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(3,502 posts)
Tue Jun 4, 2024, 08:25 PM Jun 4

Not a single one of the million-plus Black personnel who served in World War II received one of the 432 Medals of Honor [View all]

The Forgotten Hero of D-Day


Cpl. Waverly B. Woodson Jr. arrived on Omaha Beach sometime around 10 a.m. on June 6, 1944, about three hours after U.S. troops had launched their D-Day landing. He was wounded even before he hit the shore — his landing craft hit a mine in the choppy green water as it neared the beach. Woodson, all of 21 years old and part of the only Black combat unit to land on D-Day, found himself amid almost unspeakable carnage. The first waves of the Omaha Beach landing had floundered, devastated by German fire from 14 “resistance nests” protecting the beach. As Woodson recounted, “There was a lot of debris and men were drowning all around me. I swam to the shore and crawled on the beach to a cliff out of the range of the machine guns and snipers. I was far from where I was supposed to be, but there wasn’t any other medic around here on Omaha Beach. … I had pulled a tent roll out of the water and so I set up a first-aid station. It was the only one on the beach.”

He’d stay there on the sandy and rocky beach, treating the wounded, for the next 30 hours, working through the day, the night and nearly all of the next day — all while trying to treat his own shrapnel injuries to his groin and back — before he was evacuated himself. Woodson comforted and collected the injured, administered sulfa powder, bandaged wounds, tightened tourniquets, dispensed plasma, removed bullets and even amputated one soldier’s foot. As a historical commission that examined his record later summarized, “For 30 continuous hours while under enemy fire, Woodson cared for more than 200 casualties. Even after being relieved at 4:00 p.m. on 7 June, Woodson gave artificial respiration to three men who had gone underwater during a [landing craft’s] landing attempt. Only then did Woodson seek further treatment.” Over the course of his time on the beach, Woodson almost certainly saved dozens or even scores of lives.

In a day filled with extraordinary bravery and courage, Woodson’s example stood out. By the fall, word of Woodson’s heroism had made it all the way to the White House, where an aide to Franklin Roosevelt suggested that the president consider the unprecedented step of awarding the Black soldier the nation’s highest combat medal personally: “We would soon know whether [Woodson] will get a Congressional Medal of Honor. This is a big enough award so that the President can give it personally, as he has in the case of some white boys.” Woodson never got his medal. His record of valor that day became a casualty of entrenched racism, wartime bureaucracy and Pentagon record-keeping. In fact, his story was all but forgotten — except by his family — for more than a half-century.

There are many ways to trace and spot the racism that permeated the then-segregated American military in World War II. At the dawn of the war, in 1940, there were just five Black officers in the entire U.S. army. Then, as the war began, Black soldiers were largely consigned to support roles, like truck drivers and construction, rather than infantry units. Later, the 130,000 Black American troops deployed to the UK ahead of D-Day alternated nights in English pubs with white American troops to avoid racial confrontations. White officers and enlisted personnel from the Jim Crow South were shocked and offended by how British women easily mingled and danced with Black soldiers.

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