ARLINGTON, Va. (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 was 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.
Family and members of his former unit gathered next to Waverly B. Woodson Jr.’s gravesite to present his widow with two medals honoring his service. A band played Taps and his family laid a wreath at his grave.
“Imagine the unforgiving crucible of ground combat. The explosions, the hail of bullets, machine gun fire, artillery rounds, the smoke, the blood, the sweat. And then you hear that familiar cry: “Medic! Medic!’” said retired Lt. Gen. Thomas James during the service. “From the explosions, smoke and hail of bullets runs a young corporal. Corporal Waverly Woodson with an aid bag.”
Woodson 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. His former unit, First Army, applied for Woodson to receive the badge and it was approved in August.
His widow, Joann, two of his children and extended family attended the ceremony where Joann was presented with both honors.
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 D-Day invasion. Woodson’s unit, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, was the only African American combat unit there that day. The battalion was responsible for setting up balloons to deter enemy planes.
The ceremony Wednesday also focused on a situation Woodson’s supporters consider an injustice they have been seeking to correct. For years they have been pushing to see him awarded the Medal of Honor.
Retired Lt. Gen. Stephen Twitty spoke during the ceremony about how he had attended many ceremonies over the years for Black troops who hadn’t received the recognition they deserved. He noted that Woodson was born during a time of deep segregation in America
“Yet he still raised his hand to serve,” said Twitty. He noted how once in the military Woodson still faced discrimination. He was denied an officer position due to his race before he eventually became a combat medic: “The Medal of Honor that he truly deserves, he does not have.”
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. Capt. Kevin Braafladt, the First Army historian, 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.
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.
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. In a 2022 letter to Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, Van Hollen and colleagues asked for a formal review of Woodson’s case. Speaking Wednesday, Van Hollen said the service was an important step to ultimately awarding Woodson the Medal of Honor.
“It is clear from looking at our history that Corporal Woodson has not yet been presented with the Medal of Honor because of historic discrimination,” Van Hollen said.
Woodson’s son said in a telephone interview ahead of the ceremony 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.
“One thing about my dad that I will always remember is his care for other people and fellow man. It did not matter the race of the person,” Steve Woodson said during the ceremony.
Santana reported from Washington.