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Group Of Senators Wants To Posthumously Award The Medal Of Honor To A Black Man


A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation today to posthumously award the Congressional Medal of Honor to a D-Day veteran. That veteran is thought to have saved dozens or maybe even hundreds of lives, but until now he may have been overlooked for the award because of the color of his skin. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley tells us more.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Army Cpl. Waverly Woodson was 22 years old when he landed on Omaha Beach as a medic in the first wave of the June 6 invasion. He was part of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, an all-African American combat unit whose mission was to string a curtain of hydrogen-filled balloons and steel cables to keep Nazi planes from strafing the beach. Linda Hervieux lives in Paris and is the author of a book about the battalion called "Forgotten." She says Woodson was seriously wounded before he even made it to shore.

LINDA HERVIEUX: He worked through his pain to save lives. He pulled out bullets. He patched wounds. He dispensed blood plasma. He amputated a right foot. And when he thought he could do no more, he rescued four drowning men. This was on June 7. They were British Tommies. And 30 hours after, he collapsed from his own injuries.

BEARDSLEY: Woodson was given a Bronze Star, but there's evidence he may have been overlooked for a Medal of Honor because he was Black. Woodson died in 2005, but he talked about his D-Day experience in a 1994 interview with ABC News, calling war the great equalizer.


WAVERLY WOODSON: There's no such thing as a color barrier. Whether you're white, blue, yellow, green or purple, all of you are the same. A bullet will kill you. It'll blow your head off.

BEARDSLEY: But Hervieux says there was no equality for Black soldiers in the segregated armed forces, and they returned home to a Jim Crow America. As she researched her book, she says many historians still maintain there were no Black soldiers involved in D-Day.

HERVIEUX: The memory of Black soldiers at D-Day has been scrubbed in many of our textbooks, on our movie screens. Take the last major movie, "Saving Private Ryan." We have an opening sequence that shows the barrage balloons flying over their ships that these men were in charge of flying on the beaches, and we have no Black soldiers.

BEARDSLEY: In a press conference over Zoom today, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, sponsor of the bill, spoke of correcting a historical injustice.


CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: One million Black Americans served during World War II, 1 in every 16 American service members. But of the hundreds of Medals of Honor awarded at that time, not a single one went to a Black service member.

BEARDSLEY: Woodson was recalled to active service as a medical instructor at a Southern army base during the Korean War but was reassigned to Washington, D.C., when officers found out he was Black. Woodson's wife of 54 years, Joann, says her husband was affected by racism his whole life.

JOANN WOODSON: But I'm hoping that today we'll really feel the request and give him the honor that he was supposed to have received.

BEARDSLEY: Joann Woodson says if the campaign is successful, she'll donate her husband's D-Day Medal of Honor to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE'S "ANEW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.