Medic awarded Distinguished Service Cross 80 years after saving lives on D-Day

Miguel Ortiz Avatar
Family members and key speakers honor Cpl. Waverly Woodson at the conclusion of his award ceremony where he was posthumously awarded the WWII-era Bronze Star and Combat Medic Badge at his gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, 11 Oct., 2023. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Tykeera Murray, 174th Infantry Brigade Public Affairs)

Waverly Bernard Woodson, Jr. was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 3, 1922. On December 15, 1942, while in a pre-med program at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Woodson left school to enlist in the Army with his brother. His high aptitude test score earned him a slot at the Antiaircraft Artillery Officer Candidate School, one of two Black soldiers in the class. However, the color of his skin precluded Woodson from finishing the course and commissioning as an officer.

Instead, Woodson was reassigned as a combat medic. After training, he joined the all-Black 320th Antiaircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion. On June 6, 1944, Woodson and the 320th boarded landing crafts and joined the invasion of Normandy. Woodson’s LCT, in the third wave to hit Omaha Beach, was struck by a German artillery shell and hit two submerged mines. Several soldiers were killed or wounded, including Woodson who took shrapnel to his buttocks and inner thigh. After treating his own wounds, Woodson made it onto the beach where he set up an aid station.

Omaha Beach on D-Day (Public Domain) NARA

Under the cover of a rocky embankment, Woodson set to work treating his fellow soldiers. Over the course of 30 hours, Woodson patched gunshot wounds, set limbs, removed bullets, dispensed plasma, transfused blood and even amputated a foot. At 4:00 pm on June 7, Woodson collapsed from exhaustion and blood loss. Through his determined care, Woodson saved an estimated 200 lives on Omaha Beach. After recuperating on a hospital ship for three days, he requested to go back to the Beach and continue treating wounded soldiers.

Woodson’s actions on D-Day did not go unnoticed. His commanding officer recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross and the award was recommended to be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. However, Woodson only received a Purple Heart for his wounds. Although a Bronze Star Medal was later approved in 1945, Woodson was rotated out of Europe and never received his medal. Along with the 320th, Woodson returned to the United States to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Following the dropping of the atomic bombs and the Japanese surrender, he was discharged from active duty and transferred to the Army Reserves.

Woodson’s original Army portrait (U.S. Army)

Although he hoped to study medicine, Woodson was unable to find a medical school that would admit a Black student. Instead, he finished his bachelor’s at Lincoln University in 1950 with a degree in biology. That same year, Woodson was recalled to active duty for the Korean War. Although he was initially assigned to train combat medics at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army did not want a Black instructor. Instead, Woodson performed autopsies at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as the sergeant-in-charge-morgue. Woodson was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant before leaving the Army in 1952.

Woodson also married JoAnn Katharyne Snowden in 1952 and the couple settled in Maryland. He worked at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and, later, the National Institutes of Health. Woodson supervised operating theaters at the NIH and performed post-op clinical procedures for in-patient procedures including open-heart surgery. He retired in 1980.

Woodson at the rank of Sergeant (U.S. Army)

In 1994, Woodson and three other veterans were invited to Normandy by the French government for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. There, Woodson was presented with a medallion from the French government. Unfortunately, Woodson passed away on August 12, 2005, before his own government properly recognized his heroism on D-Day. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

In 2020, Woodson was approved to receive the Combat Medical Badge. It, and the Bronze Star that was approved in 1945, was presented to JoAnn on October 11, 2023, at a ceremony near his gravesite at Arlington. Additionally, Senator Chris Van Hollen and Representative David Trone introduced bills to authorize the President to award Woodson the Medal of Honor.

First Army Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Prosser, left, presents JoAnn Woodson, right, with the Bronze Star her husband, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Waverly Woodson Jr., earned during his service in Section 69 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., Oct. 11, 2023. This medal presentation was part of a ceremony, held near the gravesite of Woodson, to posthumously present JoAnn, Woodson’s wife, with the Bronze Star and the Combat Medic Badge he earned. Staff Sgt. Woodson was a First U.S. Army Soldier and on June 6, 1944, he was part of the first wave of Soldiers who stormed Omaha Beach at Normandy, France during D-Day. Staff Sgt. Woodson was cited for bravery during this event, attending to Soldiers as well as saving wounded men from drowning, all after being wounded himself. These actions earned Staff Sgt. Woodson the Bronze Star and the Combat Medic Badge. Staff Sgt. Woodson was never formally presented the Bronze Star because he left Europe quickly to deploy for Japan. He was just approved for the Combat Medic Badge this past August. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released)
First Army Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Prosser, left, presents JoAnn Woodson, right, with the Bronze Star her husband, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Waverly Woodson Jr. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released) Elizabeth Fraser

On June 3, 2024, Sen. Van Hollen announced that Woodson was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. military honor. “Waverly Woodson earned a place among the most noble of American war heroes for his courageous display of valor on D-Day…,” Sen. Van Hollen said in a press release, “…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.” Sen. Van Hollen also noted that he will continue to make the case for Woodson to be awarded the Medal of Honor.