Waverly Bernard Woodson, Jr.

Black and white photo of African American man in US Army uniform with arms crossed looking at camera
Waverly Bernard Woodson, Jr

U.S. Army

Quick Facts
World War Two Buffalo Soldier who landed on Omaha Beach
Place of Birth:
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Date of Birth:
August 3, 1922
Place of Death:
Gaithersburg, Maryland
Date of Death:
August 12, 2005
Place of Burial:
Arlington, Virginia
Cemetery Name:
Arlington National Cemetery

Waverly Bernard Woodson, Jr., was born on August 3, 1922, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents were Waverly and Edna Louise Baxter Woodson. His father worked as a postal carrier in Philadelphia. He graduated from Overbrook High School and later attended Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania. While at Lincoln, he took a pre-med program.

Woodson left college during his sophomore year and enlisted in the Army on December 15, 1942. After scoring very high on an Army aptitude test, he was assigned to the antiaircraft artillery and sent to Officer Candidate School. He was one of two African Americans in the course. While in OCS, his superiors informed him that the antiaircraft artillery could not billet him because of his race. He was then sent to medic training and assigned to the all-Black 320th Antiaircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion.

The 320th Antiaircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion was an all-Black army unit formed in 1942. The battalion trained at Camp Tyson near Paris, Tennessee. Camp Tyson was the only training area for barrage balloon battalions. The camp trained more than 30 barrage balloon battalions, including four comprising all-African American recruits: the 318th, 319th, 320th, and 321st Barrage Balloon Battalions. Each battalion consisted of 1,100 men and more than 50 balloons.

The barrage balloon was a lighter-than-air balloon that was tethered over an area that the army wished to protect from air attack. The balloons were flown at irregular intervals and altitudes. If an enemy plane attempted to fly into the area, it ran the risk of striking one of the wire cables holding the balloons. The cable could slice off a wing or become entangled in the propeller. It was a passive form of defense that forced the enemy aircraft to fly above the balloons, making it more difficult for them to hit their target.

Woodson, along with the rest of the 320th, boarded Landing Craft Tanks (LCT) in the late hours of June 5, 1944. They were preparing to land in the first waves of American soldiers on Utah and Omaha beaches during the D-Day landing of June 6. As Woodson neared Omaha Beach in the third wave, the Germans opened fire. “They were shelling the devil out of us,” Woodson recalled. “At the same time, we went over two submerged mines. The whole thing jumped out of the water.” The explosion killed several people in the LCT. Woodson received shrapnel wounds to his buttocks and inner thigh. He treated his own wounds and continued onto Omaha Beach to help the countless wounded.

Woodson set up a medical aid station using the cover of a rocky embankment to shield himself from German machine gun fire. He spent the next 30 hours there treating the wounded and dying on Omaha Beach. At that point, suffering from blood loss and pure exhaustion, he collapsed. He was transferred to a hospital where he recuperated for three days before requesting to return to the beach and treat more soldiers.

He was interviewed on radio and by newspaper reporters. On August 28, 1944, the Army recounted Woodson’s heroics and noted that he “was cited by his commanding officer for extraordinary bravery on D-Day.” Stars and Stripes, the official U.S. military newspaper, declared him one of the medics who “covered themselves in glory on D-Day.” The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most widely read Black newspapers, hailed him as the “No. 1 Invasion Hero.”

After the war, Woodson returned to Lincoln University to complete his studies, graduating in 1948. He later earned a medical technology degree. Woodson returned to active duty during the Korean War and was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant. 

In 1952, he married Joann Katharyne Snowden. The couple had three children. After the Korean War, Woodson became the director of the morgue at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. While at Walter Reed he also taught anatomy classes. He continued to work in different areas of the medical field until he retired in 1990 as a supervisor in the Clinical Pathology Department at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. 

During his military career he received the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Arrowhead and two Bronze Stars, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Medal, Korean Service Medal, and the United Nations Medal.

Woodson died on August 12, 2005, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, at the age of 83. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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Last updated: November 28, 2022