to seven black soldiers who had served in the conflict, only one of whom was still alive to receive it. Woodson was not among them, an oversight, in Joann Woodson’s opinion, that she now hopes to correct.
“As long as I am living,” says Joann, who plans on donating the medal to a museum, “I would do anything to see that he gets the proper recognition.”