Finding John (My search for a Medal of Honor Winner)

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As I’ve stated before, I usually research two people at a time. That way, when you need a break from one, you can work on the other. I began John’s while doing the one on Otto Lederer. John Robert Fox won the Medal of Honor by calling in an artillery strike on his own position to stop the Germans from taking over a small Italian town. This was quite unique. When I first came across John’s story I knew he was someone I wanted to pursue but I was hesitant because I had tried three times before to research African-Americans and had horrible luck. This was mostly because they had been from the south and, due to the times (and the old Jim Crow laws), the documentation was very sparse. This time was very different though. So let’s begin. 

I’ve always been surprised that any soldiers were black, back in the day. Yet as badly as the country had been treating them since the beginning, they still fought for their country. It’s even more incomprehensible when you consider that they had been proving themselves time and time again ever since the Civil War. It was proven again on the western frontier with the famed Buffalo Soldiers. They were also there for the Spanish-American War and the first World War. In each case they had proven themselves above and beyond and yet the country could never admit to how good they really were. 

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Buffalo soldier regiment that fought in the Spanish American War where they won five Medals of Honor

Still, they joined up anyway. I think they joined for the same reasons as everyone else: patriotism, to get a better chance in life, pride, being poor, and so on. They were educated and uneducated. Honest and criminal. Hard-working and lazy. In other words, they were the same as every one else of any color that joined. The difference was they weren’t treated the same as everyone else. During WW2, German POWs in this country were actually treated better, and that’s a fact.

John was no different than any other guy that joined. He was a native of Cincinnati and had attended Wilberforce University, an historically black university in Greene County, Ohio. While there he was in the ROTC program and upon his graduation in 1940 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. The following year he had graduated from Fort Benning’s Rifle and Heavy Weapons course and then assigned to the famed 92nd Infantry Division. While all this was going on he had at some point met his wife Arlene, got married and then promptly had his daughter, Sandra. I’m going to leave this part of the story for now and go back to the beginning.

John was born 15 May 1915 in Cincinnati (Hamilton County) Ohio to John Robert Fox and Myrtle Mabel Williams. I had at times seen both father and son listed as a junior. In truth though, it turned out that there were three of them in a row. This means our Medal of Honor winner was actually John Robert Fox III. From this point on I’ll refer to them as John III, John II and John I. 

John II was born in Cincinnati on 15 Jun 1892 to John I and Margaret Turner. Both of his parents were from Kentucky, probably Mason County. I was unable to determine if the parents of John I and Margaret were former slaves or not but I felt that they probably were. John II’s wife, Myrtle Mabel Williams, was born 23 Aug 1890 in Jeffersonville, Clark County, Indiana to Charles Henry Williams and Mary Willie Burton. Charles was from Kentucky and Mary Willie was from Pennsylvania but I was unable to tell exactly where for either of them.

I’m not going to start the story all the way back but we’ll begin with John II. Being born in 1892 means the first place to start is the 1900 Census. He and his family are living at 514 W Fifth Street in Cincinnati. His father, John I, is a saloon keeper and was born in August of 1860 in Kentucky. He and Margaret have been married for about 10 years. Margaret shows as being born July of 1865 in Ohio (actually Kentucky though). It also shows her as having borne two children, both of whom are still living. Next up is John II, who is seven and attends school. His sister Margaret is last, 5 years old and also attending school.  1900 Census

John I died at home in Cincinnati on 12 March 1909 from empyema. This is usually caused by pneumonia. His death certificate shows his birth as 10 March 1859 in Kentucky. If you look at the certificate you’ll see that John II was the informant so I assume the information is probably correct. Also notice that it says John Jr for our John II. This means that the hero of our story really was John III but I never even once found him referred to that way. John I was buried at the Colored American Cemetery in East Madisonville, Hamilton County, Ohio. His grave is posted on Find-A-Grave but only because I added it, so that means no picture of the tombstone. Death Certificate  

John II next shows up the following year in the 1910 Census. His mother is now widowed and now washes other people’s clothes at home for a living. The next part startled me because it now shows her as also suddenly having a 25 year old daughter named Jennie Monroe who appears out of nowhere. It also shows Margaret as saying she had borne 3 children, with two still living. Unfortunately, I was never able to find this missing child that died. As far as Jennie is concerned though, she was obviously not her daughter. I tracked her down for a short while and she turned out to be the daughter of a James Monroe and Elizabeth Flanagan. She went on to marry a Roy Bettis, raised a family, and passed away in a nursing home in Manassas, Virginia in 1970. She may  have been related somehow but I didn’t pursue it to find out. Meanwhile John II and his sister Margaret are both still there but the enumerator incorrectly listed Margaret as 5 instead of 15. If you’re a regular reader of my blogs then you know that the enumerators make all kinds of mistakes, and sometimes outrageous ones. This one was really not all that unusual. 1910 Census

In 1912 John II is in the city directory for Cincinnati. He is still living at home but he is now a porter. Between his mother as a washer-woman and his being a porter, all the old stereotypes we see in the old movies are there. This also shows that the prejudices were up north also. This was not just “a southern” thing that the north would lead you to believe. You’ll find John near the bottom left of the page and his mother in about the middle of the right.  1912 Directory   

On 30 August 1913, John II married Myrtle Mabel Williams in Cincinnati. In the document you’ll see that he was now a chauffeur and she is a domestic. John II Marriage.  Considering that he was now a chauffeur and she was a domestic I would have to assume that he met her at his new occupation. 

Next up was the birth of John III on 18 May 1915. I was never able to find a birth record for him. The only solid record I found was his headstone applicationHeadstone Application   On 10 September 1916, John II’s daughter Myrtle Mabel was born in Cincinnati. A few months later, on 10 January 1917, John II’s mother (Margaret Turner) passed away at home in Cincinnati. Death Certificate

The 1920 Census shows  John II’s family in Cincinnati, renting a home at 121 Langdon St. It lists John II as still a chauffeur for a private family but his wife Myrtle is no longer working. John III and his sister Myrtle are also there. 1920 Census

Found John II again in the 1923 and 1925 city directories for Cincinnati. In both he is still working as a chauffeur. 1923 Directory   1925 Directory 

On 31 October 1926, 10 years after having their first two children, John II and Myrtle Mabel had another daughter named Margaret Jane. She was born in Lebanon, Warren County, Ohio though. This birth place comes from her own later marriage record. I tried to figure out why she was born elsewhere and even explored Myrtle’s immediate family to see if maybe Myrtle had been staying with family but none of them lived in that county. I have to wonder if she was adopted.

The 1930 Census shows them all living (except for young Myrtle Mabel) in Springfield, Hamilton County, Ohio. John II is now a probation officer for the domestic court system. His wife isn’t working, John III is now 14 and young Margaret is about 3-1/2 years old. There is also a boarder living with them. 1930 Census  As far as young Myrtle, I was never able to find her in the 1930 Census. 

By April of 1940, when the next Census was taken, John II disappears. The census now shows Myrtle being the head of the family, but married, and she is now a social worker for the city of Cincinnati. Her three children, John III, Myrtle and Margaret, are all there. Young Myrtle is now a seamstress for a private family. I figured all along that she was probably a domestic servant for some private family during the previous missing census. 1940 Census

So where was John II? He was in the city directory for that year but he may have left right after it was printed. You’ll find him at the bottom left of the page. He now works at a filling station and the family is living at 2909 Gilbert. Young Myrtle is listed in the middle column at the same address. She is shown as an investigator with the city department of public safety.  1940 City Directory. The 1941 Directory isn’t available so I tried 1942. John II isn’t there anymore, but both Myrtles are listed at the same address again, 2909 Gilbert. 1942 Directory  

Again, where was John II? It took some digging but I found him thanks to his WWII draft card, done in 1942. He was living at 220 W 139th Street in New York City. On the back of it we get a description of him. He was 6 foot tall, 206 lbs and with gray hair.  Here are both parts:  WW2 Part 1     WW2 Part 2 

I found young Myrtle in the city directories into the 1950s. She was always listed as a cook. After this she disappears and I assume this was because she got married. I could never find a marriage record but she had at some point married a man named Jones because that’s the name she died with in Cincinnati in 2011.

I’ll go ahead and finish off the rest of the family before I get back to John III, the subject of our blog. First off is his father, John II. He had gone on to move to New Jersey and work at a uniform company there, where he retired from in 1958. He had gotten remarried at some point to a Georgia Holmes. John II finally passed away in Long Branch, New Jersey on 25 September 1962. John II’s Obit.     John III’s mother, Myrtle, passed away in Cincinnati on 20 September 1944 and is buried in the Union Baptist Cemetery there. His sister, Margaret, got married on 7 September 1950 in Greene County, Ohio. Her husband was a William Howard Pope. They had a son in 1953 who is now known in the music business. Her husband died after only a few years (1957) and I don’t believe she ever remarried. As far as I know she still lives in Cincinnati.

Now we need to wind the clock back just a little. In 1934 John III graduated from Wyoming High School in Cincinnati. From there he attended Wilberforce University. While there he served with the Ohio 372nd Infantry. Just before graduation he was honorably discharged on 22 March 1940. Shortly thereafter he graduated and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant on 13 June 1940.

By February of 1941 he was attending artillery training at Fort Devens near the town of Ayer in Middlesex County, Massachusetts. I originally figured that it was here that he met his wife, Arlene Eunice Marrow, since she is from Massachusetts but I later discovered from an interview she had done that they had actually met while both of them were attending Wilberforce. He was studying biology and science and she was in the nursing program. 

He was then sent temporarily to Fort Benning, Georgia for Infantry training and graduated there on 15 August 1941. He returned to Fort Devens and then he and Arlene were married in Boston in 1942. They then moved to Ayer, where their daughter, Sandra Marie, was born on 15 December 1942. 

Let’s talk a bit about Arlene. She was born 30 July 1919 in Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Most sources say it was in Brockton but the only official source I found claims it was in Abington. Both of these are in Plymouth County so I’ll stick with the county as her birth place for now, but keep in mind that the official source was a birth index. This means that it was typed up later and that the transcriber could have easily confused residence with birth location. I’ve seen it done before. Also, Abington and Brockton are right next to each other. In the 1920 Census, taken just a few months after she was born, they were living in Abington. In the 1930 and 1940 ones they are in Brockton. 

Her parents were Henry Arthur Marrow Sr and Eva M St. Onge. Henry was from Mecklenburg County, Virginia and Eva was from Marlborough, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. Henry’s parents were also from Mecklenburg County in Virginia and appear to have been former slaves. Eva’s father was from Quebec, Canada and her mother’s parents also were. In case you haven’t realized it yet, Eva was white. She was apparently ahead of her time. This is a white woman that married a black man in 1907. It wasn’t unheard of back then but it was extremely rare.

And now back to John. I never could find when John left for the war but by Christmas of 1944 he is in Italy. I have to wonder if he even met his daughter but if he did I don’t think he spent time with her for very long. Originally, he had been a forward observer assigned to the 598th Field Artillery Battalion in the 92nd Infantry Division, hence his original assignment to Fort Devens. This was the African-American unit which had fought during both world wars and had reacquired the name of the Buffalo Soldiers. At some point John had been transferred to the 366th Infantry Regiment in the 92nd and, on Christmas Day of 1944, John and his unit were in the Tuscany area of Italy in a village called Sommocolonia. 

sommocolonia

Italy had surrendered in early September but the Italian units that remained loyal to the Germans joined the Axis counteroffensive called “Operation Winterstorm” in hopes of pushing the Allies out of Italy. On Christmas, in preparation for the offensive, Germans posing as Italians began infiltrating into Sommocolonia. The following morning before dawn the Germans began shelling the village just prior to the all-out assault. When they did attack, the Germans that had slipped in disguised as Italians joined in, which effectively put the Americans in total disarray, who were also now outnumbered 6 to 1 by the enemy. They began a defensive retreat from the German/Italian onslaught. 

John realized what was happening and, to delay the Germans even more and to allow the Allies a chance to get away, he and some partisan Italian troops decided to stay behind and see what they could do to foil the German plans. He occupied the second floor of a building that gave him a good view of the attackers and began calling in artillery strikes. As the attackers got closer to him, he would radio the adjustments and shell them again. He did a superb job because as small as the village was, John was still calling in adjustments up until about noon that day. 

During the research I read different versions of what he said when he called in the last shelling to be done on his own position, but in a nutshell he explained to them how overwhelmed he and his Italian friends were and then demanded that the artillery unit fire away at his own position. After receiving permission from above they did just that. 

John and his Italian allies succeeded in halting the German advance that day. Thanks to them, the shelling was so accurate that the German advance was delayed long enough to give the Americans time to retreat, reorganize and then to counterattack and take the village back a few days later. In the rubble they found John’s body and eight of the Italian soldiers that had joined him. They also found about 100 dead Germans all around them, but I saw one article that claimed official German sources put their own number of dead that day in the 40s. 

John’s story cannot be complete without the story of the 53 year delay winning the Medal of Honor. Hondon Hargrove, an old college and Army buddy of John’s, began researching a book he was writing about the 92nd Infantry Division. He discovered that even though John was supposed to have been put in for a medal, someone somewhere dropped the ball. Beginning in 1947, Hargrove and other former comrades and John’s widow all fought the system for recognition for John until finally in 1982 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, our nation’s number two medal. In May that year, John’s widow Arlene, their daughter Sandra, and his sister Margaret attended the presentation ceremony at Fort Devens. Along with them were members of a reunion of men from the 366th Infantry. Major General James F Hamlet, a former member of John’s company and who was also his replacement as forward observer, made the presentation to Arlene on behalf of the Secretary of the Army. After this, Arlene decided that the next thing to do was get this medal upgraded to what it should really be: the Medal of Honor. 

In the early 1990s, the Army contracted Shaw University in North Carolina to research the claim that African-Americans were denied fair recognition for their valor. Their investigation, which was approved by the Army, concluded that racism was definitely a factor and they submitted 10 names to the Army for possible Medals of Honor. Seven of these servicemen were approved for the medals by the Army. John was one of the those seven. On 13 January 1997, President Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to Arlene Fox for her deceased husband.

awardceremony
Arlene is seated third from the right.

When John died, Sandra was only two years old, and Arlene moved back to Brockton. While she worked, her parents cared for Sandra, and kept John’s memory alive for her. They read John’s letters from overseas to her again and again, and she has saved them to this day. 

Arlene managed to send Sandra through nursing school at Massachusetts General, and to Bridgewater State for a degree in French and to courses at Harvard and Boston University. Arlene went on to retire from the VA hospital in Brockton in 1980 and sadly passed away in Houston, Texas just last year on 11 Dec 2015. 

Sandra became a Nurse Anesthetist, married a couple times and raised a family. She currently resides in Houston, Texas. I tried to contact her once but was unable to do so. 

John was eventually brought home from his burial in Italy and re-interred  in Colebrook Cemetery in Whitman, Plymouth County, Massachusetts.

As a retired military man myself, I must say that I was completely honored to have researched and written about John. I only wish he himself could have walked up to President Clinton and received his medal. 

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Thanks for stopping by! -Ray

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