Lieutenant John R Fox Medal of Honor Recipient for his action in Sommocolonia
At dawn, the day after Christmas, 1944, highly trained Axis troops of the Fourth Hoch Mountain and the Alpine Mittenwald Battalions attacked Sommocolonia. The attackers numbered three times that of the approximately 75 African American soldiers of the 366th Infantry Regiment and the 25 Italian partisans of Pippo’s XI Zone, who were defending the village.
The defenders put up a valiant fight. During the three hours the battle raged, Forward Observer Lt John Fox expertly directed artillery fire from his outpost on the top floor of Sommocolonia’s tenth century ‘La Rocca’ tower. Finally, realizing that nearly all his fellow GIs were dead and seeing his tower surrounded by crowds of enemy soldiers, Fox telephoned his artillery battery down in the valley and asked that they fire onto his own location.
“Hell no! I can’t do that!” exclaimed his friend who answered the call. But after Fox spoke with the commanding colonel and insisted his request be honored quickly, the colonel ordered all four nearby batteries to fire at Fox in the tower.
Who was this man of astounding courage who could choose the most effective action even when it included his own death?
John Robert Fox was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on May 18, 1915. He was the eldest of three children of a family living in Woodlawn, a suburb of Cincinnati. (Today 2 miles from Woodlawn in Lockland, Ohio, is American Legion Post #631, named ‘John R Fox.’)
Fox was attracted to military service as a student at Ohio State University, where he wanted to enroll in ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps), but because he was African American he was not permitted to join. He decided to forgo the credits that he had amassed at Ohio State and transfer to Wilberforce University, at the time, one of only three universities in the entire US with an ROTC program that would accept blacks.
John Fox graduated from Wilberforce in 1941 with a degree in engineering and a commission as a 2nd lieutenant. That June he was assigned to the 366th Infantry Regiment, then in training in Ft. Devens, MA. Fox became a 1st lieutenant and a valued member of ‘Cannon Company,’ a 366th artillery unit.
In January 1942, John Fox married Arlene Marrow of Brockton, MA in the Ft. Devens chapel. Their daughter, Sandra Fox, was born in December of that year.
John Fox’s fellow soldiers invariably called him “an excellent leader.” Several said he was “outspoken” while others said “daring.” All agreed that he was gregarious. One veteran put it, “Fox was a jovial, happy-go-lucky, life-of-the-party type.” Arlene Fox, who knew him best, spoke of his sense of humor, but emphasized the fact that “he also had a very serious side.”
At the end of November 1944, the 366th Infantry Regiment was sent to assist the 92nd ‘Buffalo’ Infantry Division on the western end of the Gothic Line which stretched across the Italian peninsula from from just south of Massa on the Tyrrhenian Sea, to Pesaro on the Adriatic. (The Gothic Line was where the Allies got stuck trying to push the German forces northward.) Cannon Company was then attached to the 598th Field Artillery Battalion of the 92nd Division. Lt Fox excelled in Fire Direction Control (FDC), figuring quickly the mathematics to set the coordinates on the guns to correspond to directions given by forward observers.
John Fox volunteered to be the forward observer for the unpopular Christmastime duty in Sommocolonia, the most northern point on the western Gothic Line. He had never before served as a forward observer and had never previously been posted on the frontline. But he had been well trained in pinpointing the exact positions of the enemy troops in order to call in artillery fire. He did such an excellent job during the battle that German sharpshooters present were instructed by their superior to concentrate on taking out the forward observer.
Then came his astounding phone call. What happened as a result? Many enemy troops were killed by the artillery fire and, although German forces took Sommocolonia, their assault on Barga was delayed, allowing American ‘Buffalo’ troops stationed in the valley below time to retreat. In his valiant, last ditch effort to protect the village and stem the attack, John Fox sacrificed his life. Ultimately it was a sacrifice to uphold the ideals of liberty and justice.
Lt John Fox’s artillery request was honored in a few minutes, but it took 52 years for his country to honor him with the recognition he deserved. In a White House ceremony on December 13, 1997, President Clinton presented to his widow, Arlene Fox, John Fox’s posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military honor.
After rigorous military review, Fox had been chosen as one of the seven African Americans to receive the Medal of Honor in 1997 for WWII action. Because of prejudice at the time of WWII, no black soldier had previously received this distinction.
Fox’s first official recognition came, not from his own country, but from the country he was fighting to liberate. At the insistence of Professor of history, Umberto Sereni (then a city councilman), the Barga Comune added a plaque with Lt. John Fox’s name to Sommocolonia’s ‘Martyrs of Resistance’ monument remembering partisans who died defending the village. The current American Consul General to Florence came to Sommocolonia for that occasion on the anniversary of Fox’s death, December 26, 1979.
In 2000, the Barga Comune and Sommocolonia honored Fox again (together with his fellow soldiers) when they dedicated La Rocca alla Pace [Fortress for Peace] a monument/park at the tower ruin, the very spot where Lt John Fox died.
THE CEREMONY AT ‘LA ROCCA ALLA PACE’ SOMMOCOLONIA JULY 16, 2000
Albert Burke, President of the Buffalo Soldier Veterans Association, speaking to the gathering.
To his right: Doctor Enrico Gonnella, Presidente of the La Rocca Committee, Professor Umberto Sereni, Mayor of Barga and Arlene Fox, clapping.
Speakers at the ceremony included all those in the photo above and:
Lt. Col. Ted Ihrke, US Army Base Commander Camp Darby, Pisa
Riccardo Mancini, President of the Region of Tuscany Council
Colonel Gian-Piero Manley, representative of the American Embassy Rome
Hilarian Martinez, American Consul General to Florence
Solace Wales, Vice-Presidente of the La Rocca Committee
Morgan Charles, John and Arlene Fox’s grandson, reading Arlene Fox’s message of thanks to the community (Sommocolonia and the Barga Comune). In the audience are 8 Buffalo Soldiers accomplanied by family members (26 African Americans came for the occasion), Sommocolonians, many media people and others.
article by Solace Wales, author of Braided in Fire: Buffalo Soldiers and Tuscan Villagers on the Gothic Line.
Wales’ book, which follows John Fox’s story extensively along with that of his fellow soldiers and Sommocolonian villagers, is not yet in print –readers of this site will be informed when it is available. The book is being handled by RWA Roger Williams Agency. (All the information in this article is fully documented in the book.)
For further information on this site, click on the link to ‘Story’
Fortress to Peace (La Rocca alla Pace): Solace Wales speaks of the special significance of the word ‘peace’ for Sommocolonia
Christmas Battle by Vittorio Lino Biondi
For further information elsewhere, see by Frank Viviano:
Almost-Forgotten Heroes: Italian town honors black Gis who were shunned by their own country by Frank Viviano,
front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, July 13, 2000
On a ’44 Battlefield, a Salute for a Black Hero by Alessandra Stanley, front page of The New York Times, July 16, 2000.