President Donald Trump delivered a moving speech, flanked by D-Day Veterans, at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, to mark the 75th anniversary of the day Allied troops forged a costly bridgehead that heralded the end of German Nazism.
There were memorable lines, penned by a talented speechwriter, such as: “To the men that sit behind me and to the boys that rest in the field before me, your example will never grow old. Your legend will never die.”
But the speechwriter and the President’s advisers seemed, again, oblivious to the fact that the great sacrifices also included soldiers who were not just white men. Subject to correction, it appeared no veterans from US minority communities, or their families, were in attendance. Their sacrifices and their stories were unacknowledged and untold by the US President.
By nightfall on D-Day, nearly 2,000 black troops had landed on Omaha and Utah Beaches. Yet, even recent WWII movies such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’, failed to acknowledge their heroism.
As he stood overlooking Omaha Beach with President Macron and the First Ladies, the US President seemed oblivious of the story of Waverly B Woodson, one of the first African-American soldiers to set foot on French soil on the morning of June 6, 1944. Woodson, a medic with the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, was wounded when his landing craft was raked by machinegun fire. Despite searing pain, he spent the next 30 hours patching up and dragging many wounded soldiers to cover. Woodson, who passed away in 2005, learned that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor, the USA’s highest military honor, but never received it, an oversight that his family consider an injustice.
On 16 June 1946, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, issued the following commendation to the Commanding Officer of the 320th Battalion, with whom Waverly B Woodson served on D-Day:
“The Commanding General, First U.S. Army has brought to my attention the splendid manner in which you have carried out your mission during the period 6 June to 10 July, 1944.
Your battalion landed in France on 6 June, 1944, under artillery, machine gun and rifle fire. Despite the losses sustained, the battalion carried out its mission with courage and determination, and proved an important element of the air defense team. The cheerfulness and devotion to duty of officers and men have been commented on by the personnel of other units… I commend you and … the men of your battalion for your fine effort, which has merited the praise of all who have observed it.”
On July 26, 1948 President Harry Truman signed an executive order ending segregation in the U.S. armed forces.
Such was the level of institutional racism that afflicted the US Army; it wasn’t until 1997 that the valor of black WWII soldiers was finally recognized. President Bill Clinton belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor to seven African-American D-Day veterans. Woodson wasn’t one of them. Apparently, his papers were lost!
Remarkably, despite the prospect of serving in segregated military units, more than 2.5 million African-American men and women registered for the draft during World War II. By 1945 more than 1.2 million black men were serving in Europe and the Pacific. And more than 500,000 African-American women joined the industrial labor force on the home front.
Commenting on the President’s D-Day address and the failure to acknowledge the contribution of US minority communities, the award-winning African-American documentary maker, Dr. William H. Smith, stated:
“I can’t say I’m surprised. Sadly, this is consistent with President Trump’s modus operandi. The ongoing assault to roll back Civil Rights gains and the cuddling and resulting emboldened actions by white supremacists shows a pitiful lack of moral courage and understanding. I truly hope he can find the better in himself but meanwhile we must keep our shoulders to the task of liberating ourselves and others from the poison of racial and cultural ignorance. Those African American soldiers serving in World War II first had to fight and, despite their valor on behalf of the Free World, their vision for access and equity is still partiality obscured by the actions of this Presidency.”
Smith is the founder of the National Centre for Race Amity, Boston, and a decorated Vietnam Veteran who had the option of dodging the draft by virtue of his membership of the Baha’i Faith which embraces nonviolence. Smith, however, served as a medic with a combat unit, refusing to carry a weapon, and received two bronze stars and the Combat Medic Badge for bravery and service.
In 2000 Smith made the award-winning documentary, The Invisible Soldiers: Unheard Voices, broadcast by PBS and which was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. The film presents true stories of African-American soldiers, sailors and airmen, and other minorities, who served in World War II, including the D-Day landings. The film gives special attention to the all-black 332nd Fighter Squadron – the Tuskeegee Airmen – who throughout WWII didn’t lose a bomber under their escort to an enemy fighter during 200 missions. The bomber pilots they escorted didn’t realize, nor were they told, their escort squadron was entirely black until after the war.
The Invisible Soldiers: Unheard Voices, also tells the story of the famed Black Panther 766 Tank Battalion who hold, to the present day, the US military record for the longest unbroken engagement with an enemy, of 180 days straight.
Smith’s film served as the catalyst for the historic Joint Congressional Resolution for the National Day of Honor, which unanimously passed in both Houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in December 2000.
President Emmanuel Macron awarded the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest award, to five US D-Day veterans at the Colleville-sur-Mer event, thanking each individually and embracing them warmly. Having learned of the courage of Waverly B. Woodson, a number of French citizens are currently preparing to write to the French President asking him to award the Légion d’honneur posthumously to Waverly B. Woodson, the overlooked African-American D-Day hero.
© Don Mullan
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