Another Veteran’s Day has come and gone, and like so many Halloween spirits on an earlier November morning, the memories of the sacrifices of The Greatest Generation are fading back into the cobwebbed corners of the collective American psyche. If its people could be so generous with their time, however, then may America lend its undivided attention a day late to Lieutenant John R. Fox, and repay some small portion of its debt.
Sommocolonia is a picturesque Tuscan village outside of Florence, Italy. Places of its type are more readily adapted by American thought to host a paperback romance than the tragedy of conflict, but the fascism of Central Europe throughout the second World War cared little for that. The day after Christmas of 1944, an Austrian alpine unit of Hitler’s Fourth Mountain Battalion began an offensive to clear Sommocolonia on its way to cut Allied supply lines at the port of Livorno.
Defending the town were elements of the 366th Infantry Regiment’s artillery company. The 366th, one of the few racially segregated Buffalo Soldier regiments staffed with African-American officers, had been attached to the 92nd division of the Fifth Army that November. The villagers of Sommocolonia would remember them as friends who shared food and helped with the labors in preparation of winter. Among the 336th’s artillery company was Lieutenant John R. Fox of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Lieutenant Fox spent the night of Dec. 25th, 1944, in an upper floor of a building intended to serve as a vantage to “spot” for the artillery stationed outside of town. When he woke on the morning of the 26th, the streets of Sommocolonia were flooding with Austrians. If white Americans viewed their Buffalo Soldiers as inferior, then Hitler’s troops viewed them as less than human. No surrender was offered or accepted, and the buildings where the wounded men of color were holed up were set on fire. When a retreat was called. Lt. Fox volunteered to hold his position so that he would be able to call in artillery coordinates to slow the Axis advance.
With each subsequent call, the coordinates crept closer to Lt. Fox’s position as the enemy troops advanced through the town. Eventually, Lt. Fox said a set of coordinates that his friend on the other end of the line, Lt. Otis Zachary, recognized to be his position. When confronted with what amounted to his request for suicide, Lt. Fox confirmed, stating that there were more of the enemy than there was him in that position.
What differentiates Lt. Fox from the bravest of the brave, the exalted recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, is that most others among those rare few conducted themselves with bravery and self-sacrifice when there was little hope left for them. Lt. Fox had decided to maintain his position with ample time to escape. Where some before had reacted heroically while wounded and facing impossible odds, Lt. Fox had coolly and pragmatically calculated his own position, and ordered it to be fired upon, knowing he would never see his wife or daughter again. America could not possibly owe a greater debt to any man, and would find it terribly difficult to repay him more poorly.
When the fighting had died down and the 366th had moved back into Sommocolonia, they found Lt. Fox’s body in the rubble of the building where he had been stationed, along with nearly 100 of the Wehrmacht. In spite of setting a nearly unobtainable bar yet higher, he would not receive appropriate commendation until many decades after his death. He was only posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1982, and it took until Jan. 13, 1997, after an investigation into the discrimination against black soldiers regarding medal citations, for President Bill Clinton to present his Congressional Medal of Honor to his widow, Arlene. If more Americans had cause to remember Lt. Fox on Nov. 12 and beyond – to keep a place in their heart for men like him all year long – then the United States would be much closer to a fuller understanding that people are better judged by the content of their character than by the color of their skin.
Opinion by Brian Whittemore
Photo by Frank Gruber – flickr License
Right Inset Public Domain, U.S. Army 1941 Yearbook