A Black Medic Wounded On D-Day Saved Dozens Of Lives. He's Finally Being Posthumously Honored

This image released by National Geographic shows Waverly Woodson Jr., a combat medic who served in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion on D-Day. Woodson Jr., is featured in the limited series, "Erased: WW2's Heroes of Color."  (National Geographic via AP)
This image released by National Geographic shows Waverly Woodson Jr., a combat medic who served in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion on D-Day. Woodson Jr., is featured in the limited series, "Erased: WW2's Heroes of Color." (National Geographic via AP)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Waverly Woodson Jr., a medic who was part of the only Black combat unit to take part in the D-Day invasion of France during World War II, is being posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in recognition of the heroism and determination he showed treating troops under heavy enemy fire.

The Distinguished Service Cross is the second-highest honor that can be bestowed on a member of the Army and is awarded for extraordinary heroism.

The announcement was made Monday by Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who has been working for years with Woodson's family for more recognition of his exploits on that fateful day.

“This has been a long time coming,” Van Hollen said during an interview with The Associated Press. “Woodson's bravery on D-Day was heroic. We have numerous accounts of what he did to save his fellow soldiers even as he was wounded. And so we’ve been pursuing this recognition for a long time along with the family."

The announcement comes just days before the 80th anniversary of the June 6 anniversary of the assault that led to the liberation of France and the rest of Western Europe from Nazi Germany.

Members of the First Army, which included Woodson's unit during World War II, is taking a World War II-era Distinguished Service Cross with them to France. They will hold a ceremony on the Colleville-sur-Mer section of the beach, under what was a German fighting position known as WN61 where Woodson cared for troops, and place the medal in the sands there. Later this summer it will be given to his family in a ceremony.

Woodson was just 21 years old when his unit, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, took part in the Allied operation. His battalion, the only African American combat unit there that day, was responsible for setting up 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 D-Day invasion.

Woodson died in 2005. He spoke to the AP in 1994 about how his landing craft came under intense fire from the Germans as it approached the beach.

“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," Woodson said.

Capt. Kevin Braafladt, the First Army historian, said Woodson's landing craft — LCT 856 — was hit by two shells, wounding Woodson. The vessel lost power and was pushed toward the shore by the tide. Woodson likely had to jump in the water to wade ashore.

For the next 30 hours he treated 200 wounded men all while under intense small arms and artillery fire before collapsing from his injuries and blood loss, according to accounts of his service. At the time he was awarded the Bronze Star.

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 was considered for the award and the authors interviewed him. But, they wrote, his decoration case file couldn’t be found and his personnel records were destroyed in a 1973 fire at a military records facility. Woodson's supporters believe not just that he is worthy of the Medal of Honor but that there was a recommendation at the time to award it to him that has been lost.

Braafladt said after the war the U.S. military made a deliberate effort to reduce its massive amounts of paperwork. The fire at a military records facility in Missouri also destroyed countless documents. But Braafladt, who's been working on the Woodson case for roughly four years, said there's no doubt in his mind that Woodson was absolutely deserving of the Medal of Honor and that he was recommended for it at the time. It's a matter of finding the documentation, he said.

“For me and for the First Army, the hunt continues,” he said.

Van Hollen's office became involved in Woodson's case years ago when Woodson's wife reached out to seek Van Hollen's assistance in helping get Woodson's the recognition she felt he deserved.

“Waverly would have felt honored to be recognized for what he knew was his duty. But we all know it was far more than duty; it was his desire to always help people in need,” said Joann Woodson in the announcement from the senator's office.

Woodson's story is also being told as part of a four-part National Geographic docuseries called “Erased: WW2’s Heroes of Color." The docuseries highlights the stories of people whose contributions were deliberately overlooked at a time of entrenched racism.

Van Hollen said he and Woodson's family were still working to have Woodson awarded the Medal of Honor but called the awarding of the Distinguished Service Cross an “extremely significant" moment.

“This moment is extremely significant at overcoming what has been an historic injustice and righting this wrong," said Van Hollen.