Field artillery Soldier became a World War II hero

By Compiled by Karen FlowersJanuary 28, 2021

1st Lt. John R. Fox, field artillery forward observer.
1st Lt. John R. Fox, field artillery forward observer. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT SILL, Okla., Jan. 28, 2021 – A ceremony here reopened Fox Hall as the headquarters for 1st Battalion, 22nd Field Artillery.

Fox Hall is named for Medal of Honor recipient 1st Lt. John R. Fox, a Black American who was killed in action after calling in artillery fire onto his position and the surrounding enemy during World War II.

As we prepare to celebrate Black History Month, the selfless service of Fox needs to be remembered and honored.

Originally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously on April 15, 1982 for his selfless actions, Fox and six other African Americans who served in World War II were awarded the MoH Jan. 13, 1997 by President Bill Clinton during a formal ceremony at the While House.

Six of the seven honored during the ceremony had their DSCs revoked and upgraded to the MoH Jan. 12, 1997, the day before the ceremony.

In the early 1990s, it was determined that Black Soldiers had been denied consideration for the MoH in World War II because of their race.

All seven recipients that day were the first and only Black Americans to be awarded the MoH for their World War II combat service.

President Clinton made Fox’s presentation to his widow, Arlene Marrow, who accepted the medal on her late husband’s behalf. At the time of his death, Fox was survived by his widow and their 2-year-old daughter, Sandra.

Fox’s medal was presented just over 52 years after he knowingly sacrificed his life in the service of his country.

There’s a small village called Sommocolonia in Tuscany, Italy. If you want to go there you have to go through a bumpy and winding road. That road is placed on a hill, in the middle of a wood. The village is a typical medieval village just like many others you can find in the middle of Italy. There are more churches than shops, but just a few houses. You might think that Sommocolonia is not even worth a visit, but you would be wrong.

If you succeed in reaching that place, you will discover a small and ruined tombstone. That tombstone was put there in memory of John Fox, the hero of the Christmas battle (1944) there, in the Serchio River Valley, who sacrificed his life to stop a Nazi assault against his infantry division.

Fox was born in Cincinnati on May 18, 1915, the eldest of three children. He was raised in Wyoming, Ohio, and attended Ohio State University. He joined the Army in 1940 when he was 25. He transferred to Wilberforce University, participating in ROTC. He graduated with a degree in engineering and received a commission as an Army second lieutenant in 1941. When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Fox had his call of duty.

He took part in the Italian Campaign as a lieutenant assigned to Cannon Company, 366th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division (a segregated African-American division known as the Buffalo Soldiers) where he served as a forward observer while attached to the 598th Field Artillery Battalion.

Nobody could foresee that Fox, who was denied several rights in his country at the time, would have become a hero on the day after Christmas 1944.

On Dec. 26, 1944, Fox was part of a small forward observer party that volunteered to stay behind in the Italian village of Sommocolonia, in the Serchio River Valley. American forces had been forced to withdraw from the village after it had been overrun by the Germans. From his position on the second floor of a house, Fox called in defensive artillery fire. As the Wehrmacht soldiers continued attacking, Fox radioed the artillery to bring its fire closer to his position, eventually ordering to fire directly on his position.

The following is President Bill Clinton’s speech made during a Medal of Honor ceremony in 1997 to help clarify what made Fox a hero.

During Christmas night (1944), there was a gradual influx of enemy soldiers in civilian clothes and by early morning the town (Sommocolonia) was largely in enemy hands. An organized attack by uniformed German formations was launched Dec. 26 around 4 a.m.  Reports were received that the area was being heavily shelled by everything the Germans had, and although most of the U.S. infantry forces withdrew from the town, Fox and members of his observation party remained behind on the second floor of a house, directing defensive fires. Fox reported at 8 a.m. that the Germans were in the streets and attacking in strength. He called for artillery fire increasingly close to his own position. He told his battalion commander: “That was just where I wanted it. Bring it 60 yards!” His commander protested that there was a heavy barrage in the area and bombardment would be too close. Fox gave his adjustment, requesting that the barrage be fired. The distance was cut in half. The Germans continued to press forward in large numbers, surrounding the position. Fox again called for artillery fire with the commander protesting again stating: “Fox, that will be on you!” The last communication from Fox was: “Fire it! There’s more of them than there are of us. Give them hell!”

The resulting artillery barrage killed Fox and about 100 German soldiers surrounding his position. This action stopped the Wehrmacht’s attack.

Fox’s sacrifice gained time for U.S. forces — infantry and artillery units — to reorganize and launch a counterattack. As a consequence, the Americans succeeded in counterattacking and they retook the position from the Germans. The village was recaptured by Jan. 1, 1945.

History is full of stories like this, and probably history itself is composed of little actions like the one Fox did the day after Christmas 1944.

Although segregated in the USA, Fox didn’t step back from his duty and showed the pride that only a Soldier fighting for freedom could have.

The tombstone put in Sommocolonia in his memory is still there. As of 2018, its  population had dwindled to 22 people and it might become a ghost town like many others in Italy. Nevertheless, the tombstone will always be there to remind everyone that in that place, in 1944, an African-American sacrificed his life for something that had been previously denied to him, that is human rights.

Remembering Lt.Fox

After the war, the citizens of Sommocolonia erected a monument to nine men who were killed during the artillery barrage - eight Italian soldiers and Fox.

On July 16, 2000, Sommocolonia dedicated a peace park in memory of Fox and his unit.

Editor’s note: Karen Flowers compiled this article from various websites with chief credit going to Michele Caimmi for a Jan. 15, 2020, article entitled “The Story of John Fox: Segregated in USA, Hero in WWII.”