Widow of African-American Veteran Who Served In All-Black Battalion on D-Day Fights for His Medal of Honor

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It’s been 75 years since U.S. troops descended on the beaches of Normandy, France, and a Maryland woman is still fighting for her late husband to be recognized for his heroics in the Allied invasion now-known as D-Day.

Cpl. Waverly “Woody” Woodson Jr., was a 21-year-old West Philadelphia native when he and some 150,000 Allied forces splashed onto the shores of Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, according to Time. 

Waverly Woodson Jr.
Army Cpl. Waverly Woodson Jr. was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his service on D-Day but never received it. (Photo by Getty Images)

Around 9 a..m., Woodson, who was a medic, and his fellow soldiers came under attack when their landing craft was struck by a shell. Shrapanel from the blast ripped through Woodson’s thigh and buttocks. The soldier next to him was killed.

A medic on the boat wasted no time dressing Woodson’s wounds, after which they, along with three other medics, crept to safety to Omaha Beach and hid behind a tank. They were the first Black men to set foot on the sand, the outlet reported.

For the next 30 hours, Woodson endured the pain of his injuries and would go on to save as many as 200 lives that day. He learned decades later that he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor, the highest, most prestigious personal military decoration.

According to author Linda Hervieux’s “Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes,” Woodson was originally recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross, but U.S. Lt. General John C.H. Lee, who died in 1958, had the recommendation upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Still, he would never receive it.

Woodson passed away in 2005 at the age of 83. His marble tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery lists his final Army rank — staff sergeant — along with his highest accolades, the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Since then, his wife Joann Woodson, who turned 90 last month, has made it her mission to make sure her husband is acknowledged. In fact, she and her family have launched an online petition calling on President Donald Trump to award him the Medal of Honor.

“I will fight for him as long as I live,” she told TIME in an interview.

According to the petition, Woodson’s medal would be donated to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. So far, the effort has collected 1,032 signatures.

“This is an appeal to redress an injustice in the US armed forces in which discrimination against Blacks was rampant,” the petition reads. “Sgt. Waverly Woodson, Jr. should be added to the short list of African Americans whose valor needs to be recognized by this nation.”

Woodson was a member of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only African-American combat unit that served in the D-Day landings. He and fellow Black soldiers worked “to raise a curtain of hydrogen-filled balloons high over Omaha and Utah Beaches,” using steel cables to anchor them all, according to the magazine.

The cables “served as a terrifying obstacle” for German fighter pilots and were attached to small bombs hidden under the balloons. 

The late soldier’s family aren’t the only ones fighting for him to receive his due. Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen Jr. has also joined the push for the Army to award Woodson his medal, saying in a statement that “his courage deserves to be honored with the Medal of Honor.”

Because much of Woodson’s World War II files are missing, the Army denied bestowing him with the prestigious award, according to TIME. The outlet reported that only a small percentage of records from World War II made it to the National Archives, and that a fire at the Army’s Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in 1973 destroyed most of the records there.

For the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, Woodson and two other veterans were invited by the French government on an all-expenses-paid trip to Normandy, where they each were presented with a palm-sized medal commemorating their service. Woodson was the only African-American.

As the fight for Woodson’s medal rages on, his widow says she hopes it’s not another 75 years before he’s acknowledged.

“Seventy-five years is a long time to wait for justice,” she told TIME.

Watch more in the video below.

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