Almost a year ago, I visited Section 69 of Arlington National Cemetery to pay my respects to a former First Army hero, Staff Sgt. Waverly Woodson.
The African American medic had valiantly saved hundreds of wounded and drowning troops in the first wave on D-Day despite his own grievous injuries. Yet he almost certainly was denied the nation’s highest award for valor due to the color of his skin.
At First Army, we’ve diligently kept Woodson’s memory alive.
We talk about him frequently. His photo appears in a slide we use detailing this organization’s rich history. And we’ve worked to draw attention to a Congressional bill – spearheaded by lawmakers from Woodson’s home states of Pennsylvania and Maryland – to posthumously upgrade him to the Medal of Honor.
We were ecstatic to receive word a few weeks ago that the Rock Island Arsenal is renaming its health clinic in his honor: the Waverly Woodson Army Health Clinic. What a perfect tribute to a man who, as a Soldier, devoted himself to the medical care and welfare of his fellow troops. And it is even more fitting since, upon leaving military service, Woodson spent a long and successful medical career at the National Institutes of Health.
Woodson’s family – particularly his widow JoAnn – have devoted themselves to drawing attention to his extraordinary service and story.
JoAnn Woodson keeps a detailed binder of his military documents. In it: A rare-for-the-time Army press release praising “a modest Negro American soldier,” for saving “more than 200 casualties on the invasion beaches of France.” A British general publicly calling for him to receive the Medal of Honor. And a memo from the War Department to the White House suggesting Woodson not only get the medal but that “the president give it personally, as he has in the case of some white boys.”
Yet – as was the case for every African American hero of that conflict during that time – no Medal of Honor ever came. (President Clinton upgraded six African American World War II Soldiers in 1997.)
JoAnn Woodson has long said she hopes to live long enough to see her late husband awarded the nation’s highest military medal, and the renaming of Rock Island’s health clinic does not negate the fact he hasn’t been properly awarded for his truly valiant battlefield actions. But it is a start, and it will be my great honor to see that new sign go up. It is my greatest hope JoAnn Woodson will be able to make the trip to witness it too.