Army Medic from All-Black World War II Unit Backed for Medal of Honor

Waverly Woodson’s first Army portrait. (Photo courtesy of Joann Woodson via www.lindahervieux.com)
Waverly Woodson’s first Army portrait. (Photo courtesy of Joann Woodson via www.lindahervieux.com)

An Army medic from a pioneering all-black World War II unit has been recommended -- again -- for the Medal of Honor for his actions on Omaha Beach, where he finally found the bonds of segregation lifted as he tended the wounded and dying under fire.

Waverly B. Woodson Jr., who was a corporal in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion on D-Day, said later of his experience, "At that time, they didn't care what color my skin was."

Extensive research by author Linda Hervieux in a new book on the 320th, titled "Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day's Black Heroes, At Home and At War," published by HarperCollins -- has prompted Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, to call on the Army to reconsider the previous Medal of Honor recommendation for Woodson, who died in 2005.

In a letter to acting Army Secretary Eric Fanning, Van Hollen said, "As a result of his heroic actions on D-Day, Woodson was recommended for the Medal but never received it." He urged Fanning to review Woodson's "record of service and authorize the posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to him."

Hervieux, a former reporter and editor for the New York Daily News now living in Paris, wrote of Woodson that on Omaha Beach he "pulled out bullets, patched gaping wounds, and dispensed blood plasma. He amputated a right foot."

"When he thought he could do no more, he resuscitated four drowning men. Thirty hours after he set his boots on Omaha Beach, Woody Woodson collapsed" of exhaustion and of shrapnel wounds he suffered as the landing craft neared the beach." They took him to a hospital ship but he begged to go back in and rejoined the 320th on the beach.

In the telling, Hervieux has blended the social history of Jim Crow-era America with a military primer on the use of the little-known barrage balloon.

As described by Lt. Col. Leon Reed, commander of the battalion, "The primary aim of a barrage balloon pattern is to keep the enemy planes above the barrage or around it so that automatic weapons of the AAA (Anti-Aircraft Artillery) can get at them."

The tethers of the balloons were meant to snag low-flying enemy warplanes and explosive devices were sometimes affixed to the balloons themselves to knock down aircraft that came too close.

Cleveland Hayes, a member of the 320th, put it this way aboard the landing craft on June 6, 1944: "If a Nazi bird nestles in my lines, he won't nestle nowhere else."

The 320th, with 621 men in all, formed at Camp Tyson, Tennessee, where they endured the ostracism and slights typical of the day. On liberty, they watched as German prisoners of war lined up at restaurants where they were denied service.

As has often been said of all-black units in the U.S. military, they fought for liberties that were denied them at home.

The barrage balloons they trained with weren't the huge, blimp-like versions that guarded London and the U.S. coasts. These were very low altitude, or VLA, types with about 2,000 feet of tether.

On D-Day, the job of the 320th troops was to lug the 125-pound balloons ashore and get them aloft to provide a lethal curtain against the Luftwaffe and shield the troops storming ashore on the Omaha and Utah Beaches of Normandy.

Stars and Stripes wrote in July, a month after the invasion, that the barrage balloons had "confounded skeptics," and had done their part in "keeping enemy raiders above effective strafing altitude."

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the allied commander, wrote a commendation for the 320th: "Despite the losses sustained, the battalion carried out its mission with courage and determination, and proved an important element of the air defense team."

In the early morning hours of D-Day, "Woody" Woodson was in a landing craft tank, admiring the emerging French coastline and the cliffs over Omaha beach.

"That beauty didn't last long when the Germans starting messing with us," he would say later. "They were shelling the devil out of us. At the same time, we went over two submerged mines. The whole thing jumped up out of the water."

Woodson was hit by shrapnel that passed through his leg and lodged in his groin area, but he scrambled ashore and set up a makeshift aid station. It was later estimated that he treated as many as 200 wounded.

At one point, a rope line broke from a stranded British landing craft to shore. Woodson pulled four men from the water and revived them, all the while teaching those around him how to resuscitate a drowning man.

Woodson's actions were celebrated in the African-American press, which blared headlines calling him the "No. 1 Invasion Hero." He eventually received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart but Hervieux's research showed he was recommended for the Distinguish Service Cross and then the Medal of Honor.

At the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Hervieux found documents showing correspondence between Philleo Nash, an assistant director at the Office of War Information, and White House aide Jonathan Daniels, on Woodson's case.

Nash wrote that Woodson's commander had recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross and Gen. John C. H. Lee had upgraded the recommendation to what was then called the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Nash wrote to Daniels that "here is a Negro from Philadelphia who has been recommended for a suitable award … This is a big enough award so that the President (Franklin D. Roosevelt) can give it personally, as he has in the case of some white boys."

Hervieux's book, her first, has received glowing reviews.

Tom Brokaw, the former NBC anchor and author of "The Greatest Generation," called "Forgotten" an "utterly compelling account of the African-Americans who played a crucial and dangerous role in the invasion of Europe. The story of their heroic duty is long overdue."

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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