By now, I suspect everyone at First Army has heard me brief the slide that shows critical events and people from our great organization’s history.
I love to talk about our “People, Mission and History” because they are all so unique and extraordinary.
But one photo on that slide deck has always deeply touched – and broken – my heart.
More than 76 years ago, Cpl. Waverly Woodson wore our First Army patch in the Second World War. The African-American medic valiantly saved hundreds of wounded or drowning troops on D-Day. Yet he almost certainly was denied the nation’s highest award for valor due to the color of his skin. Of the more than 400 Medals of Honor awarded during World War II, none went to the more than one million Black troops who served.
A bipartisan Congressional bill – spearheaded by lawmakers from Woodson’s home states of Pennsylvania and Maryland – has been introduced to posthumously award this brave Soldier the medal. If passed, he would join six other Black WWII Soldiers who were upgraded in 1997.
Woodson’s story is truly incredible.
At age 20, the Philadelphia native left pre-med studies at Lincoln University to enlist. He wanted to serve, believed Nazi Germany was evil, and was willing to give his life to end Hitler’s reign.
But from day one, America’s then-segregated Army failed him. Woodson, who spoke fluent German, tested into the highly selective Anti-Aircraft Artillery Officer Candidate School. Yet shortly before graduation, he was told he wouldn’t commission. The Army was not comfortable with Black officers commanding whites.
Instead, Woodson was sent to train as a medic. He found himself in the first wave on D-Day with the mostly white troops of the 29th Infantry Division. He would later write that combat was a great equalizer: “The Army’s prejudice took a back seat as far as Soldiers helping one another was concerned.”
Gravely wounded himself – shrapnel had torn open his thigh and buttocks – Woodson hastily set up a first aid station on Omaha Beach. He removed bullets, patched wounds, dispensed blood plasma and placed tourniquets. He amputated one Soldier’s right foot.
Thirty hours later, on the brink of collapse from fatigue and blood loss, Woodson saw three Soldiers drowning in the surf. He rushed to their aid, helped drag them ashore and performed CPR. All survived.
A rare-for-the-time Army press release praised “a modest Negro American Soldier,” for saving “more than 200 casualties on the invasion beaches of France.” A British general publicly called for him to receive the Medal of Honor. A memo drafted by the War Department to the White House suggested Woodson not only get the medal but that “the president give it personally, as he has in the case of some white boys.”
It never happened. Woodson was awarded the Bronze Star for “meritorious” service. By comparison, the Medal of Honor is for “gallantry in action,” “unwavering devotion” and “extraordinary heroism.” What Woodson did on that beach stained with the common crimson blood of American patriots was most certainly the latter.
Woodson returned home to a nation racially divided. He could not find a medical school to accept him. Five years later, he was called back to active duty in the Korean War to train medics. But when it was discovered he was black, he was sent to another job. The man who once saved hundreds of lives in battle was assigned to run an Army morgue.
On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the French government flew Woodson and two other American veterans to Normandy to receive commemorative medals. “I guess it bothered him some that his own country never honored him the way the French did,” his wife, JoAnne, says today. Woodson died in 2005. JoAnn Woodson says she would donate any medal her husband receives to the National Museum of African American History and Culture “because his experience is emblematic of so many Black heroes.”
On a recent trip to our nation’s capital, I began my day in Section 69 of Arlington National Cemetery. The cherry trees were in full bloom, and I could hear the mournful sound of Taps in the distance.
I laid a wreath and left an historic First Army patch at Woodson’s grave. I found myself wishing I could tell him personally what I routinely tell my teammates at Task Force Deed: We stand on the shoulders of giants.