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Keeping your wits amid heavy fire

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Maybe landing on the beach in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, is what turned Waverly Woodson from a soldier into a leader.

A U.S. Army medic with the all-black 320th Antiaircraft Barrage Balloon Unit, Woodson arrived near the back of the first landing wave. Ahead of him, the Germans were mowing men down.

“If you ever want to know what hell is like, D-Day was it,”Woodson says.

As his landing craft approached the beach, a German shell hit the boat, killing all aboard except Woodson and two others. Shrapnel hit Woodson in the back and groin. Then, another shell struck, throwing him into the water. He swam to shore and crawled across the beach to a cliff out of range of the guns and snipers, where he pitched a tent and set up a first-aid station.

Amid heavy fire, Woodson removed a bullet from one man’s shoulder and dressed a gaping hole in another’s. He even amputated a right foot.

At one point, Woodson heard shouting from the sea and waded out to find 30 British soldiers drowning. He dragged out and revived four of them using artificial resuscitation. Then, he showed others what to do so they could save more men.

“They say I saved 300 men but I couldn’t tell you how many,” Woodson says. “The newspaper article I got here says I worked 30 hours after being hit, but I can’t remember. I just know it was a long time. After saving those [Brits], I collapsed.”

Woodson went to the hospital for two days and willingly returned to combat. He was awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a commendation from France.

Lesson: You’ll probably never endure a scene as horrifying as D-Day, but when the chips are down, remember your mission, keep playing while hurt, and teach your team what you know.

— Adapted from We Were There: Voices of African- American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq, Yvonne Latty, Amistad/HarperCollins.

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