The sky was thick with smoke and haze on the morning of June 6, 1944, when an explosion rocked a boat packed tight with American troops within sight of Omaha Beach.
Wedged among the five dozen men was a 21-year-old pre-med student from West Philadelphia named Waverly Bernard Woodson, Jr. He was one of five medics assigned to the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only African-American combat to participate in the Normandy landings. The U.S. Army was segregated during World War II, meaning the 320th was all black except for the top officers, who were white.
Moments before a shell hit Woodson’s landing craft, a mine had knocked out the engine. The second blast felled troops like matchsticks. Shrapnel killed the man beside Woodson, whose own extremities burned. He reached down and brought up a hand covered in blood. “I am dying,” he thought. A fellow medic slapped dressings on his buttocks and thigh as the helpless craft drifted to a stop.