Justice  /  Retrieval

The Forgotten Hero of D-Day

Waverly Woodson treated men for 30 hours on Omaha Beach, but his heroism became a casualty of entrenched racism, bureaucracy and Pentagon record-keeping.

The battle to rightly recognize the heroism of Black troops in World War II has lasted decades. The Medal of Honor was created during the Civil War, and by the time President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, Black soldiers, sailors and Marines had earned it in every war since — every war, that is, except World War II.

During the Clinton administration, the Army commissioned a five-person team at Shaw University to study the voluminous historical record of World War II and determine why — and what, if anything, should be done to rectify it. The final report, entitled, “The Exclusion of Black Soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War II,” concluded that there was “no official explicit, official documentation for racial prejudice in the award process,” and yet, “the failure of an African American soldier to win a Medal of Honor most definitely lay in the racial climate and practice within the Army during World War II.”

“The awards process was tainted with racial overtones,” one of the commission’s authors, Shaw University international relations professor Daniel Gibran, said at the time.

The so-called Shaw Commission’s exhaustive search of government and military archives in the 1990s failed to find any surviving official documentation showing that any Black soldier was even nominated for a Medal of Honor during the war. But it did uncover evidence that four Black soldiers “may have been recommended” for the Medal. Woodson was one of those four.

In the end, the Shaw commission in the 1990s recommended that distinguished combat awards given to 10 soldiers be upgraded to the Medal of Honor, and the Pentagon ultimately honored seven of those — including three of those four soldiers where the commission had found evidence that they “may have been recommended” contemporaneously for the Medal of Honor: First Lieutenant Vernon Baker, Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter Jr. and Sergeant Ruben Rivers.

The only one excluded was Waverly Woodson; in fact, the Shaw Commission failed to even consider Woodson’s case for the Medal of Honor, through no fault of his own nor as any reflection on his bravery on D-Day, but because the Pentagon had at some point lost the combat medic’s paperwork. The paperwork was likely destroyed in the devastating 1973 fire of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis that cost history some 17 million personnel records from World War I, World War II and the Korean War — and which has ever since clouded so much of our understanding of the men who fought those wars.