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September 10, 2020

He saved scores of lives on D-Day. Lawmakers say he was passed over for the Medal of Honor because he was Black.

Credit: The Washington Post, Meagan Flynn

He almost didn’t make it ashore.

Cpl. Waverly B. Woodson Jr., an Army medic in the only African American combat unit to storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, was bleeding from his thigh and backside, writhing from the burning shrapnel that hailed down on him and his battalion.

His landing craft came under heavy German fire and hit a mine as it approached Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Despite his critical wounds, Woodson sprinted onto the sand once his boat crashed ashore and set up a medical station, according to an account of his actions in the book “Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War,” by Linda Hervieux.

For the next 30 hours, Woodson extracted bullets from fellow soldiers, cleaned their wounds, rescued four Brits from drowning and amputated one soldier’s foot, before finally collapsing from his own injuries.

“Dozens, if not hundreds, of lives of his fellow soldiers were saved” because of his “outstanding courage and bravery,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is leading a push in Congress to award Woodson a posthumous Medal of Honor, the nation’s most prestigious military decoration for acts of valor.

On Tuesday, Van Hollen and other members of Congress were joined by Woodson’s widow, Joann Woodson, as they unveiled bipartisan legislation to authorize the president to award the medal 15 years after Woodson’s death. The White House said in a statement that President Trump is inclined to support the bill.

Woodson is one of an untold number of Black service members passed over for the Medal of Honor whose cases have received renewed attention decades later, as their families and historians try to correct a historical record in which the contributions of Black service members are often left out.

Of hundreds of thousands of Black Americans who served in World War II, not one was awarded a Medal of Honor at the time. Nearly a half century after the war ended, an Army investigation found that racism was without a doubt one of the main reasons. President Bill Clinton then awarded seven Medals of Honor to Black World War II service members, but Woodson was not among them.

Woodson, who eventually earned a degree in medical technology, settled in Maryland, where he met Joann and became director of the morgue at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the 1950s. He had been awarded a Bronze Star, but a memo unearthed by Hervieux indicated he may have been considered for the higher honor and never given it.

“He was denied that Medal of Honor because of the color of his skin,” Van Hollen said Tuesday, joined by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Reps. David Trone and Anthony G. Brown, both Maryland Democrats. “So today, we are coming together to introduce legislation to correct this injustice, to right this historical wrong.”

The legislation follows efforts last year by Van Hollen and the Congressional Black Caucus pushing the Army to reopen Woodson’s case. Assisted by Hervieux, they cited a memo to a White House aide indicating that Gen. John C.H. Lee believed Woodson deserved the medal.

“Here is a Negro from Philadelphia who has been recommended for a suitable award,” said the memo, cited in a letter Van Hollen and the Congressional Black Caucus sent to Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy. “This is a big enough award so that the President can give it personally, as he has in the case of some white boys.”

The Army said in response to Van Hollen last year that the documentation was insufficient. But Hervieux said additional details may have been lost in a 1973 fire at a military storage facility that destroyed thousands of records, including those detailing Woodson’s conduct on D-Day.

“Clearly his actions on June 6, 1944, were noteworthy,” the letter from Brig. Gen. Robert W. Bennett Jr. said, “however, I cannot direct my staff to proceed with this request for reconsideration based on the documentation provided.”

That’s why Woodson’s family is hoping Congress and Trump will make it happen. Trone said he is writing a letter to the president this week to appeal to him directly to choose to honor Woodson, and White House spokesman Judd Deere said the White House will look into it. “President Trump believes Cpl. Waverly Woodson, like all of those who have bravely served, is a hero,” Deere said, adding that Trump “is inclined to support the legislation to honor Cpl. Woodson.”

Joann Woodson, 91, has spent years advocating for her husband to receive the Medal of Honor.

Waverly Woodson was a humble man who did not often talk about his actions that day, his widow said.

“He felt he was out there doing his duty. That was his duty to his country,” she said.

But toward the end of his life, every now and then, “I heard him talk about the injustice of not recognizing the Black soldiers on D-Day,” she said.

“He was so surprised that everybody that saw ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ they came away thinking there really weren’t very many Black soldiers on D-Day,” she said.

They were married for 54 years when he died in 2005.

“We have to keep history alive, and history has to be as correct as it possibly can,” his widow said. “This is one way to get it corrected.”