Stories of heroism and self-sacrifice permeate our memories of the Second World War. We think of the heroic efforts of the American Rangers scaling the cliffs of the Pointe du Hoc, the Russian Army’s desperate last stand at Stalingrad, the Japanese forces’ determination not to cede a an inch of the barren, volcanic soil on Iwo Jima, and the courage of the encircled British forces under siege at Tobruk. These moments of heroism and sacrifice have been widely documented, celebrated and admired, and form an integral part of our memory of this conflict. However, some acts of valour and self-sacrifice have gone largely unnoticed, forgotten in the midst of the death and carnage as the Second World War tore the world apart. It is impossible, of course, to fully commemorate and honour every instance of heroic self-sacrifice that occurred in a conflict that lasted six years and spanned four continents; however it is through honouring and remembering these stories of courage that we can make sense of such a terrible period in human history. The story of Second Lieutenant John Robert Fox of the US Army’s 92nd Infantry Division, is one such story.
John Robert Fox, born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1915, graduated with a commission of second lieutenant in 1940 from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and was incorporated into the 92nd Infantry Division. The particularity of this division was that it was a segregated African-American one, proudly known as the Buffalo Soldiers, which served with distinction in Italy in the late 1940s. It was in the peninsula that Fox served, and died as a result of an act of incredible valour.
Fox was part of a small forward observer party that had volunteered to stay behind in the small Italian village of Sommocolonia, in the Serchio River Valley on 26th December 1944, after American forces had been forced to withdraw after it had been overrun by a surprise and powerful German counterattack. From his position on the second floor of a house, Fox directed defensive artillery fire as German troops swarmed through the streets and attacked, greatly outnumbering the small detachment from the 92nd Infantry Division. As they advanced, Fox radioed to have the artillery strikes adjusted closer and closer to his position to delay the Germans, and to give his troops the chance to retreat and reform. He then radioed again to have the fire moved even closer, to the stunned surprise of the soldier receiving the message. When he was informed that this was tantamount to suicide as the shells would land directly on his position, Fox simply replied “fire it”.
His actions severely delayed the Germans and permitted US forces to regroup and organize a counter attack which led to them repelling the German and regaining control of the village. Upon retaking the village, the units found Fox’s body surrounded by those of around one hundred Germans.
For his “gallant and courageous actions, at the supreme sacrifice of his own life”, John Robert Fox was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour, which was received by his wife from President Bill Clinton in a White House Ceremony on January 13, 1997. This ceremony marked a turning point in United States military tradition as the medal was also awarded to six other African-American World War Two veterans, who had previously been neglected on account of their skin colour.
It took half a century for Lieutenant Fox’s incredible sacrifice and courage in the face of overwhelming odds to be recognised, which shows the importance of memory and remembering fallen and forgotten heroes who, as his citation put it, “reflect the upmost credit” on our armed forces.