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Guest Commentary / May 17, 2022

Waverly Woodson: The Personification of American Exceptionalism

Sgt. Woodson did not do what he did for medals. He did it because he was an honorable man.

By Mark Fowler

“At the core, the American citizen soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong, and they did not want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed. So, they fought, and won, and we, all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful.” —author Stephen Ambrose

There is a such a thing American Exceptionalism. It exists today, albeit somewhat embattled. It is a desire for fair play; a desire to resist wrong; a desire to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way.” It has often been honored more in the breach than in observance, such is the plight of humanity. We live in a fallen world. But there have been times when the spirit of American Exceptionalism roused to rout evil and injustice, even as justice was not perfectly administered here on our own shores. It is a spirit that moves men and women to act out of love for what America aspires to be and to sacrifice for that noble aspiration. It is the dream of what might be; what we should long for that animates us.

Stephen Ambrose writes of a group of Native Americans who, on December 8, 1941, mounted their horses, grabbed rifles, and rode to the nearest Army recruiting center. Upon arriving, they announced they wished to join the Army and were ready to fight that very day. America had been attacked, they explained, and they would not stand for that. That they had been mistreated in the past by the very government they now wished to fight for speaks to the reality and power of American Exceptionalism.

On June 6, 1944, 160,000 men from America, Britain, and Canada participated in the invasion of Normandy. This essay is about one of those men, whose example of honor, dignity, and personal courage should be known and serve as an inspiration to us all.

Waverly Woodson was born August 3, 1922, in Philadelphia. At the outbreak of World War II, he was a second-year premedical student at Lincoln University. He interrupted his studies to join the Army, where he tested for admission to Officer Candidate School. He passed that test but was told no seats were available to him. He was assigned to the 320th Barrage Battalion and trained as a medic. The Barrage Battalion trained at Camp Tyson in Paris, Tennessee. Its assignment was to raise barrage balloons over critical sites. These balloons could rise to an altitude that made ground strafing prohibitive to German air forces.

On D-day, Staff Sergeant Woodson was in a landing craft that hit a mine. Disabled and leaking, the craft drifted to shore landing Sgt. Woodson on the battlefield hours before he was due. While drifting ashore, a tank that was part of the cargo was hit by a German 88. Shrapnel from that blast hit Woodson, wounding him on his thigh and back. He patched up his wounds and set about attending to the wounded and dying. He set bones, bandaged wounds, stopped bleeding, and amputated a foot. He administered plasma to men who needed it. He attended men who were screaming, bleeding, broken, and dying. Some men died in front of him from bullet wounds suffered while he was attending to them. Those whom he could not save he comforted while they died. He did all this while being harassed by machine gun, sniper, and mortar fire. At one point he saw a landing craft stuck by artillery fire and cut in half. He went out and saved four men administering CPR to them while he dragged them ashore. He is credited with saving many lives, but the loss of records obscures that number.

After 30 continuous hours of this, he collapsed at an aid tent from exhaustion and the loss of blood. He awoke three days later on a hospital ship and insisted he be released so he could return to his duties.

For his efforts, he was nominated for the Distinguished Cross, but his commanding general suggested this man be nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor.

After the war, Sgt. Woodson was not able to finish his training as a physician. He did obtain a degree in medical technology and served honorably at an Army morgue in Maryland. Upon retiring from the Army, he married and had three children. This extraordinary American died in 2005 at age 83.

The information about his post-war life is hard to find. It is reported that he was a humble man, intelligent, and not given to complaining. I would have expected as much, having known men like him. I suspect he was one of those quiet, strong men who carry a mantle of dignity. A man who has a light around him that inspires others.

You see, Sgt. Woodson was an African American. He aspired to be a physician at a time when de facto segregation would make that impossible. Indeed, although no doubt qualified, he was not able to obtain admission to any medical school. After the war, he applied for and was offered a post researching communicable disease with the Army. He was denied that opportunity. Sgt. Woodson trained at Camp Tyson in Paris, Tennessee. German prisoners kept at Tyson were allowed to dine at local restaurants. He and his African American colleagues were not. At times, he and his battalion were booed and hissed by white soldiers.

Between his exemplary service and 1973, when a fire destroyed Army records, Sgt. Woodson was honored with a medal from France. He did not receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. In fact, to the great shame of our country, no African American serving in World War II received the Medal of Honor until President Clinton awarded six, five of them posthumously.

Sgt. Woodson did not do what he did for medals. He did it because he was an honorable man. A man of great dignity, enormous physical courage, and dedication to his fellow soldiers. As he was stanching bleeding, setting bones, giving plasma, and pulling drowning men from the water, no one cared what his race was. Nor did he care about the race of men he was saving. He did all these things simply because that is who he was.

He was a man infused with American Exceptionalism.

Thank you, Sgt. Woodson. We honor your courage, your dignity, and your selfless service to our country.

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