On Christmas Day 1944 the U.S. Army’s segregated 92nd Infantry Division—the celebrated “Buffalo Soldiers”—held a tenuous position in Sommocolonia, a village along central Italy’s Serchio River. The Fifth Army had called off a general assault the day before, but this unit remained pressed up against the German front lines. First Lt. John Robert Fox, a 29-year-old forward artillery observer with the 598th Field Artillery Battalion, manned an observation post on the northernmost edge of the American line. He was supporting the 92nd’s 370th Infantry Regiment, whose 2nd Battalion had captured the town on Christmas Eve. As there had been little German resistance, just two platoons remained to secure Sommocolonia while the rest of the battalion shifted to other areas.
Fox was as close to the front as he could be, his task to observe enemy movements and direct fire at those locations. From his vantage he could clearly see any Wehrmacht troops massing for an assault.
A Cincinnati native, the young lieutenant grew up in Ohio and attended Wilberforce University. While there Fox met a young woman from New England named Arlene Marrow. They married in 1942, shortly after he’d graduated with an engineering degree and joined the Army. Commissioned a second lieutenant, Fox underwent training at Fort Devens, Mass., just the other side of Boston from Arlene’s family home in Brockton. The couple’s only child, daughter Sandra, was born that same year.
By late 1944 Fox had deployed with the 92nd ID facing the western flank of the Germans’ Gothic Line in Italy’s Apennine Mountains. The engineering graduate excelled in fire direction control and had volunteered to be a forward observer.
That Christmas night enemy troops disguised as partisans began infiltrating Sommocolonia and by daybreak were in position to support an attack by the Austrian 4th Gebirgsjäger Battalion. Outnumbered 3-to-1, the Americans began a tactical retreat. Fox volunteered to stay in the town with a handful of Italian partisans in order to direct defensive artillery strikes. Tracking the enemy advance, he called in several changes to coordinates as the enemy approached town. At 8 a.m. he reported the Germans had entered Sommocolonia and were attacking in strength.
In his final transmission Fox gave the fire coordinates and explained he was targeting his own surrounded position. His final words were, “Fire it!” When the Army later retook the town, they found the lieutenant’s remains and those of 100 German soldiers around his shattered observation post.
Fox received the Distinguished Service Cross for his last-stand sacrifice. Decades later, after a review determined racial bias in the awarding of the DSC, it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor. President Bill Clinton presented the nation’s highest award for valor to Fox’s widow, Arlene, in a 1997 White House ceremony. “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,” notes his long-overdue citation.
Fox’s remains were eventually repatriated and buried alongside his wife’s family at Colebrook Cemetery in Whitman, Mass. Marking the site are U.S. and Medal of Honor flags, as well as mementos of respect left by graveside visitors.
While his sacrifice may be largely forgotten in this country, Italians remember. Every December 26 the people of Sommocolonia and surrounding communities gather to recall the winter battle and honor the dead from that terrible day, including the lone American who opted to stay and fight.