All About History
D-day’s forgotten black heroes
Linda Hervieux brings us the story of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion and the experience of African-american soldiers in Normandy
it was the water that surprised Henry Parham – so much water. Soldiers weighted down with too much gear were drowning before his eyes as Parham, a 22-year-old soldier in the United States Army, dropped into the sea off Omaha Beach. He struggled to keep his head above water as he slogged his way to the sand. It wasn’t a much better option there, as enemy fire cut down men all around him.
Parham, a bus porter back home in Virginia, was a member of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only black combat unit to land on D-day in the segregated United States Army. In the early hours of 6 June 1944, the men of the 320th boarded more than 150 landing craft, taking with them balloons that Royal Air Force crews had inflated at ports along the coast in southern England. Their mission was to raise a curtain of the silvery spheres high over the beaches to protect the men and material from German dive-bombers. The balloons packed a secret punch: a plane strike would trigger a small bomb attached to the cable that anchored the balloon to the ground. A good hit could blow a wing or the gas tank. While the infantrymen they landed with hustled to get off the beach,
the 320th men were staying put. In the days and weeks following, some balloons companies would move up the coast to help liberate key ports such as Cherbourg.
In the weeks after the invasion, the 320th men raised more than 140 balloons over Omaha and Utah beaches. Pilots were terrified of the gasbags, lurking in the clouds as high as 2,000 feet. “If a Nazi bird nestles in my nest,” a private from Mississippi told a newspaperman, “he won’t nestle nowhere else.” Although the balloons were deemed a success and the 320th men achieved a level of fame as their handlers, the battalion was all but written out of the story of D-day. It was a common story for black soldiers. The famed squadron of black pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen were all but forgotten until the mid-1990s after a movie was made about then for American television.
One of the 320th men, a medic wounded in the landing named Waverly Woodson, saved so many lives on 6 June that he would be nominated for the Medal of Honor. He would not receive it. No black soldiers did during World War II. There is a campaign underway to change that, led by the Woodson family and Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
But the 320th were not the only black soldiers who landed on the beach on 6 June. By nightfall, more than 1,000 African-americans would join them, the majority assigned to labour battalions. Under relentless fire, they unloaded ships and moved supplies. The 4042nd Quartermaster Truck Company won a commendation from Gen Dwight D Eisenhower for displaying ‘ingenuity’ for salvaging vehicles sunk during the landing. The balloon flyers were the only other black unit cited for carrying out their mission with ‘courage and determination’.
Shadow of Jim Crow
The men of the 320th trained to fly their balloons in Tennessee at Camp Tyson, which like much of the US in the 1940s, was segregated by race. Black troops were considered inferior, not as intelligent or brave. Forays off base weren’t much better. On a weekend trip to Memphis, Wilson Monk and his friends were stunned to see a line of German prisoners of war file into a restaurant where black soldiers were not allowed. Residents in the southern towns where most army bases were situated shunned
the black soldiers — or worse. Run-ins with local or military police could be dangerous. One 320th man was fatally shot in the back. “Black men ain’t no men,” said Samuel L Mattison, a 320th veteran from Ohio who was courtmartialed after he fought with cops off base. “We were like little dogs.”
The 320th men were among more than 130,000 African-american troops that trained in Britain during the war. In the towns and villages of Wales and Oxfordshire where they were billeted, their arrival was big news. “One day Hollywood came to town,” said Ken Clark, who was a boy of 10 in southern Wales when the black GIS showed up. The ‘tan Yanks’ were welcomed by the locals, who were happy to share their meagre rations with the visitors. It was a “spark of light,” said Arthur Guest of South Carolina, a 320th soldier who landed on Utah Beach. Black soldiers were regulars at Sunday services, dipping into their pockets for the collection basket and singing in the choirs.
the beginnings of a movement
The respectful treatment African-americans received outside their own country, from Britain to Asia, even in occupied Germany, was a revelation. No longer willing to live as secondclass citizens, their experiences abroad would help fuel the budding civil rights movement.
But it took a tragedy for the Army to finally equalise the treatment of the races. In February 1946, Isaac Woodard, a black soldier on his way home to Georgia, was blinded during a severe beating by cops in the South Carolina. Photos of Woodard in uniform, his head swathed in bandages, shocked the nation. “This (expletive) has got to stop,” President Harry Truman told his staff. Two years later, Truman finally signed Executive Order 9981, ending racial segregation in the US Armed Forces.