Pa.’s Toomey, Md. lawmaker back bill to award Medal of Honor to Black D-Day hero from Philly

Joann Woodson, the widow of Army Cpl. Waverly Woodson, speaks during a Zoom news conference on 9/8/20 (Screen Capture)

(*Updated at 1:28 p.m. on 8/8/20 to include additional comment from U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.)

On June 6, 1944, Philadelphia native Waverly Woodson was among the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who piled out of landing craft, stormed Omaha Beach, and began the slow, but steady march, toward defeating Nazi Germany.

Woodson, an Army medic from Philadelphia, was wounded before he even hit the beach. According to an account of the day, a German shell hit his landing craft, killing a man next to him, and “peppering him with so much shrapnel that he initially believed he, too, was dying,” according to a June 2019 story by the History Channel.

Even so, Woodson, a member of the only all-Black combat unit to fight on D-Day, made it to shore, set up a medical station, and treated 200 men before he finally collapsed from his own wounds. His heroism ultimately won him a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

Woodson’s hometown newspapers hailed him as a hero. The Army sent out a press release describing him as a “modest Negro American soldier” who “was cited by his commanding officer for extraordinary bravery,” according to the History Channel’s account.

But unlike other white soldiers he served and bled alongside, Woodson, along with every other of the more than 1 million Black soldiers of the World War II era, was denied the nation’s highest award: The Medal of Honor.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Maryland, where Woodson made his home after leaving the Army, and Pennsylvania, where he was born and raised, introduced a bill that they hope will overcome that historic wrong by allowing President Donald Trump to do what his country would not: Award him the Medal of Honor.

Woodson “does deserve the medal of honor,” U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said during a Tuesday news conference unveiling the legislation he’s co-sponsoring with U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “We’re here to right this wrong and give the POTUS the tool with a stroke of a pen to make sure he gets the Medal of Honor he deserves.

Van Hollen said Tuesday that the Army has “insisted on additional documentation,” to prove that Woodson, who died in 2005, deserves the Medal of Honor. That information doesn’t exist, Van Hollen told reporters, because the relevant records were destroyed in a fire in 1973. 

“Since 2015, with help of his widow, Joann, we’ve engaged with the Army to show his heroism and his commander’s recommendation,” that Woodson deserves the honor. “We have not succeeded with the Army. We’re here to announce legislation authorizing the president to award the medal.”

Trump has faced withering criticism for reportedly calling American service members, such as Woodson, “losers” and “suckers.” The White House has dismissed the remarks, which have been corroborated by multiple news organizations, as a hoax.

*In a statement issued by his office, Toomey told the Capital-Star that, “Those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation are heroes whose valor should be remembered with the utmost respect. President Trump and several of his past and current aides have publicly and vehemently denied the Atlantic story. It’s unfortunate that some in the media continue to largely ignore those denials, instead choosing to accept accusations levied by yet another anonymous source.”

According to Toomey’s office, Woodson was born in West Philadelphia, graduated from Overbrook High School, and went on to attend Lincoln University, which was his springboard to joining the Army. After the war, Woodson worked in the morgue at Walter Reed Army Medical Center outside Washington D.C. He met his wife there in 1950. She said Tuesday that the couple married in 1952.

“We were married for 54 years when he passed,” Mrs. Woodson said Tuesday.

Journalist and author Linda Hervieux, who’s been helping with the medal push, told the History Channel that correcting the record for Woodson will also open the door to recognition for the other Black solders who served on D-Day.

“The conventional wisdom of D-Day is that there were no Black soldiers who landed on those beaches,” Hervieux said at the time. But the truth is that there were almost 2,000 Black soldiers who landed by the end of the day on June 6.”

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press