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US Lawmakers Seek Posthumous Medal of Honor for Black D-Day Medic

FILE - Waverly Woodson Jr. is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where America buries its heroes. Each May around Memorial Day, his widow, Joann, arranges the red roses her husband loved so much beside his grave. (Photo: Linda Hervieux)

A yearslong campaign to award a Black D-Day medic the Medal of Honor — the United States' highest military award — received a boost this week after a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers announced legislation to make that happen.

The June 6, 1944, invasion at Normandy, France, known as D-Day, was a critical turning point in World War II. Tens of thousands of Allied forces stormed an 80-kilometer stretch of beaches that had been fortified by German soldiers and artillery. More than 4,000 Allied troops died, and nearly 10,000 others were injured in the assault, according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation.

Waverly Woodson's first Army portrait. (Courtesy of Joann Woodson)
Waverly Woodson's first Army portrait. (Courtesy of Joann Woodson)

Cpl. Waverly Woodson Jr., a U.S. Army medic who had been wounded before he reached the shore, spent 30 hours caring for injured troops, according to official records. He cleaned wounds, amputated a man's right foot, distributed blood plasma and pulled four drowning men out of the English Channel, avoiding Nazi machine-gun fire as he went.

Woodson, who eventually settled in Maryland, learned decades later that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor. He died in 2005.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who has been involved with Woodson's case since 2015, told reporters, "We're coming together on a bicameral and bipartisan basis to correct a historical injustice. He was denied that Medal of Honor because of the color of his skin."

Van Hollen, a Democrat, was joined by Sen. Pat Toomey, the Republican co-sponsor of the bill, and Democratic Congressmen David Trone and Anthony Brown, both of Maryland.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded seven Black service members the Medal of Honor after an investigation found that a culture of racism prevented Black soldiers from receiving the honor.

''History has been made whole today,'' Clinton said then, according to The New York Times.

Paper trail

Woodson made the shortlist of candidates for the Medal of Honor, but his case did not have enough of a paper trail, or any witnesses, to meet the Army's records requirements for the award, author Linda Hervieux wrote in a 2019 Time magazine article.

Hervieux spent years researching Woodson's case for her 2015 book about the all-Black unit. "Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day's Black Heroes, at Home and at War" gave greater visibility the campaign for recognition by Woodson's widow, Joann Woodson.

FILE - Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., questions a witness on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 16, 2019.
FILE - Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., questions a witness on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 16, 2019.

In 2019, Van Hollen and 51 members of the Congressional Black Caucus asked the Army to consider Woodson's case but were again rejected due to a lack of documentation.

Millions of old military records were destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Woodson's records were presumably among them, Hervieux and lawmakers said Tuesday.

"The problem is, they need a clear records trail, and those records are gone," Hervieux told in 2019. "They need a firsthand witness, and they're never going to get it, because these men are all dead."

In her Time article, Hervieux highlighted news coverage dubbing Woodson the "No. 1 invasion hero," and an Army press release noting his treatment of more than 200 men, recognition that was rare for a Black soldier.

She also found a note from 1944, believed to have been written by an assistant director in the Office of War Information, which mentioned that Woodson had been recommended for the Medal of Honor.

"Here is a negro from Philadelphia who has been recommended … for a big enough award so that the president can give it personally, as he has in the case of some white boys," the note to a White House aide said.

Trail leads to legislation

Lawmakers said Tuesday they believed Woodson deserved the posthumous award.

"Our country and armed forces have for too long overlooked the service of Black soldiers. It's vital that this generation tell their stories and celebrate heroes from all races, backgrounds and walks of life," said Brown, himself a Black Army veteran.

"While he did receive other honors — the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart — this man deserves the Medal of Honor," Toomey said.

Lawmakers said the legislation, which would authorize the president to award Woodson the medal, was expected to receive unanimous support in both the House and Senate.

"He deserves it," Joann Woodson said Tuesday. "History has to be as correct as it possibly can."