● Published by J. Chambless
Gallery: Waverly Woodson ceremony [6 Images] Click any image to expand.
By John Chambless
With a hailstorm of bullets and bombs raking the surf all around him, Sgt. Waverly Woodson, Jr., leaped out of a landing craft onto Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944 and did what he had to do.
On March 12, a capacity crowd assembled at The Lincoln University to pay tribute to Woodson's extraordinary sacrifices, and to accept the photos, letters, newspaper articles and medals that give testament to what Woodson accomplished during his week in hell.
As a medic, the 21-year-old Woodson was assigned to the 320th Anti-Aircraft Balloon Barrage Battalion, the only black amphibious assault unit that the U.S. First Army used on D-Day. It was their job to secure blimps along the coastline to block the view of German gunners, and to snare any low-flying planes that tried to strafe the beach. As dawn broke, the boat -- packed with a tank, two medical trucks, two Jeeps and another truck, 25 Navy seamen and 30 Army personnel -- hit a mine and was drifting. But the soldiers persevered. At the end of the day, only one Navy lieutenant and about 10 Army soldiers were still alive.
As the craft was drifting, a shell hit the deck and a shard of shrapnel tore into Woodson's groin. He and another medic dressed the wound and Woodson went ashore at about 10 a.m. For more than 18 hours, he treated wounded men, some of whom would soon die, but he also saved perhaps 200 lives. Ignoring his own wound, and without a place to lie down to rest, he was walking along the beach to find blankets when three soldiers, weighed down with weapons and supplies, were flailing in the surf after their guide rope to shore had been broken. Woodson gave all three men CPR and saved their lives. Only after this did he get his wound treated.
Although black troops had served honorably in every armed conflict in the nation's history, most black enlisted men were historically relegated to supply jobs or menial labor. World War II was a turning point, when black units proved their valor to the world. In his own remembrance of D-Day, Woodson wrote, "This was a horrible day for everyone. This D-Day, Army prejudices took a backseat, as far as the soldiers helping one another was concerned. However, afterwards it was an altogether different story. Even to this day, the black soldiers were never given credit for their outstanding services beyond the call of duty."
Woodson died in 2005, but his widow, Joann, and members of their family were in the front pew at the Mary Dod Brown Memorial Chapel on Thursday afternoon to formally dedicate Woodson's archive to the Langston Hughes Memorial Library Special Collections and Archives.
Woodson had been a student at Lincoln when he enlisted in the Army in 1942, and he returned after his service to graduate with a degree in biology in 1950. He then re-enlisted and served in the Korean Conflict.
At the ceremony on March 12, Major General Dr. Roosevelt Allen, Jr., who is a commander of the 79th Medical Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, spoke about Woodson's service. "We're here to remember those who have fallen and give thanks," Allen said. "We must remember that liberty is a precious gift, and never forget how much we have paid for it."
Allen, who is a 1982 Lincoln graduate, noted that black soldiers "are now treated with dignity and respect, because of African Americans who made huge sacrifices in the early years."
After recounting Woodson's actions on the beach in Normandy, Allen's voice cracked slightly as he told the audience, "Now, you tell me that's not a hero." The crowd applauded him loudly.
"On behalf of a grateful nation, I salute him and I pledge that we will never forget," Allen said, saluting.
Woodson's wife took the podium and said how pleased she was to be visiting the area again. "There have been so many times that Waverly and I visited Lincoln, and it was a great pleasure to travel those same roads today," she said, smiling.
The Woodsons had three children, six grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, she said. Waverly excelled at growing roses, keeping tropical fish, taking photographs and anything else he put his mind to. "He truly was the wind beneath my wings," she said. "And it's important for all you young people to do your best every day, and be a friend to all mankind."
Dr. William Bennett, who knew Woodson and graduated with him in 1950, began by noting the presence of Allen in the audience. "When I arrived at Lincoln in 1946, being a Major General was a dream that was beyond our wildest expectations," he said. "I thank you for your service."
Although he and Woodson lost touch as their careers took Woodson to Washington, in 1966, Bennett got a job at the National Institutes of Health and there he found Woodson performing his duties with stellar precision. "It wasn't hard to find him," Bennett said, smiling, "since there were about 10 of us, out of about 13,000 who worked at the NIH."
Calling Woodson "a technical genius who was on-call 24/7," Bennett said that Woodson's actions during that fateful week in 1944 go beyond the awards he has been given. He called for support for a Congressional Medal of Honor for Woodson, in consideration of his heroic service despite being seriously wounded. Later, several other speakers also reaffirmed that Woodson deserves the nation's highest honor, and urged the students and Lincoln staff members in the audience to get behind an effort to see justice done.
In a 1943 letter written to his father, Woodson wrote, "I know, Dad, that while we're here, you and all the families are behind us. I know it wasn't easy to give up one son, or possibly two, to the U.S. Army, but we are here to finish a job which was not done before, so that we can make the world safe for future generations."
Now, Woodson's legacy will be a permanent part of Lincoln's research materials, and will be scanned and offered on the internet to inspire future generations.
In her remarks at the ceremony, Sharman Lawrence-Wilson, of the Lincoln University Board of Trustees, noted the heroes who have visited Lincoln since its founding, including Booker T. Washington, Marian Anderson, Desmond Tutu, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Now we celebrate an American military hero," she said. "We want his family to know how proud we are of him, and that we are honored that you're sharing his legacy with us."
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail email@example.com.