June 6, 1944
He had been writing his father, thanking him for all he had given him, and, he just wanted his father to be proud of him.
Seventy-five years ago, on June 6, 1944, D-Day, Cpl. Waverly B. Woodson Jr., a 21-year-old medic [pictured here, courtesy of the History page and his family], landed on Omaha Beach. Before he even reached the beach, his vessel struck a floating mine upon approach and he suffered shrapnel wounds. He could have just quit then, but he didn’t enlist to quit, he didn’t enlist to give up.
He remembered what his father had taught him.
Cpl. Waverly B. Woodson Jr. was there to fight for his country, even though his country did not fight for him. He was there to protect and take care of his fellow soldiers, even though back at home he was not protected nor taken care of. He had passed an exam to enter officer candidate school, but he was reportedly prevented from becoming an officer on account of his race.
In the book “Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day Black Heroes, At Home and At War”, author Linda Hervieux reported that during the height of Jim Crow laws, German prisoners of war received better treatment than black soldiers. (The Germans, for example, were allowed to eat at restaurants in town, whereas black soldiers could not.)
Woodson was one of roughly 2,000 African American troops believed to have hit the shores of Normandy in various capacities on June 6, 1944.
He was part of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only African-American combat unit to participate in the D-Day landings, which had been mostly forgotten in the retelling of D-Day, according to the Washington Post.
Since he enlisted, Woodson had been writing letters to his father, according to various sources including the Air Force Medical Service, thanking him for all he sacrificed, to build a better life for him. In his last Father’s Day letter to his Dad, he wrote a touching tribute, thanking him for every little thing, such as the dimes his father gave him to see a movie or the bike he helped purchase for him, when they had very little as a family.
“I remember my first year at college, when you practically paid all the expenses, hoping that I would be able to receive a better education than you have. You always wanted to see that Lloyd and me had more advantages than most fellows, so that we could start off where you left off,” he wrote, “For all those things and many more which you have done for me, I am deeply appreciative. For sometimes it was a sacrifice to do some things for me.”
He remembered all those things, and then Cpl. Waverly B. Woodson Jr. looked around him, surveyed his chaotic surroundings, saw all the soldiers needing help, and got up, ignoring his wound. Under continuous mortar and machine gun fire, Woodson first established an aid station on the beach, then for the next 30 hours, he remained on continuous duty, treating casualties and retrieving and reviving soldiers who had nearly drowned.
He did not discriminate, he helped all he could reach. He did not judge. In the moment, he saw all as brothers, as family, and he did his best to help each and every one of them.
After treating 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, according to the Washington Post.
For his bravery and courage despite overwhelming odds, Woodson received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, the fourth-highest award for bravery.
Woodson did not live to see this week’s 75th anniversary — he died in 2005.
Long after D-Day, according to writer Jesse Greenspan for the History page, “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.”
Decades later, Woodson learned that he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military decoration given to those who display extraordinary valor in action, according to Hervieux.
Hervieux “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.
But, according to Greenspan, “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.”
Woodson’s widow, Joann Woodson, who turned 90 on May 26, and Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is heading an effort to have Woodson posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day.
“I will fight for him as long as I live,” said Joann Woodson. “I would do anything to see that he gets the proper recognition.”
The Medal of Honor also would have made Woodson’s father proud of the son he raised.
“He was a good man,” said his wife.
Woodson had written in his Father’s Day letter, “And I know, Dad, that while we’re here, you and all the families are behind us. I know it wasn’t easy to give up one son or possibly two to the U.S. Army, but we are here to finish a job which was not done before so that we can make the world safe for future generations.”