What does it take to make the ultimate sacrifice? In the first episode of the Black Is America podcast, we learn the story of Lt. John Fox. From very humble beginnings in the Cincinnati area to courageous actions in the Italian theater, John Fox is an...
What does it take to make the ultimate sacrifice?
In the first episode of the Black Is America podcast, we learn the story of Lt. John Fox. From very humble beginnings in the Cincinnati area to courageous actions in the Italian theater, John Fox is an excellent example of Black America displaying bravery on the battlefield in the face of discrimination.
In this episode, you will hear:
Dominic Lawson (00:03):
December 26, 1944 in the Serchio River Valley sector in the vicinity of Sommocolonia, Italy. It's 0800 hours when Lieutenant John Fox, member of Cannon Company, 366 Infantry, acts as a forward observer while attached to the 598th Field Artillery Battalion.
Dominic Lawson (00:25):
During Christmas night, there was a gradual influx of enemy soldiers, and by early morning, the town
was mainly in enemy hands. There were reports that the Germans were heavily shelling the area.
Dominic Lawson (00:37):
Although most of the US Infantry forces withdrew from the town, Lieutenant Fox and members of his observer party volunteered to remain behind in a sentry tower directing defensive fire. Lieutenant Fox reported Germans were "in the streets and attacking in strength."
Dominic Lawson (00:54):
It is at this time Lieutenant Fox gives the order for the next strike. The commander believes that the coordinates are wrong because he says, "Fox, that's going to be right on top of you." However, Lieutenant Fox knows what he is asking. He also knows what he is about to sacrifice.
Dominic Lawson (01:17):
We come from innovators, heroes and royalty. We have always been our ancestors' greatest hope. We face many challenges, but we mold that adversity into our greatest strength. We are the glue that holds the nation together and allows it to flourish.
Dominic Lawson (01:37):
Welcome to Black Is America, the podcast where we highlight little known African American figures and stories that makes our history come to life. I'm your host, Dominic Lawson. Episode one: Lieutenant John Fox, an All-American hero.
Dominic Lawson (02:03):
The first time I heard of Lieutenant John Fox was, honestly, one day with me scrolling on social media and coming across a friend's post that he shared. As I'm sitting here reading the article, my first thought as a fellow Army vet myself was, "I'm not even worthy to lace this man's boots."
Dominic Lawson (02:23):
I mean, in the heat of battle, to be able to call an artillery strike on himself in order to achieve the mission, I mean, honestly, I wouldn't even have the nerve to call a water balloon strike on myself, let alone artillery fire. Such bravery and resolve to make a call like that. I had to know more.
Dominic Lawson (02:45):
My next thought was wondering how come I never heard of Lieutenant John Fox? I mean, I had heard of many other African American war heroes like Benjamin O. Davis, the first African American general on active duty. And then there's the late general and former secretary of state Colin Powell. Then there is ...
Dominic Lawson (03:06):
Oh, cut the music for a sec. Now that I think about it, there are only those two that we mostly hear about, I guess. Huh. Well, on this show, we're going to change that a bit.
Dominic Lawson (03:20):
So like I was saying, that was the first time I heard of Lieutenant John Fox and I was intrigued. Before, a good friend of mine, she first heard about Lieutenant Fox in a different way.
Solace Wales (03:32):
I certainly got involved slowly and in many ways unexpectedly.
Dominic Lawson (03:38):
This is Solace Wales, educator, researcher and author of Braided in Fire: Black GIs and the Tuscan Villagers on the Gothic Line. And then sometime in 1980, she bought a house in a small Italian village of Sommocolonia.
Solace Wales (03:54):
I was writing these very reflective sort of journal pieces, even after we bought this ruin of a house in this medieval village, Sommocolonia. And right under my feet, of course, was this extraordinarily dramatic story.
Solace Wales (04:11):
It took a while. I would hear from my neighbors these amazing experiences they had during World War II, and I was right away fascinated. But the minute they stopped talking, it would disappear because here we were in this very bucolic, isolated little stone village still practicing the old ways at the time we moved there.
Solace Wales (04:36):
So it was a real [Italian 00:04:38] village, which that word means "peasant" in English. But it has a richer connotation in Italian because they were poor, but they own their own land, albeit rocky and poor soil and difficult to cultivate. But they had a social kind of traditions that were very rich.
Solace Wales (05:01):
So I simply couldn't envision machine guns and mortars and in the midst of these beautiful vegetable
gardens and prize-winning geraniums. It didn't compute for a long time.
Dominic Lawson (05:14):
So after understanding a bit of the history, she sought out to preserve it.
Solace Wales (05:19):
Finally though, watching some of the elder villagers die, I realized somebody's got to capture this story. Then I knew nothing about John Fox until I saw the marker in this little village memorial, the Martiri della resistenza, which is a little memorial at top of the village to seven partisan fighters who had died in the Sommocolonia battle.
Solace Wales (05:51):
Then I noticed this marker for John Fox. It said, "[Italian 00:05:53] USA," and I'm going, "Whoa, what's this doing in an Italian monument?" I asked around and nobody in the village knew anything about him. It was a very long time before ... I mean, I started the investigation about what happened during World War II way before I found out what in the world John Fox did or who he was because he wasn't famous.
Dominic Lawson (06:18):
It looks like Solace had the same questions I had as well. As a military veteran, I am very familiar with terms and phrases such as "honor, bravery, duty in love of country." And given this country's history of racism and Jim Crow, all that goes to another level with the African American soldier.
Dominic Lawson (06:39):
But even with all that, John Fox was still of a different breed, so I wanted to know more about his upbringing, his family, and where he grew up. He was the oldest of three kids. We do know that he was born on May 18, 1915 in Cincinnati, Ohio. However, he grew up on the outskirts of Cincinnati, so I was curious about the neighborhood he grew up in. Maybe it would shed some light on who he was.
Carl Westmoreland (07:06):
I grew up in Lincoln Heights, 12 miles from downtown Cincinnati, north on I-75, and I-75 connects
Cincinnati with Canada.
Dominic Lawson (07:18):
This is Carl Westmoreland, senior historian at the National Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati and native to the area where Lieutenant John Fox grew up. My connection to Mr. Westmoreland was not the best, but if there's anything that is unclear, be sure to go to blackisamericapodcast.com for the full transcript. Here again is Mr. Westmoreland.
Carl Westmoreland (07:41):
The community in which they lived was called Wyoming. The white people who lived there for the most part were upper class. You could probably count upper-class Blacks who live there a dozen and two dozen at the most.
Dominic Lawson (07:57):
While they were a small, they were definitely a proud and hard-working one. While some were of the tradition of the man went to work and the woman stayed home, many of the married couples had three jobs between the two of them. Here is Mr. Westmoreland again.
Carl Westmoreland (08:13):
So consequently, my dad worked three jobs, but he wasn't going to have my mother go to Wilberforce
and then come home and do domestic work.
Dominic Lawson (08:23):
Wilberforce was also the school Lieutenant John Fox attended, but I'll get to that in a second.
Dominic Lawson (08:28):
Now, around this time, many African American families around the country worked blue collar jobs that required some type of uniform or clothes that let you know that they worked really hard. Like heavy cotton coveralls, particularly if you were in construction or manufacturing.
Audio (08:44): (singing)
Dominic Lawson (08:45):
But on Sundays for church, they put on that Sunday finery and it appears that in Wyoming, Ohio, they
were not any different.
Audio (08:53): (singing)
Carl Westmoreland (08:53):
My grandparents were Baptist and AME and back then, you really didn't know what they did because on Sunday everybody dressed up, everybody had some role at church. They would sing in the choir. They did something that just disguised, frankly, the fact that most of them had houses, but they worked like hell to get them and keep them.
Dominic Lawson (09:31):
So we knew a little bit more about where Lieutenant John Fox grew up. But being close to where he lives, I wanted to know if he possibly knew him. Maybe his family knew him, maybe even met him. Here's Mr. Westmoreland again.
Carl Westmoreland (09:44):
He was three years younger than my mother and six years younger than my father. My two aunts, Eva and Margaret, were talking about happened, the report they got. But as they talked about him, God, I thought the man was about 12-foot tall. But I'd never seen him. Or if I had seen him, I didn't know him because I really didn't have any reason to except my parents knew him. He was in ROTC. He went to Wilberforce.
Dominic Lawson (10:21):
Okay. This brings me to the school that was mentioned earlier, Wilberforce, the HBCU about 60 miles north of Cincinnati in the city of the same name. Now, Lieutenant John Fox wanted to be an officer in the Army, so he knew the best way to do that was to go to university and enroll in the ROTC program. So he initially attended Ohio State, but there was an issue.
Dominic Lawson (10:45):
Here is Solace again, this time reading an excerpt from her book.
Solace Wales (10:50):
He first attended Ohio State University, but transferred to Wilberforce because at the time it was one of only three universities in the entire country that allowed Black Americans into their ROTC programs. And he wanted that training.
Dominic Lawson (11:06):
And there it is: good, old classic, seasoned-real-nice racism. Hold up, stop the music again. Really quick, I'm just going to let you know right now that here on the Black Is America podcast, that's going to be a common theme on this show. I mean, you probably already knew that based on the title, but I just wanted to make it plain.
Dominic Lawson (11:28):
Okay. Let's get back to it. Here is Solace again.
Solace Wales (11:31):
Although he had given up a lot of credits in transferring, it was worth it.
Dominic Lawson (11:36):
And, boy, was it worth it because John Fox was about to get quite the mentor at Wilberforce. Let's go back to Mr. Westmoreland for a second, because around the same time he learned about John Fox in a conversation with his aunts, he also learned about someone else.
Carl Westmoreland (11:52):
Then in the process, "Well, he's not the only one. You know so and so ... " Then they talked about the
head of the ROTC program at Wilberforce who-
Dominic Lawson (12:06): This is Aaron Fisher, correct?
Carl Westmoreland (12:07): Yes.
Dominic Lawson (12:08):
Captain Aaron Fisher, head of the ROTC department at Wilberforce and a highly decorated Army veteran. Captain Fisher, or Cap as he was called by many of his students, was no stranger to going beyond the call of duty when the situation was dire.
Dominic Lawson (12:23):
You know what? Let me back up a bit so you can know exactly the kind of badassery Captain Aaron Fisher was on. It's September 3, 1918 in Lisieux, France where at the time, Lieutenant Fisher and his men are manning a trench when it was invaded by Germans.
Dominic Lawson (12:40):
Lieutenant Fisher and his men are greatly outnumbered. However, Lieutenant Fisher commands his men to stand their ground and maintain control of the trench. He refused to abandon his position and in the process was severely wounded. However, he was able to hold his position until reinforcements arrived to finish off the last of the German soldiers.
Dominic Lawson (13:04):
On his return home, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery in addition to the Purple Heart for being wounded. The French government even awarded him the Croix de Guerre with a gold star for his courage and fortitude. So for Lieutenant Fox, he was not only going to learn from an American hero, but an American hero that looked like him.
Dominic Lawson (13:27):
Even though he would have to give up some of his college credits to transfer, he was determined to be an officer in the United States military. Makes sense when you talk about a person who wanted to dedicate his life to public service.
Dominic Lawson (13:43):
The next thing I wanted to know was what was he like? Was he the hard-nosed military person? Was he a soft-spoken leader of men? Well, for the answer, Solace introduces us to a new character in this story.
Solace Wales (13:57):
Arlene told me that she knew right away that her husband was going to make the Army his life.
Dominic Lawson (14:02):
Solace is referring to Arlene Fox, John's wife, who she interviewed for the book. At this time, John has graduated from Wilberforce and is stationed at Fort Devens in the Boston area near Brockton, Massachusetts, where Arlene lived with her family. Here is Solace again, reading an excerpt from her book, Braided in Fire.
Solace Wales (14:24):
She described a delightful courtship. They met at Franklin Park riding stable in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester in August, 1941 while Fox was stationed at Fort Devens. It's easy to understand how Arlene Morrow became a good rider, but less clear how John Fox, growing up in Woodlawn, a suburb of Cincinnati, also became an excellent equestrian.
Solace Wales (14:52):
Evidently, he acquired his love of horses when as a child, his family lived for a while in rural Lebanon, Ohio. However he managed to learn, he liked to ride and hunt. While a student at Wilberforce University, he earned money by training and exercising horses at a local stable.
Dominic Lawson (15:10):
An equestrian, huh? That certainly is new information. Here is Solace again.
Solace Wales (15:14):
Thinking back to the moment of their meeting, Arlene said, "Oh, dear. He was so friendly and sure of himself. He had such an easy smile and was handsome and tall and easy to talk to." On the tall part, I think he was 5' 10". But Arlene was quite petite, so that was really tall to her.
Dominic Lawson (15:34): Right.
Solace Wales (15:35):
"We had a grand old time," she laughed remembering the delight of the start to their romance. "We went several times after that riding out. And then we had a lot of fun times together. We walked in the park, we rode, we went to the movies. We really got to know each other. I finally took him home and, oh, my goodness, my family was crazy about him. He could ingratiate himself anywhere. He was just honest and outgoing, friendly."
Solace Wales (16:03):
Once John and Arlene decided to marry, they planned a big wedding the following spring in Brockton to coincide with Arlene's father's birthday. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they moved up their wedding date because they could not be certain when John might be shipped out. John was determined that they marry before this happened.
Dominic Lawson (16:22):
December 7, 1941, changed a lot of things for a lot of people that day: 2,335 souls were lost due to an attack by the Japanese a little before 8:00 AM that day. During that attack, an African American Navy cook would take heroic action that would immortalize him in American history. But that's another story for another day.
Dominic Lawson (16:47):
While they intended to have a small ceremony, Lieutenant Fox being quite the people person, those
plans were altered a bit.
Solace Wales (16:55):
Quote: "We just decided to have a small January wedding in the chapel at Fort Devens. We thought this is what was going to happen. But as it turned out, he was so popular all his buddies got together with their wives, and when we came out of the chapel, it was a real military wedding with an arch of swords and all.
Solace Wales (17:14):
"We were so surprised. Oh, it was such a beautiful thing. And just as we came out, a rainbow came over and everybody said, 'Oh, you were blessed. You were blessed.' We were blessed all right, I guess. We were blessed because even though it was short, it was a happy time. It was wonderful."
Dominic Lawson (17:31):
In a few short months, Lieutenant Fox and Arlene were about to be blessed again.
Solace Wales (17:36):
"And then to cap it all off, about three months after we got married, I became pregnant."
Dominic Lawson (17:41):
John and Arlene will go on to give birth to a beautiful baby girl, Sandra. But there's an interesting story
Arlene shares with Solace about the morning Sandra was born.
Solace Wales (17:51):
She went into labor in the middle of the night at a time when the streets of Ayer, Massachusetts, a bedroom community for Fort Devens, were knee-high in snow. John left the house in the dark on foot. It felt like she was alone for a long time.
Solace Wales (18:06):
But when he returned, he was accompanied by a very hard-to-find tractor with its soldier driver, to which they attached a snowplow, and he drove with his wife in the car behind the snowplow all the way to the hospital.
Solace Wales (18:18):
Once they reached the hospital, dawn was breaking. The sky cleared and Arlene said, to the dismay of the hospital attendants who, alerted by phone, had been expecting her, "It's such a beautiful morning and the streets near here are cleared, let's go for a little drive before I go in."
Dominic Lawson (18:33):
While learning more about Lieutenant John Fox, that story stood out to me. But more about that later.
Before Lieutenant Fox is deployed, he had a wonderful time with his family and his brand-new baby girl.
Solace Wales (18:46):
"My Sandra was born in that December and we had a year to together as a family. In that year, we lived
a lifetime of loving and caring. He was so proud of that child. We had some good times."
Dominic Lawson (18:57):
Eventually, the time has come and Lieutenant Fox is shipped out. He makes a long voyage from the States to Europe. After a few stops around Europe, he finally makes it to the Italian theater where he is attached to the 366th Infantry Regiment in the small village of Sommocolonia.
Dominic Lawson (19:13):
This infantry regiment was all African American with notable veterans, such as Edward Brook, the first African American after Reconstruction to be elected to the United States Senate. Also Captain Aaron Fisher, who I mentioned earlier. The 366th was not only unique for being all African American, but, in fact, it was unique for another reason.
Solace Wales (19:31):
It was a highly-trained regiment and all the members of it were Black, including the superior officers. A
commanding officer, Donovan Queen, he was commanding colonel, was also Black. And for the times,
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this was highly unusual because although there were Black soldiers they had, the higher-ranking officers
were all white. So this regiment was special and very well trained.
Dominic Lawson (19:58):
Even though they were highly trained, they were still relegated to service detail when they got to Italy: cooking, vehicle maintenance, logistics, that sort of thing. Also, many of the high-ranking officers were stripped of their rank and were now to report to high-ranking white officers.
Dominic Lawson (20:19):
Think about that for a second. These men were highly-trained combat soldiers who wanted to prove to their country that they too can help win the war, all the while thinking that meritocracy would win out. And just for a little bit, you could escape that Jim Crow energy, at least for a little while, only to get to Italy and it's like that Digital Underground song, All Around the World the Same Song.
Dominic Lawson (20:48):
Well, anachronisms aside, word got back to the States that this was happening, which prompted pressure in numerous publications. And in November, 1944, the soldiers of the 366th were moved to the front line. When they got there, they were greeted by the new superior officer that gave them quite the welcome. And I don't mean that in a good way.
Solace Wales (21:12):
General Edward Almond from Virginia, by all reports an extremely prejudice fellow, so what he did was unspeakable really. First of all, his welcome to these new troops that were just arriving under his command, here was the way in which he welcomed these new troops, was, "I did not send for you."
Solace Wales (21:35):
This is his welcome speech: "I did not send for you. Your Negro newspapers and Negro politicians and white friends have insisted that you see combat. And I will see that you see combat and your share of the casualties." That was it. That was his welcome.
Dominic Lawson (21:51):
Amidst all the reshuffling of the 366th, Lieutenant Fox is attached to Cannon Company of the 598th Field Artillery. He receives field artillery training and he's pretty good at it, due to him being great at math. That skill would prove vital very soon.
Dominic Lawson (22:08):
Now, General Almond not only gave that very heartwarming welcome to the men of the 366th. He also
did something else that was even more despicable.
Dominic Lawson (22:20):
Leading up to Christmas night, there were German forces, otherwise known as the Wehrmacht, building in the mountains near Sommocolonia where Lieutenant John Fox and his fellow soldiers are at this time. And they're preparing for an attack.
Dominic Lawson (22:35):
Lieutenant Fox had volunteered to be a forward observer in a sentry tower on Christmas Day. His job was to keep a lookout but also direct artillery fire onto a target. The military command that was in charge of the 366th, the all-Black infantry regiment, was fully aware of the buildup in forces, which makes this next part just downright inexcusable. Here is Solace again.
Solace Wales (22:59):
But there was, in addition, an entire battalion, Americans, and the commanding lieutenant colonel of that battalion got word that there was going to be an attack. So what he did was to withdraw his troops and he had attached these 366 guys.
Solace Wales (23:21):
Well, he just left them there knowing full well that there weren't enough of them to withstand the kind
of attack that was coming. He simply withdrew. These 366 guys were just left in harm's way.
Dominic Lawson (23:34):
Yeah, you heard that right. They simply just left the 366th, including Lieutenant Fox, to essentially fend
for themselves, knowing that an attack was imminent.
Dominic Lawson (23:47):
Let me give you a brief tale of the tape here. In the village of Sommocolonia, there are about 75 soldiers from the 366th left there to defend it. Now, there are about 20 to 25 Italian partisans as well, there to help fight for the cause. So this leave about 100 soldiers to defend Sommocolonia.
Dominic Lawson (24:08):
But there are about 300 Wehrmacht soldiers about to descend upon that village, so German soldiers will be facing a third of the size of their force in Sommocolonia. Hmm. That's interesting. Nevermind. I'll explain later.
Dominic Lawson (24:25):
Now, Wehrmacht soldiers were really tough. They were trained for dangerous missions, very often given very few resources to make them angrier. And they were young, which meant they were often more likely to take more risk.
Dominic Lawson (24:41):
Lieutenant Fox to was spend Christmas night on duty. He received a telegram and a cake from Arlene
and his now two-year-old daughter, Sandra Fox. He shared his cake with some of his fellow soldiers.
[crosstalk 00:24:54]. Yeah.
Dominic Lawson (24:56):
I have to imagine that for that brief moment, Lieutenant Fox and his fellow soldiers forgot the circumstances around them. But all of that changes a little before 5:00 AM the next morning.
Dominic Lawson (25:15):
Lieutenant Fox and everyone left to defend Sommocolonia are alerted by German small arms and mortar fire. Lieutenant Fox doesn't hesitate. Even though this is his first action as a forward observer, he rises to the challenge, quickly calling artillery fire on the Germans, and it lands in its desired spot.
Dominic Lawson (25:37):
After the threat is neutralized, there is silence. Then there is machine gun fire. Again, Lieutenant Fox calls in the proper coordinates for another strike, and again he hits his mark.
Dominic Lawson (25:53):
Now, the sentry tower that Lieutenant Fox is in is quite strategic. It's high enough to see the entire village and the surrounding parts. This means that Lieutenant Fox can see the Germans coming well in advance to call out artillery strikes.
Dominic Lawson (26:09):
Around 9:00 AM, the Germans tried to resupply troops with ammunition. Once again, Lieutenant Fox stymied those plans. Here is Solace:
Solace Wales (26:18):
Getting close to 9:00 in the morning when he spotted a mule train, because there was no road leadingto this little village at that time. So they were supplied by mules.
Solace Wales (26:29):
He spotted a mule train bringing ammunition to the Axis troops, to the Germans, and he had to coordinate their movement and everything. But he got a real hit and his buddy said, "That was a good hit, John. I could see the animals are down."
Dominic Lawson (26:46):
At this point, the 366th and the Italian partisans are holding their own in battle. But things are about totake a turn.
Solace Wales (26:55):
However, it seems that the Germans did not run out of ammunition, whereas the Americans were very low on ammunition.
Dominic Lawson (27:01):
Also, it was expected that the Germans might invade from the north, but they also invaded from multiple sides. This would be difficult if the odds were even, but remember the Germans outnumber the defenders of Sommocolonia three to one. Remember what General Almond said.
Solace Wales (27:18):
"And I will see that you see combat and your share of the casualties."
Dominic Lawson (27:23):
Unfortunately, he kept his word. Here again is Solace.
Solace Wales (27:27):
There was no relief. They sent up a platoon to help, but they were immediately overrun, and so that was another failure of Almond's. He didn't provide for replacements or troops that would be able to come in.
Dominic Lawson (27:44):
It's now a little before 11:00 AM and Sommocolonia is completely overrun. Lieutenant Fox can hear the Germans and their small arms fire all below him. He reports the Germans were "in the streets and attacking in strength."
Dominic Lawson (28:01):
Some of the forces have started to retreat, but he decides, along with a few others, to stay behind calling more artillery fire. By him staying behind, he allows more soldiers to retreat while slowing the advance of the German soldiers.
Dominic Lawson (28:18):
Lieutenant Fox calls in another strike, but this one is dangerously close to his position. It's a hit. He radios and says, "That was just where I wanted it. Bring it in 60 yards."
Dominic Lawson (28:32):
Otis Zachary, who he became friends with in his time in the 366th, hears the message and tells his friend he is not doing it. Lieutenant Fox says to his friend, "The defenses have been overrun. The Germans are crawling around this place like ants."
Dominic Lawson (28:48):
Something like this can't just be done, so the order goes all the way up to the top, to the General's headquarters. As Lieutenant Fox waits for the answer from HQ, I'm sure he is nervous. I imagine he is thinking about all of his friends in the 366th, his baby girl Sandra and his wife Arlene, but Lieutenant Fox knows what he must do to complete the mission.
Dominic Lawson (29:16):
In the face of racism at home, when he transferred from Ohio State to Wilberforce to racial military policy in the Italian theater with the American flag on his uniform, he understood completing the mission mattered above all else. As we say today in our culture, Lieutenant John Robert Fox "understood the assignment."
Dominic Lawson (29:43):
In that minute it took, which probably felt like an eternity, Lieutenant Fox hears back from HQ that they
will honor his request. Lieutenant Fox is asked again if this is what he wants to do.
Dominic Lawson (29:54):
Lieutenant Fox responds, "Fire it. There's more of them than there are of us. Give them hell." And it was on this day, December 26, 1944, that Lieutenant John Fox sacrificed himself by calling an artillery strike on his position.
Dominic Lawson (30:28):
In the aftermath of the Battle of Sommocolonia, the Germans take the village. However, not only did the 366th hold their own for as long as they could due to Lieutenant Fox's actions, approximately 100 Germans were killed from that fatal artillery strike.
Dominic Lawson (30:47):
That's the thing I thought was interesting earlier. Think about the symmetry. The Germans fought a third of the size of their fighting force that didn't go quietly, while one man from that fighting force took out a third of theirs. Lieutenant Fox's heroic sacrifice not only stopped the German advance, but it allowed the retreating soldiers to regroup, to which they were able to recapture Sommocolonia a few days later.
Dominic Lawson (31:16):
When I initially heard the story of Lieutenant John Fox, a question I had was, what would lead a man to make that call? I'm definitely not sure if I could have. But then when you see the full story of Lieutenant John Fox, you realize that he was groomed for this very moment from the start.
Dominic Lawson (31:35):
I mean, think about it. He sacrificed college credits when he transferred from Ohio State to Wilberforce in order to be in the ROTC program. And then when he gets there, he learns from Captain Aaron Fisher, who took similar actions in World War I by volunteering to stay behind to complete the mission.
Dominic Lawson (31:54):
Or even when Arlene was going into labor and needed to get to the hospital. Even though the snow was knee-high, he goes and finds a tractor to pave a path to the hospital.
Dominic Lawson (32:06):
It seems that whatever the challenge or the situation was, Lieutenant Fox was always able to meet it with conviction and understanding of what it took to accomplish the mission. And apparently I'm not the only one who thought that. Here again is Solace Wales, researcher and author of Braided in Fire.
Solace Wales (32:25):
He was a guy who embraced life so much that he knew what to do in the moment and what a difficult thing to do. But it was the most sane thing, really, to do, to call fire on himself, which is extraordinary. Which of us is capable of such a thing?
Dominic Lawson (32:40):
Solace said something about Lieutenant Fox that I always think about great leaders.
Solace Wales (32:45):
He loved the service. He was very proud, and he worked hard at what he did. And he always said to himself that he would never ask his men to do anything he wouldn't do himself.
Dominic Lawson (32:55):
Lieutenant Fox's body will be sent back to the Boston area where he lay rest today. And in Sommocolonia lays a marker that honors Lieutenant Fox, which is what Solace came across and started her journey getting him his proper recognition. For decades lieutenant Fox's story and his sacrifice would not be acknowledged as the heroic effort that it was.
Dominic Lawson (33:18):
But thanks to Otis Zachary, Lieutenant Fox's friend and the man who heard him give his very last artillery strike, who kept his name and his story alive along with many others, there would finally be that recognition. On May 15, 1982, Lieutenant Fox would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and that's a great honor.
Dominic Lawson (33:39):
But while the Distinguished Service Cross is absolutely nothing to scoff at, I mean, it is our nation's second-highest military honor; however, when I think about Lieutenant Fox's actions, shouldn't it be considered for the Medal of Honor?
Dominic Lawson (33:55):
I mean, to call a military strike on your own location has to be something that is the epitome of acts of valor and going beyond the call of duty. Well, a few years after being posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, I guess the Department of Defense thought the same thing and commissioned a study that was conducted by Shaw University.
Dominic Lawson (34:19):
It was determined that there were multiple African American service members that were worthy to be recipients of the Medal of Honor, and Lieutenant John Fox would be one of those recipients. And on January 13th, 1997, an American hero was made whole. Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
President Bill Clinton (34:43):
When the enemy surged into a town in Italy and drove out our forces, Lieutenant John Fox volunteered to remain behind in an observation post. He directed defensive artillery fire, and eventually, he insisted that that artillery fire be aimed at his own position.
President Bill Clinton (35:07):
He said, "There are more of them than there are of us." The barrage he so bravely ordered killed him, and when our forces recovered the position, they found his riddled body among that of 100 German soldiers.
Dominic Lawson (35:25):
John Fox's widow, Arlene Fox, was there to accept the medal on her husband's behalf. And at Arlene's request, Solace Wales, whose research was also pivotal for this to come to pass, was in attendance.
Solace Wales (35:39):
Oh, that was absolutely remarkable, the Medal of Honor ceremony, and Clinton was great in that instance. It was an extraordinary moment in which there was absolute silence.
Solace Wales (35:52):
East Room was just packed and just stacks of camera upon camera recording this. And there was this silence in which it felt like rejoicing. It really went beyond just the military, which was, of course, there in full swing, with Colin Powell and the whole works.
Dominic Lawson (36:13): Of course.
Solace Wales (36:14):
But there was a feeling of finally the country is acknowledging its courageous members and acknowledging the Black Americans' contribution in this way, that it was very powerful. It was really extraordinary.
Dominic Lawson (36:30):
So after 50 years, Lieutenant Fox is given his proper due and awarded this nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor. Over the years, Lieutenant Fox would be recognized more.
Dominic Lawson (36:44):
In 2005, Hasbro would create a Lieutenant John Fox GI Joe action figure. Also in the tower where Lieutenant John Fox performed his actions as a forward observer, a museum is being created. Solace says that it would've opened this year, but COVID halted those plans.
Dominic Lawson (37:02):
All the commemorations for this American hero, someone says that there should be another commemorative effort. Over the past two years as systemic racism has been thrust into the American consciousness, we have been reexamining quite a bit.
Dominic Lawson (37:18):
Statues have been removed, parks renamed, and efforts to support Black-owned businesses have expanded. Even the state of Mississippi redesigned a state flag. And there's someone who think that maybe in this country, we can go a bit further in that department.
Dr. Michael Kryzanek (37:35):
... and then put together the blog as a result of that, and sent it to Kevin Cullen and the Globe.
Dominic Lawson (37:41):
This is Dr. Michael Kryzanek, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Bridgewater State University and host of the blog, Commentary from the Commonwealth. He is talking about his work and research with Kevin Cullen of The Boston Globe, and he has a very unique idea.
Dr. Michael Kryzanek (37:59):
And he did more research on it as well from his perspective. So the combination of that little video, the combination of my work and the combination of Kevin Cullens's work put together an article that did receive a good deal of attention in terms of comments.
Dr. Michael Kryzanek (38:22):
I know Kevin Cullen reasonably well, and he's tried to convince members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation to pay more attention to Lieutenant Fox and pay more attention to the prospect of, perhaps, and you may have come across this, changing the names of some of the military establishments in our country. Which are named after Southern generals, who, I guess I have to say, were secessionists and individuals who were against the Union of the United States.
Dominic Lawson (38:56):
Well, that certainly is an interesting idea, isn't it? Naming a military base after an African American soldier, maybe even Lieutenant John Fox. Fort Fox. That's an interesting ring to it. Here's Dr. Kryzanek again.
Dr. Michael Kryzanek (39:10):
Fort Bragg, as an example, Fort Benning. And at least pose the question of shouldn't Lieutenant Fox, shouldn't he be recognized with the naming of a military base? That, of course, has not happened yet.
Dominic Lawson (39:25): Right.
Dr. Michael Kryzanek (39:25):
I think the first step, which you are, I'm sure, aware of is that some of these statues of generals that have been taken down, which may be the first step. The question then is, is there another step along the way where we can recognize brave, brave men like Lieutenant Fox with the naming of a military base?
Dr. Michael Kryzanek (39:44):
I think that would be a tough call because they've been in existence since post-Civil War Era. From my understanding, it was a kind of a concession to Southern leaders and Southern politicians that even though the South lost, the North was willing to name US military bases after some of these generals who shouldn't have had a base named after them.
Dr. Michael Kryzanek (40:12):
Not only were they against the Union, but some of them were not terribly good leaders, and from the standpoint of the Confederacy and from their lack of effective leadership during their war of succession.
Dominic Lawson (40:28):
Dr. Kryzanek points out that there may be another reason that naming a military installation after a African American soldier is a good idea.
Dr. Michael Kryzanek (40:36):
We rely on the recruiting of African Americans in the military. But more importantly, I think, to my knowledge, there is not one military base or certainly not one major military base that is named after a African American World War II or Korean War or any war that should be recognized.
Dr. Michael Kryzanek (40:59):
I think it would not ... emphasize to all Americans, the role that these men played in protecting our democracy and helping to win the war. But at the same time, recognize that these individuals should not only be recognized for their bravery, but should be recognized by our nation.
Dominic Lawson (41:20):
That is because Black America has always answered the call to defend freedom, from Bunker Hill to the mountains of Afghanistan. And they come from the boroughs of New York, the streets of LA, and just like this host, the proud neighborhood of South Memphis.
Dominic Lawson (41:38):
Lieutenant John Fox's actions on December 26, 1944 speaks of a man that knew how to rise to the moment of the challenge that was presented. He represents the best of America in every way. No matter racial discrimination or Nazi soldiers, John Fox displayed valor, honor and perseverance, and that is why Lieutenant John Fox is truly an all-American hero.
Dominic Lawson (42:07):
The Black Is America podcast, a presentation of Owls Education, was created and is written, researched, and produced by me, Dominic Lawson. Executive producer Kenda Lawson. Cover art was created by Alexandria Eddings of Art Life Connections.
Dominic Lawson (42:25):
Special thanks to Solace Wales, author of Braided In Fire; Carl Westmoreland, senior historian at the National Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio; and Dr. Michael Kryzanek, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Bridgewater State University, host of the blog Commentary From The Commonwealth.
Dominic Lawson (42:44):
Be sure to like, review and subscribe to the Black Is America podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify or wherever you like to listen to podcasts. For a full transcript of this episode and other resources, go to www.blackisamericapodcast.com.
Dominic Lawson (43:02):
There, you can read our blog, leave us a review, or you can leave a voicemail message, and we may just play that message on an upcoming episode. You also can hit the Donation button if you like what you heard, which helps us create more educational content like this.
Dominic Lawson (43:17):
Finally, thank you so much for listening to the Black Is America podcast, where our history comes to life.
Until next time.
San Francisco Bay Area art educator, Solace Wales, and her artist husband, have lived part of every year in the small Tuscan village of Sommocolonia since 1975. In Sommocolonia, Wales was enthralled by the daunting stories her neighbors told her about their WWII experiences. Speaking with her Italian neighbors over several years, Wales recognized that she must locate surviving African American veterans who had occupied the village in segregated troops and had been involved in the horrific Sommocolonia battle of December 26th, 1944. Through dozens of interviews and primary source research, Wales has woven together these oral accounts of veterans, villagers, their families, Italian history, official army record and her own very personal journey of discovery in her book, Braided in Fire.
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Solace Wales’ interest in WWII Italy was sparked at age 19 when she was a Smith College Junior Year Abroad Student in Siena & Florence. After college she had a long career as a children’s art educator. She was Director of the International Child Art Center in San Francisco and then ran a children’s art school in Marin County, California. In addition, she sometimes taught art education classes at San Francisco State University.
While continuing to live in Marin, in 1975, Wales, her artist husband and toddler daughter began also living part-time in Sommocolonia, a small mountaintop village in northern Tuscany. There she heard daunting stories from her village neighbors about their experiences when Sommocolonia was on the Gothic Line. Wales was instantly enthralled, but it wasn’t until 1987 that she realized the urgency of pursuing the story formally while some of the older villagers were still alive. Over several summers, she tape-recorded interviews with 21 of her neighbor friends. In 1996 a book of excerpts of these interviews was published in Italian.
The villagers’ stories informed Wales that she must locate and interview the black American veterans who had occupied the village in segregated troops and been involved in the horrific Sommocolonia battle which took place the day after Christmas, 1944. During the 1990s Wales spoke with veterans from all across the country, ending up with 21 in-depth interviews, coincidentally the same number as villagers interviewed. Realizing that she had happened onto a little known piece of history of considerable importance, she retired from teaching at the end of the 1990s and devoted herself to making this story known.
In 1997 Wales was invited by the White House to attend the long overdue ceremony where President Clinton recognized African Americans serving in WWII with the Medal of Honor — including Braided in Fire’s protagonist, Lt. John Fox. In 2000 Wales instigated and organized the return of black veterans involved in the area for an honoring of their service and an initiation of a monument/park to peace in Sommocolonia. This event, hosted by the local governmental seat, the Comune di Barga, attracted front page articles in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and a special on NBC’s Evening News with Tom Brokaw.
The author was a consultant for filmmaker Jim White, who produced INVISIBLE MEN OF HONOR: The Legend of the Buffalo Soldiers originally aired in 2005 on TVONE in Houston. She was the primary consultant for Karen Saillant in developing her score for her IOT (International Opera Theater) production Buffalo Soldier Opera which premiered in Città della Pieve, Italy in 2012. She was a participant in Pacific Film Foundation’s documentary, With One Hand Tied which premiered in 2017 in Long Beach, CA.
To further Sommocolonia’s monument/park ‘La Rocca alla Pace’, Wales has participated in fundraising efforts, among them a talk she gave at the San Francisco Italian Cultural Institute which included some of her veteran interviewees — a happily crowded, successful event. She has offered encouragement to the Sommocolonia community’s long effort to develop a new WWII museum in the village, assisting not only with fundraising, but by writing explanations for the museum’s displays and articles for the village’s website: www.associazionericreativasommocolonia.it The site is in both Italian and English. The new museum building is currently in progress on the La Rocca alla Pace land. Soon to appear on braidedinfire.com will be photos and information about this exciting project.
Though involved with many things related to the story over recent years, the author has mainly devoted herself to telling it vividly and accurately in book form. Along with studying American military and other books addressing the period, she has researched extensively local Italian WWII history and weaved this information together with the oral accounts of veterans and villagers into narrative non-fiction in Braided in Fire: Black GIs and Tuscan Villagers on the Gothic Line.
Our physical location in downtown Cincinnati is just a few steps from the banks of the Ohio River, the great natural barrier that separated the slave states of the South from the free states of the North. Since opening in 2004, we have filled a substantial void in our nation’s cultural heritage. Rooted in the stories of the Underground Railroad, we illuminate the true meaning of inclusive freedom by presenting permanent and special exhibits that inspire, public programming that provoke dialogue and action, and educational resources that equip modern abolitionists.
The concept of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center first proposed.
14,000 attend groundbreaking.
20,000 attend opening celebration.
280,000 attend in first year from all 50 states and 35 countries.
Two National Endowment for Humanities grants awarded.
Merger with Cincinnati Museum Center.
Fiscal year closes with balanced budget.
Celebrated 15-year anniversary.
Woodrow Keown, Jr. named President and Chief Operating Officer
To pursue inclusive freedom by promoting social justice for all, building on the principles of the Underground Railroad.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is the preeminent cultural learning center for inclusive freedom - locally, nationally and globally.
Professor Emeritus of Political Science
Dr. Kryzanek is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and currently Special Assistant to the President of Bridgewater State University for Global Engagement and University Priorities. He received his PhD from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. From 2016-2019 Dr. Kryzanek was the Academic Director in the Public Management Institute for the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) that brought 25 Fellows to the campus as Mandela Fellows. Currently, Dr. Kryzanek is working on a civic education project associated with the Plymouth 400 celebration to begin in 2020. Dr. Kryzanek is formerly the Executive Director of the Minnock Center for International Engagement at Bridgewater State. He is the author of eight books on U.S. foreign policy, American government and comparative politics. His latest book, written with his daughter Dr. Ann Karreth, is 25 Issues That Shape American Politics: Debates, Differences and Divisions. Dr. Kryzanek is the board chair of Fr. Bill’s and Mainspring, the largest homeless organization on the South Shore and Vice President of the Rotary Club of the Bridgewaters. He lives in Whitman with his wife Carol. They have three daughters and four grandchildren.