Waverly Bernard Woodson Jr. (August 3, 1922 – August 12, 2005) was an American staff sergeant and medical professional. He is best known for his heroic actions as a combat medic during the Battle of Normandy in World War II.
Life and military service
Waverly Bernard Woodson Jr. was born on August 3, 1922, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where his father worked as a mail carrier. After graduating from Overbrook High School, he began studying at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, where he was a pre-med student.
After the entry of the United States into World War II, Woodson – then in his sophomore year – put his studies on hold, enlisting in the United States Army on December 15, 1942, alongside his younger brother Eugene. After scoring highly on an aptitude test, he joined the Anti-Aircraft Artillery Officer Candidate School, where he was one of only two African Americans. Before completing the course, Woodson was informed that he would not be able to be billeted in the United States Army Coast Artillery Corps due to his race. As a result, he was retrained as a combat medic and assigned to the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Woodson underwent training at Camp Tyson, the United States’ barrage balloon training center in Paris, Tennessee, where he experienced segregation and discrimination. By the time of Operation Overlord, he held the rank of corporal. In advance of Operation Overlord, Woodson was deployed to England.
On June 6, 1944, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion participated in the Battle of Normandy as part of the First United States Army; it was the only African American battalion to participate. Woodson was assigned to a landing craft tank (LCT) that was to land at Normandy in the early morning. While coming ashore at Omaha Beach as part of the third wave, Woodson’s LCT hit a naval mine and lost power, drifting ashore with the tide. While drifting, the LCT was hit by an “eighty-eight” shell and Woodson suffered shrapnel injuries to his groin, inner thigh, and back. Upon reaching the shore and having his wounds treated, Woodson and other medics set up a field dressing station under a rocky embankment and began treating other wounded soldiers. Woodson worked continuously from 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM on the following day. During the 30 hours, he carried out procedures including setting limbs, removing bullets, amputating a foot, and dispensing plasma. After being relieved, Woodson was collecting bedding when he was alerted to three British soldiers having been submerged while leaving their LCT; Woodson provided artificial respiration to the three men, reviving them. Woodson was subsequently hospitalized due to his wounds; after three days on a hospital ship he requested to return to the front.
It has been estimated that Woodson’s actions during the Battle of Normandy saved the lives of as many as 200 soldiers, both black and white. Woodson’s commanding officer recommended him for a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions, but the office of general John C. H. Lee determined that Woodson’s actions warranted the greater honor of a Medal of Honor. United States Department of War special assistant to the director Philleo Nash proposed that President Franklin D. Roosevelt should give Woodson an award personally. Woodson ultimately received a Purple Heart; he was also approved to receive a Bronze Star Medal but was never awarded it due to being redeployed. The Philadelphia Tribune wrote, “the feeling is prevalent among Negroes that had Woodson been of another race the highest honor [a Medal of Honor] would have been granted him.”
Shortly after the Battle of Normandy, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion was redeployed to the United States, where it underwent further training at Camp Stewart in Georgia. The Battalion was then redeployed to Hawaii to prepare for Operation Downfall, which was cancelled upon the surrender of Japan in August-September 1945. With the subsequent end of World War II, Woodson was moved to the United States Army Reserve.
Woodson initially hoped to study medicine, but was unable to find a medical school that would admit him as an African American. He went on to complete his studies at Lincoln University, graduating in 1950 with a degree in biology.
Woodson was reactivated by the Army upon the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. He was initially assigned to train combat medics at Fort Benning in Georgia, but due to his race he was instead reassigned to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he served as the sergeant-in-charge-morgue, performing autopsies. During the Korean War, Woodson was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant. Woodson left the Army in 1952.
Woodson married Joann Katharyne Snowden in 1952; the couple had two daughters and a son.
After leaving the Army, Woodson went on to work in the Bacteriology Department of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. In 1959, he began working in the Clinical Pathology Department of the National Institutes of Health (also in Bethesda) where he supervised the staffing and operation of operating theaters and performed post-operative clinical procedures for open-heart surgery and other in-patient procedures. Woodson retired in 1980.
In 1994, Woodson was one of three veterans invited to visit Normandy by the Government of France to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. He was presented with a commemorative medallion.
Woodson died on August 12, 2005, in the Wilson Health Care Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland at the age of 83. He was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. His papers were donated to the Langston Hughes Memorial Library Special Collections at his alma mater, Lincoln University.
Awards and decorations
Woodson received the following awards and decorations:
- American Campaign Medal
- Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal
- Bronze Star Medal
- Combat Medical Badge
- European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Arrowhead device and two Bronze Stars
- Good Conduct Medal
- Korean Service Medal
- National Defense Service Medal
- Purple Heart
- United Nations Medal
- World War II Victory Medal
Despite his acknowledged heroism, Woodson did not receive the Medal of Honor. This has been attributed to racial discrimination and to the National Personnel Records Center fire in 1973 that destroyed around 80% of the Army’s personnel records. In September 2020, United States Senator Chris Van Hollen (D–Md.) introduced bill S.4535: “A bill to authorize the President to award the Medal of Honor to Waverly B. Woodson, Jr., for acts of valor during World War II”. An equivalent bill, H.R.8194, was also introduced in the United States House of Representatives by David Trone (R–Md.). Woodson’s widow Joann has announced that, if Woodson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, she would donate it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In June 2021, Commanding General of the First United States Army Thomas S. James Jr. wrote in favor of Woodson receiving the Medal of Honor. In October 2023, Woodson was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star Medal and a Combat Medical Badge in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery attended by his family and friends along with military personnel, including the retired United States Army lieutenant generals Stephen Twitty and Thomas S. James Jr..
There is an exhibit at the visitor center of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France concerning Woodson’s actions during the Battle of Normandy. A brick commemorating Woodson has been installed at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.
In April 2022, the Rock Island Arsenal Health Clinic in Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois was renamed the Woodson Health Clinic in honor of Woodson. Woodson’s son Stephen attended a ceremony to mark the renaming where he unveiled a portrait of Woodson.
Author Alan Gratz based the character Henry Allen in his 2019 novel Allies on Woodson.
Heavy machine-gun fire greeted a nauseous and bloody Waverly B. Woodson, Jr. as he disembarked onto Omaha Beach the morning of June 6, 1944. A German shell had just blasted apart his landing craft, killing the man next to him and peppering him with so much shrapnel that he initially believed he, too, was dying.
Woodson, a medic with the lone African-American combat unit to fight on D-Day, nonetheless managed to set up a medical aid station and for the next 30 hours occupied himself removing bullets, dispensing blood plasma, cleaning wounds, resetting broken bones, and at one point amputating a foot. He also saved four men from drowning, reportedly pulling them from the waves and administering CPR after their guide rope broke on the way ashore.
Having treated at least 200 men, Woodson finally collapsed from his injuries and was transferred to a hospital ship. Within days, however, he asked to return to Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the five sites invaded by the Allies on D-Day. “He was a good man,” his widow, Joann Woodson, 90, tells HISTORY. “Whatever he set out to do, he made sure he was going to do it well.”
Back home in America, black newspapers hailed Woodson as the “No. 1 invasion hero.” Other publications likewise offered praise, including the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes, which wrote that he and his fellow medics “covered themselves with glory on D-Day.” The U.S. Army issued a news release in August 1944 that called him a “modest Negro American soldier” who “was cited by his commanding officer for extraordinary bravery.”
Even Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, architect of the D-Day invasion and future president, weighed in, saying Woodson’s unit, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, “carried out its mission with courage and determination, and proved an important element of the air defense team.”
Woodson, however, never received the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military decoration given to those who display extraordinary valor in action. In fact, of the hundreds of Medals of Honor given out during World War II, not a single one went to a black soldier, even though more than 1 million African-Americans served in the conflict.