On Christmas night 70 years ago , German units in civilian clothes began infiltrating the town of Sommocolonia, Italy in the Serchio River valley of the Tuscany region. Then, before dawn on 26 December 1944, artillery and mortar fire began raining down on the mountain-top village as a prelude to a German assault. All across Italy, the Germans and Italians were beginning a campaign to push back the Allies’ thrust into Italy, which had already liberated Rome. The Axis forces were hoping to initiate a counteroffensive that would parallel their compatriots at the Battle of the Bulge, who at that very same time were fighting back against the Allies’ successes in northern Europe. The Germans titled their efforts in Italy Unternehmen Wintergewitter, “Operation Winter Storm” (not to be confused with a 1942 operation of the same name, during the Battle of Stalingrad).
But as the indirect fire landed that morning, First Lieutenant John R. Fox in Sommocolonia with his observation team and a couple dozen Italian Partisans, did not know that he was at the forefront of a major enemy counteroffensive.
Fox was a forward observer originally assigned to the 598th Field Artillery Battalion in the 92nd Infantry Division, the African American unit that fought during both world wars and whose soldiers were known as Buffalo Soldiers.
Fox was attached to the 366th Infantry Regiment before the attack on Sommocolonia. When he spotted enemy in and around the town, he was faced with a dilemma: attempt to withdraw, or delay the enemy as long as possible. He immediately began calling in fire missions. The majority of Allied forces in the town withdrew in the face of the assault, but Fox and his observation team remained on the second story of a building. He called in a smoke mission to screen any remaining friendlies that were mobile and could withdraw. Then he began walking rounds closer and closer to his position.
It became apparent that rounds would land on the friendly position in Sommocolonia. Fox reportedly said, “I want everything you’ve got put on my coordinates… There are hundreds of them coming. Put everything you’ve got on my OP! There’s more of them than there are of us. Give them hell.'” On the other end of the radio was First Lieutenant Otis Zachary, a Fire Direction Officer with the 598th Field Artillery Battalion, equipped with 105mm howitzers. Zachary refused, but a colonel called up to higher headquarters for permission to go forward with the mission.
The Americans were forced out of Sommocolonia that day, but were not pushed back for very long. By 1 January, the 92nd Infantry Division had recaptured the village. Fox’s body was discovered, surrounded by nearly 100 enemy that he killed by bringing rounds down on that position.
Fox’s story is also inextricably bound to racism and the policy of segregation during this period. He was part of perhaps the most famous segregated unit of African Americans, the 92nd Infantry Division. Such units often were not given the support and certainly not the recognition that white units received. When wounded, African American Soldiers were only allowed plasma from other African Americans, not whites. Zachary recalled life in the segregated Army as an African American: “In those days, if you were not white, you had to fight on two fronts at once. One against the Nazis, and another against the mentality of your own superiors.”
Even after the war and the integration of the Armed Forces, racism dogged Fox and his legacy. His self-sacrifice was not recognized for many years. Records were shoddily kept. His widow, Arlene Fox, as well as Zachary and others persisted in petitions to honor Fox with an award. In addition, Solace Wales Sheets, an American who moved to Sommocolonia, began interviewing villagers in the 1970s about the events that took place there during the war. She recorded a former Fascist partisan describing Fox: “…he acted like a real soldier.” Wales Sheets eventually wrote a book, La Battaglia e il bombardamento a Sommocolonia; I would love to find a copy of this book, though I am sure its distribution in the U.S. is extremely limited.
Yet it still took 38 years before Fox was recognized in 1982 with the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army’s second-highest award. In the early 1990s, the Army contracted Shaw University to research African American service members and their possible merit for awards. The ensuing investigation, approved by the Army, concluded that racism was a factor in preventing recognition for African Americans. Fox was among the 10 servicemen recommended for the Medal of Honor. On 13 January 1997, 52 years after Fox sacrificed himself in order to stall the Axis counterattack in his sector, President Clinton bestowed the nation’s highest award for valor in combat to Arlene Fox for her deceased husband.
For extraordinary heroism against an armed enemy in the vicinity of Sommocolonia, Italy on 26 December 1944, while serving as a member of Cannon Company, 366th Infantry Regiment, 92d Infantry Division. During the preceding few weeks, Lieutenant Fox served with the 598th Field Artillery Battalion as a forward observer. On Christmas night, enemy soldiers gradually infiltrated the town of Sommocolonia in civilian clothes, and by early morning the town was largely in hostile hands. Commencing with a heavy barrage of enemy artillery at 0400 hours on 26 December 1944, an organized attack by uniformed German units began. Being greatly outnumbered, most of the United States Infantry forces were forced to withdraw from the town, but Lieutenant Fox and some other members of his observer party voluntarily remained on the second floor of a house to direct defensive artillery fire. At 0800 hours, Lieutenant Fox reported that the Germans were in the streets and attacking in strength. He then called for defensive artillery fire to slow the enemy advance. As the Germans continued to press the attack towards the area that Lieutenant Fox occupied, he adjusted the artillery fire closer to his position. Finally he was warned that the next adjustment would bring the deadly artillery right on top of his position. After acknowledging the danger, Lieutenant Fox insisted that the last adjustment be fired as this was the only way to defeat the attacking soldiers. Later, when a counterattack retook the position from the Germans, Lieutenant Fox’s body was found with the bodies of approximately 100 German soldiers. Lieutenant Fox’s gallant and courageous actions, at the supreme sacrifice of his own life, contributed greatly to delaying the enemy advance until other infantry and artillery units could reorganize to repel the attack. His extraordinary valorous actions were in keeping with the most cherished traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.