The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion 77 years later, still seeking appropriate honor for a heroic Black medic on D-Day

Waverly B. Woodson Jr. (Family photo)

Thomas S. James Jr. is commanding general of First Army.

When I assumed command of the nation’s oldest field Army 2½ years ago, I was humbled by the lineage of heroes in our ranks:

John J. Pershing, architect of the strategy that broke the German war machine in World War I. Omar N. Bradley, commander of U.S. ground and airborne forces on D-Day. Courtney Hicks Hodges, the private who rose to be a general and blunted Germany’s last major offensive in the Ardennes.

But the story of one First Army soldier has moved me — and broken my heart — more than any other.

In 1944, Waverly B. Woodson Jr., a 21-year-old African American medic, landed on the beaches of Normandy wearing the same patch that is on my uniform today. He valiantly saved dozens, possibly hundreds, of troops on Omaha Beach despite his own severe injuries.

Woodson was denied the nation’s highest award for valor — almost certainly because of the color of his skin. Of the more than 400 Medals of Honor awarded during World War II, none went to the more than 1 million Black troops who served, and history has largely forgotten the nearly 2,000 Black soldiers who were on the beach that day.

A bipartisan congressional bill has been introduced to posthumously award this brave soldier the medal. If it passes, he would join seven other Black WWII troops who were upgraded in 1997.

This is Woodson’s inspiring story:

A pre-med major at Lincoln University, Woodson was an ideal volunteer for an Army at war with the Nazis. He was devoted to America, spoke fluent German and was willing to give his life to defeat Hitler.

But America’s then-segregated Army failed him repeatedly. Woodson tested into a highly selective officer candidate school, but, just before graduation, was told he wouldn’t be commissioned. The Army was not comfortable with Black officers commanding Whites.

Woodson was sent to train as a medic instead. In D-Day’s first wave, he waded ashore 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.”

Shrapnel had badly torn open his thigh and buttocks, but Woodson hastily set up a first aid station on Omaha Beach. Bleeding from his own wounds, he removed bullets, dispensed blood plasma and placed tourniquets. He amputated one soldier’s right foot.

After 30 grueling hours, Woodson saw three soldiers drowning in the surf. He rushed to help drag them ashore and performed CPR. All survived.

The Army that had denied Woodson an officer billet issued a press release praising “a modest Negro American soldier” who “helped treat more than 200 casualties on the invasion beaches of France.” A memo drafted by the War Department to the White House went so far as to say Woodson should 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 and intrepidity at the risk of [the soldier’s] life above and beyond the call of duty.” What Woodson did on Omaha Beach was most certainly the latter.

Unaware of the War Department memo, Woodson returned home to a nation that dismissed him as much as the Army had. He couldn’t find a medical school that would accept Blacks.

In 1950, he was recalled to active duty for the Korean War, and was initially ordered to train combat medics. But when he arrived at his duty station and officers realized he was Black, he was reassigned. The man who once saved uncounted lives in battle was tasked with running an Army morgue.

On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the French government flew three American veterans to Normandy to receive special commemorative medals. One was Woodson. “I guess it bothered him some that his own country never honored him the way the French did,” his wife, JoAnn, says today.

Woodson died in 2005. JoAnn Woodson has tirelessly advocated for her husband’s upgrade, saying “his experience is emblematic of so many Black heroes.” She plans to donate any medal her husband receives to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Army has changed much since 1944. I took command of First Army in 2019 from Lt. Gen. Stephen Twitty, a Black officer whose grandfathers served in segregated units. Yet the Army has far to go, and finally acknowledging Woodson’s valor would speak volumes to the diverse ranks of men and women who wear our uniform today.

This spring I visited Woodson’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery, and placed our shared First Army patch on its stark white headstone. My command sergeant major, who accompanied me, touched two words etched in the stone: Bronze Star. “That’s wrong,” he said.

I said: “I just hope it will finally be fixed.”

Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Service, patriotism and the promise of Black liberation

Christine Emba: Why conservatives really fear critical race theory

Jonathan Capehart: Being Black in America is exhausting

Perry Bacon Jr.: America is having a Black Renaissance. We should learn from it.

Michael Gerson: When it comes to knowing U.S. history, we should all be ‘woke’