The only African American unit to land on D-Day
by Judith Stanford Miller, M.Ed., M.A.
The brave men of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only unit of African American soldiers to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, were lost to history until 2015 when their story was told by Linda Hervieux, author of Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home and At War.
It is not possible to read Linda’s book without feeling outrage at the manner in which these heroes were treated before, during, and after World War II. Pervasive Jim Crow laws in the south created a segregated and unequal society that made it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for African Americans to thrive or even strive to achieve their goals and dreams.
The African American community was fighting for a Double Victory – victory over Germany abroad and victory at home over Jim Crow. Everyone at the time knew what Double V meant. Surely after African Americans distinguished themselves fighting overseas they would come home heroes with full integration into American society. Sadly, that would not be the case. Jim Crow society was rooted so deeply, it would be years before discriminatory laws and practices were ruled unconstitutional.
Yet when the United States entered World War II in 1941, young black men enlisted in the military to serve their country in a time of need. Together with those who were drafted, about one million African American soldiers served admirably and with distinction. The irony was always front and center though. How could America expect black soldiers to fight to free Europe from the claws of Nazi oppression and racism when they were not free in their own country facing similar injustices? It’s outrageous more people were not outraged by this situation in 1941.
By telling the story of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, Linda gives her readers important lessons not only about D-Day but also about the struggle for civil rights in America in the 20th century.
There were black units who served during World War I in the early 20th century but after the war, units were disbanded, both black and white. World War I was supposed to be the war that ended all wars but instead, harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI, provided the fuel for the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Tensions building to WWII
President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) recognized the growing tensions in Europe in the late 1930s and took steps to build up American forces even before Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. In his Dec. 29, 1940 “Arsenal of Democracy” speech, he issued a challenge to the private sector to adapt production to military needs. England was pleading for help from America.
There was a fierce debate in the country about staying neutral in the war that exploded in 1939. Germany invaded Poland and then marched through Europe in 1940 occupying previously sovereign countries. France, Denmark, Belgium, and Holland fell quickly.
Many Americans did not want to send supplies and equipment to England as the British fought off Germany. The English Channel separating England from Europe was their savior. Hitler did not attempt a land invasion of England. Instead, he tried to bomb the British into submission but England, under the stalwart guidance of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, resisted.
Pearl Harbor – Dec. 7, 1941
December 7, 1941 changed the course of history. Americans united under their leaders who declared war on Japan and on Germany. Millions of soldiers enlisted and were drafted. Private sector companies were soon producing airplanes, tanks, ships, and vehicles in record numbers in record time. Women went to work in factories when men went off to war.
While most African American units served in support roles to keep troops fed and supplied with equipment, the 320th Barrage Battalion was trained for a vital role on D-Day.
Their mission was to protect the landing force from attack by German aircraft. The 320th landed on D-Day and in the month of June raised 143 barrage balloons protecting the coast. The balloons were raised to 1,000 to 2,000 thousand feet with a cable attached to the ground. The wings of low flying aircraft would be ensnared in the cable and then a bomb attached at the bottom of the balloon would explode. The balloon’s value was also one of deterrence as enemy pilots made sure to avoid flying near the balloons.
The 320th served admirably and with distinction. While training in England, they experienced an integrated society. Local British citizens welcomed black soldiers with open arms giving them freedoms they did not enjoy at home. The British considered them Americans and held them in high regard.
They returned home to America having defeated Nazi Germany but not Jim Crow. It would be another ten years before Jim Crow laws were declared unconstitutional and almost another ten years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.
Copyright (C) 2019 Judith Stanford Miller/Student News Net. No text portion of this article can be copied, disseminated, or distributed without the author’s permission.