457 Medals of Honor were awarded during World War Two. None of the recipients were black.
The Gothic Line, the most northerly of the Italian defensive lines, crossed Italy from the Ligurian Sea in the west to the Adriatic in the east, along the natural barrier of the Apennine mountains. In August 1944, it marked the frontline of the brutal Italian campaign.
It was Mussolini himself who had proposed an Italian counter offensive in this zone. The plan envisioned a powerful offensive involving 40,000 men with heavy tank, artillery and air support, to be launched against the western flank of the US 5th Army in the mountainous Garfagnana region, between Emilia and Tuscany. The objective was to break through the American lines and retake Lucca, Pisa and the strategically important port of Livorno.
Known to the Germans as Unternehmen Wintergewitter [Operation Winter Storm] and nicknamed the “Christmas Offensive”, the Battle of Garfagnana was waged between the remote villages of Barga, Bagni di Lucca, Fornaci di Barga and, above all, the medieval fortress village of Sommocolonia.
During the battle, now little more than a footnote in the military history of the Second World War, dozens of servicemen of the segregated “Buffalo Division” were killed, but their bravery and sacrifice was soon forgotten.
The day I stumbled across Sommocolonia on a hiking trip a couple of summers ago couldn’t have been more different from that winter’s day in 1944. Warm, green, still and quiet — Sommocolonia is a place of peace and tranquillity.
But in 1944 it was on the frontline, as brutal hand to hand combat and devastating aerial bombardment reduced the picturesque village to little more than rubble.
Amongst the men of the Buffalo Division, the racially segregated 92nd Infantry Division stationed at Sommocolonia, was 29-year-old artillery spotter Lt. John R. Fox.
Fox was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 18 May 1915, the eldest of three children. He attended Ohio State University, before transferring to Wilberforce University, where he participated in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. He graduated with a degree in engineering and received a commission as a U.S. Army second lieutenant in 1941. After combat training in America, the Division was shipped to Italy in the summer of 1944, participating in the crossing of the Arno River, the occupation of Lucca and the penetration of the Gothic Line in the autumn of that year.
By early December 1944, Fox and his division were billeted in the remote hilltop town of Sommocolonia. Although they had no precise intelligence, they knew that an attack was coming. On Christmas Day, they distributed food and chocolate to the villagers.
The attack finally came at 4am on Boxing Day. Elements of the Mittenwald Battalion, an elite unit formed from the ranks and faculty of a German mountain warfare school, and the Kesselring machine gun battalion led the attack on Sommocolonia, alongside a company of the Italian Brescia Alpine Division. The Germans had been ordered not to take prisoners from the 92nd Division, because its soldiers were black and, according to Nazi ideology, not fully human. Meanwhile, commanders of the American 5th Army refused to provide either reinforcements for the besieged troops in Sommocolonia or blood transfusions for their wounded.
As the attack began, Fox took up his position in the second floor of a house in the centre of the village, from where he called in the heavy artillery. His inexperienced and poorly equipped unit, alongside 25 partisans, faced the brunt of the initial assault. Whilst they couldn’t have been expected to halt the advance, they were at least able to slow it down.
Finally, at noon, came the order to retreat.
As any military historian knows, tactical withdrawal from the field of battle is a risky operation that requires both courage and discipline to execute successfully. If not properly planned or executed, orderly retreat can soon descend into full scale rout.
From his observation post, which enemy fighters were now targeting, Fox called in artillery coordinates that were increasingly close to his own position.
He then ordered a smoke screen to cover the withdrawal of the few GIs and partisans who could still walk.
Finally, he ordered a devastating concentration of mortar and 105mm shell fire on his own position, which was by now completely surrounded by enemy combatants.
Not only was this action intended to inflict maximum damage on the enemy, it also provided his comrades with the smokescreen they needed to escape the carnage.
Despite his best efforts, of the 95 American and Italian Partisan defenders of Sommocolonia that day, only eighteen made it out alive. That they did so is largely thanks to the actions of Lt. Fox.
At least seven civilians died in Sommocolonia that day. German war records indicate that 43 members of the Austrian Fourth Mountain Division also died. About 40 men of the Buffalo Division also fell in the battle.
For the German-Italian force, the offensive was initially a success, penetrating more than 25 kilometres inside the Allies lines. But, although Sommocolonia and Barga fell on 26 December, they German-led forces were too weakened to hold them. By 1 January 1945, the Allies had more or less re-established their original positions. But for the Italian-German Axis, the Christmas Offensive was an important moral victory. By the spring of the following year, however, the tide of war had turned, as Operation Grapeshot, the Allies spring offensive, concluded on 2 May with the formal surrender of German forces in Italy.
In Sommocolonia’s Piazza Martiri della Resistenza, a memorial in a wooded park commemorates the fallen Italian resistance fighters. Next to it stands a smaller memorial, erected in recognition of the bravery of Lt. John Fox.
In the summer of 2000, Albert Burke, Otis Zachary and Richard Hogg, three of Lt. Fox’s comrades who survived the war, returned to Sommocolonia to honour their fallen comrade. For the veterans, revisiting the battlefield was a traumatic experience, as they relived the horrific memories of that awful winter’s day.
The people of Sommocolonia still remember the Buffalo soldiers who spent Christmas 1944 in their village, and a“peace park” is dedicated to the memory of Fox and his comrades.
The Congressional Medal of Honor is America’s highest military award for valor. Of the 457 Medals awarded during the Second World War, none were given to African Americans.
It wasn’t until 1992 that US Army finally commissioned a study to investigate why. While the panel could find no direct evidence that racial prejudice prevented African Americans from receiving the Medal of Honor, they attributed the lack of such awards to the racial climate of the era.
On January 13, 1997, First Lieutenant John R. Fox was finally awarded the Medal of Honor for his action in Sommocolonia. His citation reads:
“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 Lt. 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.”