50 states, 50 heroes: ‘Fire it’

Published 6:30 am Saturday, September 5, 2020

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Born May 18, 1915, in Cincinnati, Ohio, John Robert Fox was raised in Wyoming, Ohio. After attending Ohio State University, Fox then attended Wilberforce University, where he participated in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. He earned an engineering degree and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army in 1940.

At the time, the U.S. military was segregated; after the outbreak of World War II, Fox was assigned as a forward observer to the 598th Field Artillery Battalion of the all-black 366th Infantry Regiment. The 366th was unique in that all of its officers and personnel were black; most segregated units were run by white officers. The 366th remained stateside until March 28, 1944, when it departed from Hampton Roads Point of Embarkation in Virginia. Upon arrival in North Africa on April 6, the regiment was attached to the 15th Air Force Service Command for airfield security duty. On Nov. 21, the 366th arrived in Livorno, Italy, where it was attached to the 92nd Infantry Division (colored).

In the early morning hours of Dec. 26, the 366th was facing a vicious German attack in the northern Italian village of Sommocolonia. Unable to hold out, the 366th was forced to begin a retreat. To buy the regiment time, 1st Lt. Fox and other members of a small mobile forward observer party volunteered to remain behind and direct artillery fire. Fox then took up a position on the second floor of a house where he could see the Germans.

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At 8 a.m., Fox called in an artillery strike to slow the Germans, who were in the streets coming at the Americans in full force.  After the first artillery barrage, Fox saw that the Germans had staggering numbers and were getting closer. He then called in a second, closer strike, but there were still too many Germans. He then ordered an adjustment of 60 yards closer, right on top of his position. The soldier on the other end couldn’t believe what he heard and told Fox that at that range, it would mean certain death.

Fox gave the command, “Fire it.”

He explained to the soldier that the extra 60 yards was needed to clear out the Germans as much as possible. When the soldier questioned Fox’s judgment, Fox confirmed his orders with his final words, “There’s more of them than there is of us.”

The ensuing barrage leveled buildings and decimated anyone caught in the blasts. Fox was killed immediately, as were eight Italian soldiers who assisted fighting the Germans. The artillery strike succeeded in halting the German attack, allowing the 366th to reorganize and drive the Germans out of Sommocolonia. When Fox’s body was found, it was surrounded by the bodies of almost 100 Germans.

Fox’s body was taken back to the United States and buried in the Colebrook Cemetery in Whitman, Massachusetts. Fox was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

After the war, the citizens of Sommocolonia erected a monument to honor Fox and the eight Italian soldiers killed during the artillery barrage.

In 1982, Fox was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross after it was learned the initial award recommendation had been lost. In the 90s, an effort took place to review the records of minority soldiers who served in the World Wars and may have been denied higher recognition because of racial discrimination. As a result, 10 black servicemen from World War II, including Fox, were recommended for the Medal of Honor. In October 1996, Congress passed legislation authorizing President Bill Clinton to award the medals.

On Jan. 13, 1997, Clinton presented Fox’s Medal of Honor to his widow, the former Arlene Marrow, during a ceremony at the White House.

On July 16, 2000, the citizens of Sommocolonia dedicated a peace park in the memory of Fox and the 366th. Hasbro commemorated Fox in 2005 with a 12-inch action figure as part of its G.I. Joe Medal of Honor series. American Legion Post 631 in Cincinnati is known as John R. Fox Post 631 in Fox’s honor.