On this day in 1915, a hero is born. First Lt. John Robert Fox would go on to become one of only seven black men to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War II.
Unfortunately, those Medals were too slow in coming. They weren’t awarded until 1997, more than 50 years after the war.
Fox’s heroism came as he served with the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated African-American division in the Army. That division was fighting in Italy late in 1944. By Christmas, Fox was in the Italian village of Sommocolonia. He’d set up a forward observation post on the second story of a house in that village.
On Christmas night, enemy soldiers began infiltrating the area, dressed in civilian clothes. An organized attack by uniformed German soldiers began at 4:00 the next morning. The fighting was intense. Many Americans were forced into retreat, but Fox and other members of the observer party stayed behind.
They would help the retreat by directing American artillery fire where it was most helpful. They had a good vantage point and could see the Germans flooding the streets below.
The ordeal went on for hours, but the Germans were soon near Fox’s location. Fox called for fire closer and closer to his own position.
It wasn’t enough. The Germans were swarming closer, and Fox soon called back. He wanted the fire aimed directly at his post. The man on the receiving end of this call was Lieutenant Otis Zachary, a friend of Fox’s. Zachary didn’t want to give the order to fire. He turned to the battalion commander for guidance.
But Fox simply became more insistent. “There are hundreds of them coming,” he yelled across the line. “Put everything you’ve got on my O.P. [observation post]!” The battalion commander called his own superior for approval—and got it. The last thing anyone heard Fox yell was: “Fire it! There’s more of them than there are of us. Give them hell!”
The shots were taken, straight at Fox’s position.
When Fox’s body was later found, he was surrounded by the bodies of approximately 100 Germans. He’d sacrificed himself, but he’d also taken some of the enemy with him—and his efforts had been enough to slow down the enemy advance, giving American infantry and artillery time to reorganize.
Fox was recommended for a Distinguished Service Cross, but the paperwork was lost. He eventually received the cross, but not until 1982. Perhaps what came next was more appropriate: The United States Army conducted an investigation during the 1990s. Old war records would be reviewed to determine which soldiers did not receive a Medal of Honor, possibly due to their race.
An old wrong would be corrected.
In Fox’s case, it meant that his Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to a Medal of Honor. His widow, Arlene, received the Medal on his behalf in January 1997. Fox’s younger sister, Jane, was asked what she thought of the long delay.
“It’s one of those the-glass-is-half-empty-or-half-full things,” Jane said. “You can look at it in a bad way, or you can say that America is trying. Things used to be really bad. Now they’re getting better, and they’ll be better yet.”
America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (James H. Willbanks ed.; 2011)
Medal of Honor citation (John Robert Fox, WWII)