Traditionally, African Americans have been absent from the combat narratives of World War II, especially the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The collective story from military historians has long been that “the only black soldiers to land on D-Day had lent their muscle to labor units and other support work.”
But this is not the case at all.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, the all African-American 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion “landed on the beaches of France with orders to man a curtain of armed balloons meant to deter enemy aircraft.” Under heavy enemy fire, the men of the 320th desperately tried to stay alive and get their balloons up in the air. The work of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion allowed Allied soldiers to storm the beaches and seize the much-needed D-Day victory that turned the tide of World War II in the Allies’ favor. Waverly Woodson, a college student twice hit by shrapnel, was recommended for the Medal of Honor, the highest decoration for valor in the United States. But he never received it.
These are the facts that intrigued Linda Hervieux, author of Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War. A journalist and photographer by trade, Hervieux crafts a detailed, vivid narrative of the role the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion played in World War II. Replete with primary-source interviews of 12 survivors from the 320th and the families of several others, Hervieux carefully reconstructs a vital part of our nation’s history.
Three former members of the 320th become the central figures of Forgotten: Wilson Caldwell Monk, William Garfield Dabney and Henry Parham. Monk hailed from Atlantic City, N.J., a place where white Northerners were growing vexed with the influx of African Americans from the South during the Great Migration. The youngest of seven children, Monk witnessed his mother’s desperate struggle to keep their family afloat after their father’s death, and dropped out of school at 14 to help support the family. Drafted in June 1941 and sent to train at Fort Dix, N.J., Monk was overwhelmed by the racial violence toward blacks in the segregated Army, which was worse “because many of the officers were white Southerners expert at inflicting humiliation with a particularly vile racist tongue.”
Indeed, few people remember that the U.S. military was segregated throughout both World War I and World War II in a “Jim Crow system of extraordinary breadth underpinned by virulent racism that mirrored life.” And Army reports maintained that blacks were “immoral” and lacked the “physical courage of the whites” even though African-American soldiers in World War I had exhibited acts of combat bravery that endeared them to the French people and terrified the German soldiers.
Parham’s call to serve came on Dec. 23, 1942, two years after he signed up for the draft. A porter from Richmond, Va., Parham was a quiet man who visited his family on their farm in Greensville County every chance he got. In September 1942, he and Monk were both shipped to Camp Tyson in Tennessee, America’s first barrage balloon training base.
Although they had to draw shut the curtains on their train-car windows because Southern “whites had been known to shoot at train cars carrying Negro soldiers,” Monk and Parham were excited to do such an important job. Thanks to the actions of black Navy cook Doris Miller, who had pulled his captain to safety and shot down four Japanese planes after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the armed forces had finally been persuaded to let black soldiers train as gunmen.
The racism of the Army remained strong, however; the men of the Tyson balloon brigade camp recall watching, “incredulous, as a long line of German prisoners of war filed into a restaurant where black men were not welcome.” Enemies of the United States were allowed in places that black American servicemen could not enter because of the color of their skin. And black veterans, returning home, were repeatedly attacked or lynched by angry whites, both in the North and the South.
Unlike Monk and Parham, Dabney was not drafted but voluntarily enlisted in December 1942 and was sent to Camp Tyson. The youngest of nine children, Dabney was raised by his grandmother after his mother died of pneumonia, and he was determined to help provide for his family. In November 1943, Dabney, along with Monk, Parham and the rest of the 320th Balloon Battalion Brigade, boarded the Aquitania for Europe, and war. There, Monk, Parham and Dabney joined the “more than 1 million black soldiers” who served in the armed forces during World War II.
Overseas, black soldiers were stunned by the lack of racism from the Europeans. Wrote one soldier: “The English people show our lads every courtesy, and some of them, accustomed to ill will, harsh words and artificial barriers, seem slightly bewildered.” White American soldiers worked hard to import their racism and segregation policies, to which the British and French did not give any credence. But despite all this, the 320th distinguished themselves in a multitude of ways, culminating in the storming and bombardment of Utah and Omaha beaches during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Watching Hervieux unravel the formation and work of the 320th Balloon Battalion Brigade is thrilling. With her compelling language and in-depth research, the narratives of the men of the 320th are drawn against the backdrop of a segregated Army and country in a gripping, visceral read. Forgotten manages to weave the intricate complexities of history into a clear, convincing text that is accessible to both the layperson and the history buff. Here is a stunning achievement that will add much to the historical scholarship of our country.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.