December 1944 saw American troops occupying the northern Italian mountain village of Sommocolonia as the endgame of World War II played itself out in Europe. Nevertheless, the Nazi German forces still had plenty of fight left, and they had decided to attack the lightly defended village. One U.S. Army officer, Lieutenant John Fox, stayed behind to face down the determined Nazi assault. And the soldier’s incredible bravery ultimately saw his fearsome foe defeated.
John Robert Fox, an African-American, was born in May 1915 in the Ohio city of Cincinnati. Enrolled at his home state’s Wilberforce University, Fox was a member of the institution’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The young man graduated from Wilberforce at the age of 25, having attained the rank of second lieutenant in 1940. In addition, Fox had met his future wife, Arlene, at the university, and two years later the couple had a daughter, Sandra.
Subsequently, Fox went on to serve with the 366th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division, at a time when shameful racial segregation was the order of the day in the U.S. Army. The 92nd was a “colored” outfit, whose members were known at the time as the Buffalo Soldiers.
In fact, black Americans in the U.S. Army had first been given that name with the establishment of the 10th Cavalry Regiment in 1866 at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. It was actually First Nation tribesmen who gave the African-American cavalrymen the Buffalo Soldiers nickname during the 1860-90 Indian Wars.
Fast forward some 80 years, and much of the U.S. military’s focus in Europe was directed at the D-Day invasion of Northern France in June 1944. But, nevertheless, there was also a ferociously fought campaign in Italy involving thousands of American troops. This offensive began with the Allied amphibious and airborne invasion of the southern Italian island of Sicily from the coast of North Africa in July 1943.
But Fox’s 366th Regiment would not arrive in North Africa until April 1944. By that time, the Allies had already crossed over from Sicily to the western coast of mainland Italy in September 1943. Fox would join the effort as Allied forces fought their way northwards up the Italian peninsula against fierce Nazi opposition.
The men of the 366th were given airfield defense duties on the Italian island of Sardinia and along the mainland’s Adriatic coast. Then, in November 1944, Fox’s regiment was ordered to the city of Livorno on the northern part of Italy’s west coast. The port had suffered wide-scale destruction from Allied bombing before it was taken from the enemy.
And the hilltop community of Sommocolonia mentioned earlier lies about 55 miles to the north-east of Livorno. And the now 29-year-old Fox found himself defending the village on the day after Christmas 1944. In the weeks leading up to December 26, the lieutenant had been serving as a forward spotter for the 598th Field Artillery Battalion.
In fact, Sommocolonia had already seen bitter fighting between the Nazis and the U.S. Army, but by the time Christmas Day had rolled around, the village seemed to be firmly in the hands of Uncle Sam. The American troops on the ground there had even been relaxed enough to distribute much-welcomed goodies, such as cheese and candy, to the villagers.
But on the evening of Christmas Day the enemy started to surreptitiously insert their soldiers, dressed in civilian garb, into the village. Consequently, by the early hours of the following morning, most of Sommocolonia was overrun by Nazis in disguise. Then, at 4:00 a.m., there came a concerted barrage of German artillery fire and uniformed Nazi ranks attacked the hilltop settlement.
Hitler’s army attacked the village with overwhelming force and the occupying U.S. troops had little choice but to retreat. However, some American combatants volunteered to remain in Sommocolonia in order to provide guidance for a counteroffensive from hidden vantage points. One of these courageous souls was Lieutenant Fox. It was thought that his skills as a forward artillery observer would be invaluable in such a situation.
The job of a spotter like Fox was to conceal himself in a forward position, as close to the enemy lines as possible. From there, the soldier could radio through the co-ordinates of enemy positions to artillery placements which could be situated miles away. Armed with precise map positions, the big guns could then destroy enemy targets with highly accurate shelling.
In the combat scenario presented by Sommocolonia, Fox would be able to direct shellfire from an unseen position. This way his fellow Americans could escape the now Nazi-infested village in as safe and orderly way as possible. The retreating U.S. troops would then have the opportunity to regroup for an attempt to retake the settlement.
So it came to pass that a small group of U.S. soldiers, including Fox, plus 20 or so Italian resistance fighters were left behind in the village taken by the German military. The intrepid Fox hid out on the second story of a town house. As the morning of December 26 progressed, the Sommocolonia streets were the scene of vicious hand-to hand fighting.
Tragically, it would not be long before an estimated two-thirds of the joint G.I. and Italian detachment lay dead or wounded. Nonetheless, Fox remained at his post, radioing through co-ordinates for the heavy artillery to target. And the villagers were suffering as well – at least seven of its population died that day. Irma Biondi, a child in Sommocolonia during World War II, spoke to The New York Times in 2000 about her memories of the conflict in her village.
The then 77-year-old well remembered the kindness of the U.S. forces leading up to Christmas 1944, “They were wonderful, so nice to us,” she recalled. “My little brothers followed them like shadows.” But she also remembered the horror to follow. “We fled out into the streets, passing over the bodies of dead Americans and Germans,” she told the newspaper about the horrific events of December 26. Indeed, about 40 African-American troops of the 366th are thought to have died that day, whereas the Nazi’s recorded 43 losses. Nevertheless, it was likely that countless more U.S. Army soldiers would have met their deaths at Sommocolonia but for the fearless and selfless actions of Lieutenant Fox.
As the Nazis approached his second-story position at about 9:00 a.m., Fox continued to call in artillery strikes. This despite the fact that the American rounds were now falling dangerously close to his hiding place. Finally, at about noon, the Nazis were actually surrounding the house the lieutenant was occupying. It looked like it was the end for the brave G.I. – it was, but not in the way you might expect…
Unbelievably, Fox’s next action was to call in a missile strike which would fall squarely on his position. And there is no doubt that, despite the fact he had a wife and child back home in the States, Fox knew exactly what that meant. The spotter’s final exchange with an artillery officer was quoted in a 2017 article in The Washington Post. Fox confirmed to his countryman, “That was just where I wanted it. Bring it in 60 yards.” The officer remonstrated with the soldier, “Fox, that will be on you.” Regardless, back came the lieutenant’s remarkable reply, “Fire it. There’s more of them than there are us.”
The soldier’s ultimate sacrifice gave his compatriots time to co-ordinate a counterattack on Sommocolonia. And by New Year’s Day of 1945, less than a week after the Nazis had taken the village, Hitler’s men were forced back out. The returning U.S. troops subsequently came across Fox’s body in the ruins. The lieutenant’s outstanding bravery had allowed his comrades to successfully escape and regroup, surviving to fight – and win – another day.
Fox’s body was repatriated to the States but, at the time, his amazing valor and self-sacrifice went unrewarded by any posthumous decoration from the U.S. Government. Most historians have put that down to the discrimination shown towards African-Americans who fought in World War II. In fact, more than five decades passed before Lieutenant John Robert Fox got the recognition he deserved. In 1997, his widow, Arlene, visited President Bill Clinton’s White House to accept the Medal of Honor – America’s highest military decoration for bravery – on behalf of her late Buffalo Soldier husband.
However, Fox was far from the only American soldier to serve his country with incredible courage during WWII. Take tank captain Lafayette G. Pool, for instance, whose service during the conflict was also exemplary – and even inspired the 2014 blockbuster Fury. But would his exploits also end in tragedy, as Fox’s did?
Legendary World War Two tank captain Lafayette G. Pool had caused havoc among his German adversaries. But amid a fierce battle in Germany’s Rhineland in 1944, his Sherman took two direct hits from a Nazi Panther tank. Was it possible that Pool and his crew could survive this devastating attack?
Born in July 1919 in Odem, Texas, Lafayette Green Pool was one of twin brothers. His sibling was John Thomas Pool, who fought for his country in the U.S. Navy during World War Two. Lafayette, meanwhile, went to school in Taft, Texas, and he graduated from there in 1938.
Pool then tried to join the Navy like his brother but was turned down owing to a sight defect that he’d picked up while boxing. Instead, he continued his studies at Kingsville’s Texas College of Arts and Industries (now Texas A&M University-Kingsville), where he majored in engineering. And while at college, he showed superior pugilistic skills.
Pool lasted only a year at college, though, as in 1941 he dropped out to join the army. Enlisting at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, he was attached to the 3rd Armored Division. So, Pool learned his soldiering skills at the Desert Training Center, which spanned areas of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, and at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.
Pool’s boxing prowess came to the fore in the army, too, and he became division and regional champion. The boxer was also invited to take part in the army’s national championship competition, but he refused. His unit was, you see, about to take delivery of the new M4 Sherman tanks. And sticking around to develop an expertise in handling those combat vehicles was more important to him than his boxing.
In fact, boxing wasn’t the only thing on which Pool turned his back. In 1943 he rose to the rank of staff sergeant, and he was also offered the opportunity of a place at Officer Candidate School. However, Pool wanted to stay a part of the tank crew with whom he’d trained, readying them for the fighting that was soon to come.
Pool was to stick with the same crew throughout his service, too. And by 1944 he’d reached the age of 25, meaning he was actually regarded as advanced in years for a tank crew member. His bow gunner, Bert “Schoolboy” Close, for example, was just 17 years old. In fact, Pool became nicknamed “War Daddy” in recognition of his advanced years; he retaliated, though, by dubbing his crew the “Pups.”
Now, in September 1943 Pool and the 3rd Armored Division – known as Spearhead – were posted to England to prepare for the impending invasion of France. And while in England, Pool actually took part in an exhibition boxing match in Liverpool, fighting the legendary champ Joe Louis. Louis gave him a bit of a beating, too, but to his credit Pool was still upright at the end of his round with the Brown Bomber – who is generally held to be one of the greatest fighters of all time.
But it was soon time for fighting of a deadlier kind. Pool’s Spearhead outfit first went into combat in northern France on June 27, 1944 – just three weeks after the D-Day landings on the Normandy coast. Pool was part of Combat Command A, and this unit attacked German forces at the French town of Villiers-Fossard. In their tank, given the moniker “In the Mood,” Pool and his crew were credited with disabling three German armored vehicles.
But on June 29 In the Mood met its match in the shape of a shell from a German anti-tank weapon: the Panzerfaust. Still, while the tank was destroyed, Pool and his young crew managed to escape unscathed. That first Sherman had lasted only six days of the intense fighting in the Normandy countryside.
Nevertheless, Pool and his men soon had another Sherman, and they named this one “In the Mood” as well. The replacement actually lasted longer than its eponymous forerunner, from around the beginning of July until mid-August 1944. And the fate it met on August 17 came by way of a rather unfortunate episode.
We’ll return to that incident in a moment, but first it’s worth hearing about the progress of Pool’s new Sherman through France. Normandy was characterized by its small fields surrounded by high hedges – terrain called “bocage.” And it was tough ground for combat, with plenty of opportunities for ambush.
Nevertheless, Pool and his buddies fought their way across Normandy, turning south through a breach created in the German defenses. Pool was now known as the “Spearhead of the Spearhead” because he repeatedly volunteered his tank to take the lead as his unit charged into new territory.
Typical of the type of action that In the Mood was now involved in was an engagement at the Normandy town of Colombiers. Here, Pool’s Sherman almost crashed into a German Panther tank. The Panther then got the first two rounds off – but missed despite its very close proximity. Pool’s gunner, Willis “Groundhog” Oller, meanwhile, took the Panther’s turret off with his first retort.
In the Mood also demolished another Panther and a couple of armored cars in that action. And the next destination for Pool and his unit was the town of Fromental, with In the Mood in the vanguard as usual. The aim here was to join the Polish 1st Armored Division to land a deadly blow against the surrounded German 7th Army.
However, it was in Fromental that the unfortunate incident mentioned earlier happened. U.S. Air Force P-38 fighter bombers spotted what they believed to be a formation of German Tiger tanks. But it was in fact Pool’s outfit, and In the Mood was consequently destroyed by one of the P-38s. Some enraged tank crews were even said to have renamed the USAF “the American Luftwaffe.”
Fortunately, Pool and his men escaped unhurt yet again, and the next day they took delivery of a new Sherman, which was inevitably christened as the third “In the Mood.” Now interestingly – and strangely for a tank soldier – Pool actually hated confined spaces. And this in turn meant that he always stayed atop his tank – a risky position. But, in fact, this eccentricity may well have saved his life when the third and last In the Mood met her fate.
Pool and his crew had been invited to return to the States to help with war bond fundraising; they had one final mission to complete before they could do that, though. So, they fought their way into Germany, trying to break through the major defenses of the Siegfried Line. And here a Panther tank hit the Sherman, disabling it. What’s more, a second round then overturned the combat vehicle, throwing Pool clear from his position atop the turret.
Pool had received a severe wound to his right leg, and – worse – his gunner had been killed. Pool’s leg couldn’t be saved, either, so it was amputated eight inches above the knee. Incredibly, though, before that Pool had unsuccessfully attempted the amputation himself in the field with just a shot of morphine and a penknife. Mercifully, doctors made a proper job of the operation later.
Now that Pool’s war was over, a final tally of the damage that he’d done to the enemy could be reckoned. With his three Shermans, Pool had destroyed 12 tanks and 258 armored vehicles. He’d also killed more than 1,000 Nazi troops and taken another 250 prisoner. And he’d done all that in just 81 days of combat. All in all, then, it’s an utterly astonishing tally – and one for which Pool received a fistful of decorations.
Lafayette Pool hung up his army boots in 1960, and he passed on in 1991 aged 71. He was buried at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.