On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Sgt. Waverly “Woody” Woodson Jr. was one of five medics aboard a landing craft tank. He and other members from the 320th Very Low Altitude Barrage Balloon Battalion — the only all-Black combat unit to land at Omaha and Utah beaches — were to provide protection above the beachhead to prevent German aircraft from strafing the ground troops and ships.
As they neared the coastline of Normandy, France, with the third wave to assault Omaha Beach, the Germans opened fire. “They were shelling the devil out of us,” Woodson recalled. “At the same time, we went over two submerged mines. The whole thing jumped out of the water.”
The explosion killed and wounded several men. Shrapnel wounded Woodson’s buttocks and inner right thigh. He took a bandage and wrapped it around his leg wound, then grabbed his medical bag and submerged into the water to help others in need.
He followed behind a Sherman tank with three men inside as they went ashore. “That’s when an 88 hit it,” Woodson told The Baltimore Sun. “Blew that turret apart.”
Woodson dodged machine gun fire that spit sand into the air and linked up with a group of frightened soldiers. Some of the officers tried to organize an assault to storm the bluffs where the Germans were entrenched, but the attempts were futile.
“They were scared as hell,” Woodson remembered. “Some of them had weapons. Some of them didn’t. They were shouting. They were mad as hell. And some were praying. They were like most men — they loved life.”
Woodson set up a trauma and medical station using the cover of a rocky embankment to shield them from German gunfire. For the next 30 hours, he treated the wounded and the dying. He extracted bullets and patched the holes. He dispensed blood plasma and even amputated a right foot. Exhausted, he still managed to resuscitate four drowning men before he collapsed.
The newspapers learned about his heroism and called him the “No. 1 Invasion Hero.” He was recommended for the Medal of Honor — credited for actions providing aid to an estimated 200 soldiers — but was denied because he was Black. He ultimately was awarded the Bronze Star, the fourth-highest medal of valor, and the Purple Heart.
But it wasn’t the first time Woodson experienced racism in the military.
Before he participated in the largest amphibious invasion in military history, the former pre-med student of Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University left college to join the US Army as an officer. He successfully completed Officer Candidate School for Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) but was reassigned to a segregated unit because the AAA corps heavily favored whites.
In the US military, racism and segregation were motivating factors for not properly recognizing African Americans and other minority service members for the merits they deserved. The Medal of Honor was awarded to zero African Americans during or immediately after World War II.
A petition on change.org has been created to award Woodson the Medal of Honor, and it has since gained support from members of the Reddit community. Woodson, however, would have to receive it posthumously, as he died on Aug. 12, 2005, at age 83.