On Boxing Day 1944, the 92nd Infantry Division was in Italy to fight the Nazis in the Serchio River Valley. Among them was Lt. John R. Fox, a forward observer with the 598th Artillery Battalion. Positioned on the second floor of a house in the village of Sommocolonia, Fox watched the Americans abandon the town in the face of overwhelming numbers of Germans.
As he called in artillery fire, he realized his position in the house was about to be overrun. He therefore called for a strike on his own coordinates. He told the artillery to give the enemy hell. Fox was killed in the barrage, along with 100 enemy soldiers. He would not receive recognition for his sacrifice until 1982, when he received the Distinguished Service Cross.
Decades after Fox gave his life in a small Italian village, the US government decided he was denied due to systemic racism in the award process.
Italy surrendered to the Allies and turned against its former Axis partner, Germany, in 1943. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was overthrown and later killed, and Hitler’s forces occupied the territory which he held. Rome fell to the Allies the same year. In December 1944, American forces pushed back the Germans in northern Italy.
The 92nd Infantry Division, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, was a separate unit sent to the Italian front in 1944. It was the only all-black infantry division to see combat in Europe during World War II. . Fox and company arrived in Italy on December 9, 1944
On December 23, Fox volunteered to lead an artillery observation post in the contested village of Sommocolonia, manned by only 70 black troops and 25 Italian partisans. It was supposed to be a four-day mission, but Fox and the Americans had no idea the Germans were preparing to go on the offensive. Operation Wintergewitter (Winter Storm) was specifically designed to target the newly arrived and inexperienced 92nd Infantry.
Three days after Fox set up his position on the second floor of a house, the Germans greatly intensified their mortar attacks on the American positions at Sommocolonia. Early that morning, the 92nd took small arms fire and artillery barrages for the first time.
A series of relentless attacks by the German 14th Army soon followed, and the Germans would not take black prisoners. Although the Americans had been ordered to hold the village at all costs, the 92nd could not resist the swarms of enemy troops which rushed there. Fox ordered his men to retreat with the rest of the Americans.
As they fled, Fox continued to send coordinates to the artillery supporting the American defense of the village. The coordinates were closing in until he finally ordered an artillery strike on his own position.
The voice on the other end of the radio was Otis Zachary, a good friend of Fox. He warned Fox that he was calling for an attack on himself, to which Fox replied, “Fire It! There’s more of them than us. Give them the hell!”
Along with 29-year-old Fox, the artillery killed about 100 German soldiers and gave the Americans enough time to conduct an orderly retreat and help Italian civilians escape the carnage. The German offensive was also delayed. The 92nd reorganized and launched a counterattack, retaking the village on January 1, 1945.
Despite his sacrifice, Fox was not recommended for any medals at the time of his death. His remains were sent home and interred in Whitman, Massachusetts. That was the end of Fox’s story until 1982, when Fox was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross after the Pentagon began reviewing records of black soldiers.
But that’s not the end of the story either.
Not a single black soldier received the Medal of Honor during World War II, and black veterans groups wanted to know why. In 1993, President Bill Clinton took office and ordered the Pentagon to find out. Although no direct evidence of discrimination was found, he noted that systemic racism permeated the culture of the War Department.
The Army asked Shaw University in North Carolina to investigate the Army’s appointment and award processes at the time. In 1996, Shaw recommended that 10 black soldiers be considered awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during World War II. Fox was one of those 10 soldiers and one of seven to be approved for an upgrade.
In 1997, Clinton presented Fox’s Medal of Honor to his widow, Arlene.
“I think that’s more than it means to this family,” Arlene Fox said at the presentation ceremony. “I think it sends a message to everyone, like a little wake-up call, that when a man does his duty, his color doesn’t matter.”
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