WASHINGTON (AP) — An African American combat medic who was wounded while landing on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion in northern France but went on to tend to dozens of troops will be posthumously honored Wednesday in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. His family and supporters continue to push for an even higher recognition they believe his heroism is owed.
Cpl. Waverly B. Woodson Jr. was a 21-year-old Army medic assigned to the only African American combat unit to land in Normandy, across the English Channel from Britain, on June 6, 1944. His landing craft took heavy fire and he was wounded before even getting to the beach, but for the next 30 hours he treated 200 wounded men while under intense small arms and artillery fire before collapsing from his injuries and blood loss, according to accounts of his service.
Woodson, who was born in Philadelphia and lived in Maryland with his wife, died in 2005. He spoke to The Associated Press in 1994 about his harrowing journey.
“The tide brought us in, and that’s when the 88s hit us,” he said of the German 88mm guns. “They were murder. Of our 26 Navy personnel there was only one left. They raked the whole top of the ship and killed all the crew. Then they started with the mortar shells.”
He survived and was awarded the Bronze Star, but by the time the award was finalized he was in Hawaii preparing for the invasion of Japan so there was little in the way of ceremony. And he was never awarded a Combat Medic Badge, which denotes that a medic has been in combat. To rectify that wrong, his former unit applied for Woodson to receive the badge and it was approved in August.
His widow, Joann, and his son, Steve, will be presented with both honors during the ceremony at Arlington, where Woodson is buried.
“He truly was a hero on Omaha Beach,” said Capt. Kevin Braafladt, the historian for First Army. Woodson’s unit, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, was part of First Army during the invasion of Nazi-occupied France. The battalion was responsible for setting up explosive-rigged balloons to deter enemy planes.
At a time when the U.S. military was still segregated by race, about 2,000 African American troops are believed to have taken part in the invasion. The balloon battalion was the only African American combat unit.
Woodson’s supporters have been pushing for years to see him awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits during the invasion that was key to turning the tide in the war.
Although 1.2 million Black Americans served in the military during World War II, none was among the original recipients of the Medal of Honor awarded in the conflict. The Army commissioned a study in the early 1990s to analyze whether Black troops had been unjustly overlooked during an era of widespread racism and segregation in the military. Ultimately, seven Black World War II troops were awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997.
At the time, Woodson’s case was part of the study and the authors interviewed him. But, they wrote, his decoration case file couldn’t be found and his personnel records destroyed in a 1973 fire at a military records facility. Braafladt said the U.S. military made a conscious effort to reduce paperwork after the war, and that the fire at a military records facility in Missouri also destroyed countless documents.
His supporters aren’t giving up. First Army and Braafladt have been on a mission to document Woodson’s actions on D-Day in hopes of getting the Medal of Honor for him. Braafladt is convinced — “100%” — that Woodson was recommended at the time of the war for the Medal of Honor.
One of the pieces of information pointing to that conclusion is a memo talking about how Woodson had been recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross but a top general decided the recommendation should be for the Medal of Honor instead.
Braafladt first heard about Woodson’s case around 2020 and has been obsessively searching for documents that will help make Woodson’s case. He has not yet found the Medal of Honor recommendation letter, but along the way he has found documents he thinks buttress the case. Just last week he received the text describing Woodson’s Bronze Star citation.
“I’m one document away from getting an answer here and righting a wrong.” he said.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, where Woodson’s widow now lives, has also been pushing since 2015 to have Woodson honored with the Medal of Honor, and has introduced legislation to that effect in Congress.
Woodson’s son said in a telephone interview that his father rarely talked about World War II until late in his life and then only in bits and pieces. The family would like to see him honored with the Medal of Honor not only to shine a spotlight on his heroism but to highlight the efforts of Woodson’s unit and all Black troops.
Steve Woodson said he’d be disappointed if his father does not get the Medal of Honor, but he’s also grateful for all the recognition and honors that have come so far.
“If he gets it, that’s fabulous. If he doesn’t, we will just continue to put his legacy forward,” he said.