SOME HEROES TAKE A LONG TIME TO EMERGE
An historian named Dominic Capra writes that it takes a century for the full truth to come out. A battle, an election, a book – it sometimes takes the passage of time (a lot of time) for us to understand the real stories. This is partly because we see what we want to see, or what we are conditioned to see.
This general idea is illustrated by the story of Lieutenant John R. Fox.
In 1973, a woman named from San Francisco named Solace Wales was walking in Italy. She was walking along a hillside above a little town called Sommocolonia when she noticed a stone marker, half-hidden in the grass. Here is what it said (in Italian):
John Fox, U.S. Army Lieutenant, Dec. 26, 1944
She had no idea what it meant. Who was John Fox? What did he do?
She asked people in the town, and soon uncovered the epic story of Lieutenant Fox, and his remarkable sacrifice (see Medal of Honor account, above), and the larger story of the 92nd Infantry. She could not find any mention of it in any history books. How was that possible?
Wales and her husband, both artisits, had bought a small vacation home in Sommocolinia. They asked their neighbors about Fox:
“He was one of the black Americans who died here back in the war,” came the reply. “They almost all died, you know.”
Why, wondered Wales, was there no American monument to Fox and his comrades? What had happened to them?
The short conversation set her on a two-decade search for answers. She started with the other villagers, gradually interviewing anyone who was old enough to remember the war and tape-recording their accounts.
Here is the text of John R. Fox’s Medal of Honor Award. It is a story like none other:
For extraordinary heroism against an armed enemy in the vicinity of Sommocolonia, Italy on 26 December 1944, while serving as a member of Cannon Company, 366th Infantry Regiment, 92d Infantry Division. During the preceding few weeks, Lieutenant Fox served with the 598th Field Artillery Battalion as a forward observer. On Christmas night, enemy soldiers gradually infiltrated the town of Sommocolonia in civilian clothes, and by early morning the town was largely in hostile hands.
Commencing with a heavy barrage of enemy artillery at 0400 hours on 26 December 1944, an organized attack by uniformed German units began. Being greatly outnumbered, most of the United States Infantry forces were forced to withdraw from the town, but Lieutenant Fox and some other members of his observer party voluntarily remained on the second floor of a house to direct defensive artillery fire. At 0800 hours, Lieutenant Fox reported that the Germans were in the streets and attacking in strength. He then called for defensive artillery fire to slow the enemy advance.
As the Germans continued to press the attack towards the area that Lieutenant Fox occupied, he adjusted the artillery fire closer to his position. Finally he was warned that the next adjustment would bring the deadly artillery right on top of his position. After acknowledging the danger, Lieutenant Fox insisted that the last adjustment be fired as this was the only way to defeat the attacking soldiers. Later, when a counterattack retook the position from the Germans, Lieutenant Fox’s body was found with the bodies of approximately 100 German soldiers.
Lieutenant Fox’s gallant and courageous actions, at the supreme sacrifice of his own life, contributed greatly to delaying the enemy advance until other infantry and artillery units could reorganize to repel the attack. His extraordinary valorous actions were in keeping with the most cherished traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.
The full story of Solace Wales, John Fox, and the remembrance of the 92nd Infantry is written in an excellent article by San Francisco Chronicle writer Frank Viviano (July 13, 2000), “Almost Forgotten Heroes: Italian town honors black GI’s who were shunned by their own country)”. Here is how Frank Viviano begins his account of this buried story and how it was uncovered: “It has taken five decades of stubborn efforts by the battle’s few survivors, and 20 years of research by a Bay Area woman who accidentally stumbled onto their tale, to fill in the empty page in that history.”
In every war, there is a ratio of personnel to combat personnel: in World War II, it was 8:1. That is, for every eight people in the military, one actually fired a weapon, The rest were support (ditch diggers, truck drivers, laundrymen, chefs, etc.) or administrative. Because black soldiers in World War II were viewed not quite as “full” soldiers, they mostly served in support roles. Very few black soldiers got to actually fire a weapon: John Fox was one.
He was warned that the next adjustment would bring the deadly artillery right on top of his position …
Here is how they were greeted when they arrived in Italy to fight the Nazis:
“I did not send for you,” Gen. Edmund Almond, the white commandant of the 92nd Division told his African American junior officers after their disembarkation in Italy. “Your Negro newspapers, Negro politicians and white friends have insisted on your seeing combat, and I shall see that you get combat and your share of casualties.”
Ouch. Is it any wonder that zero Medals of Honor were awarded to black soldiers for World War II? It was only thirty years later that this oversight was corrected.
Just under 1 million black soldiers served in World War II. Among those who saw combat, nearly a quarter were killed or wounded. They captured twice as many enemy troops as their own numbers.
Yet when the official books were closed on the war effort, not a single African American had been presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest commendation for valor. Black soldiers, the conventional wisdom ran, had “melted away” during major offensives.
The phrase came from an offhand remark in 1945 by Truman Gibson, the War Department’s special assistant on Negro Affairs. For half a century, his words were the standard assessment of African American military performance in World War II.
John A .Fox was awarded his Medal of Honor in 1972, twenty-seven years after his heroic deed. Spike Lee made a 2005 film, Miracle at Santa Anna, loosely based on the incident.