African-American Medic Who Saved Dozens of Lives on D-Day Posthumously Awarded Distinguished Service Cross

Photo Credit: 1. Photo12 / UIG / Getty Images 2. United States Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 3. Shischkabob / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: 1. Photo12 / UIG / Getty Images 2. United States Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 3. Shischkabob / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

An African-American medic who braved enemy fire to treat hundreds of Allied troops on D-Day is finally being recognized for his bravery. In the lead-up to the 80th anniversary of the Allied landings, it has been announced that Cpl. Waverly Woodson, Jr. will posthumously receive the Distinguished Service Cross, thanks to efforts by his family, historians and a senator.

Soldier standing near a barrage balloon that's atop Widerstandsnest 72 (Wn 72)
On top of Widerstandsnest 72 (Wn 72) is a barrage balloon of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion at Omaha Beach, 1944. (Photo Credit: Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images)

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1922, Woodson attended Lincoln University, where he enroled in a pre-med program. He left in his second year to enlist in the US Army and was assigned to anti-aircraft artillery and sent to Officer Candidate School. After being informed his race would prevent him from serving in this capacity, he was sent for medic training and assigned to the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion.

An all-African-American battalion, the 320th, along with the 318th, 319th and 321st, were tasked with protecting troops from enemy aerial attacks via the use of anti-aircraft balloons, which hung over areas as a sort of defensive screen, making it more difficult for pilots to hit their targets.

The 320th was the only African-American battalion to participate in the Allied landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944. Woodson was part of the third wave of men slated to land on Omaha Beach. The troops came under heavy enemy fire and, despite suffering injuries, the medic ran across the dangerous coastal area to tend to the wounded.

Over the next 30 hours, Woodson, who was unarmed, treated around 200 injured and dying soldiers from a makeshift medical station he’d set up behind a rocky embankment, saving dozens. He only stopped when he physically collapsed from exhaustion.

Military portrait of Waverly Woodson
Waverly Woodson, Jr. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army / NPR / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In 1997, he was among a group of African-American soldiers considered for the Medal of Honor, but wasn’t given the distinction, due to a lack of evidence regarding his actions in ’44. The majority of the paperwork related to his service had been lost in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, in the 1970s.

This prompted Woodson’s family, the First Army, US Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and historians to begin efforts to petition the Army to give the medic the acknowledgement he deserved. Through years of work, which included collecting accounts from eye-witnesses, locating any surviving military documents and compiling newspaper headlines from World War II, the team were able to put forth enough evidence to secure the Distinguished Service Cross.

Chris Prosser kneeling before Joann Woodson
First Army Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Prosser presenting Joann Woodson with her husband’s Bronze Star and Combat Medic Badge at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, 2023. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Fraser / US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The announcement, which follows the presentation of Waverly’s Bronze Star and Combat Medic Badge in October 2023, was made by Van Hollen, who wrote in a statement:

“Waverly Woodson earned a place among the most noble of American war heroes for his courageous display of valor on D-Day, but he has never received the full recognition that his actions clearly merited – largely due to the color of his skin. That’s why we’ve fought for years to secure the acknowledgement he deserved.

“The awarding of the Distinguished Service Cross – the highest award the Army can bestow on its own authority – recognizes his bravery and selfless service and marks a major step forward in our efforts to right this historic wrong. While we have more work to do to fully mark Mr. Woodson’s service, this is a momentous announcement, and I’m pleased to have worked alongside the Woodson family and others to bring us to this important occasion.”

Speaking about the honor, Woodson’s widow, Joann, said, “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.”

Waverly Woodson's family members and US Army personnel standing before a wreath
Waverly Woodson’s family attending his Bronze Star and Combat Medic Badge presentation at Arlington National Cemetery, 2023. (Photo Credit: Sgt. Tykeera Murray / 174th Infantry Brigade / DVIDS / Public Domain)

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According to Van Hollen, the next step is to get Woodson’s Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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