Saturday, June 6, 2009

The 320th Antiaircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion on D-Day

Check out this great piece on the 320th Antiaircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, a blacks-only unit at Omaha and Utah during the D-Day landings, "Forgotten Battalion’s Last Returns to Beachhead":

William G. Dabney could hardly have expected to be spending that ferocious June day in 1944 hunkered on Omaha Beach, struggling to keep aloft one of the tethered silver balloons intended to confound German pilots trying to bomb or strafe exposed Allied invaders in Normandy.

As a member of the only all-black unit in the D-Day landings on Omaha and Utah, the two beachheads assigned to American forces, Corporal Dabney was a rarity in a European war that in its early days was fought almost entirely by whites.

The contributions of his unit, the 320th Antiaircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, have been largely forgotten over the years. But on Saturday, Mr. Dabney, now 84, will join President Obama near Omaha Beach to mark the 65th anniversary of the invasion. On Friday, he received the Legion of Honor from the French government. Officials of the White House Commission on Remembrance, which organizes services at American war memorials, say he is the only survivor of the 320th they have been able to track down.

At 17, Mr. Dabney, of Roanoke, Va., had chafed to join older friends already at war, and had to persuade his grandmother to let him enlist. Most black soldiers were being given support roles in the United States, but like many young men, Mr. Dabney craved action at the front. He volunteered for “special service,” which he thought would have him loading artillery weapons.

“I didn’t know that it involved flying balloons,” he said in a telephone interview from Roanoke.

He was sent to Tennessee to train with the 320th, a unit intended mainly to deploy blimplike balloons for coastal defense. But he soon found himself bound for England and a role in the invasion of France.

In retrospect, Corporal Dabney and his contemporaries can be seen as pioneers. As late as the mid-1930s, the Army had been less than 2 percent black. The Coast Guard used blacks only as stewards, the Navy mainly for kitchen help. The Marines and the Army Air Forces barred blacks outright. The discriminatory treatment was defended by an Army War College report in 1925 concluding that blacks lacked intellect and courage.

“Blacks wanted to participate” in World War II, “but the position of the military was that wartime is not a time for social experimentation,” said William A. De Shields, a retired Army colonel and founder of the Black Military History Institute of America.
The full article is here. Don't miss the photo slideshow as well.


Rusty Walker said...

Great....I am the first and maybe onbly one to respond. When I was in Okinawa as an Air Force dependent, in pre-MLK 1959-1961, I bonded with “Negro” (in conversation they asked me to refer to them as “colored”) servicemen, all from the Deep South, on the Kadena boxing team that took me under their wing. I had the privilege of having them as unwitting mentors in so many ways. A couple of years ago I read the Eisenhower: Portrait of the Hero, Peter Lyon, Eisenhower was the one who, with his deputy commander Lt. General John Lee, asked for the first time for volunteers of both white AND African American servicemen in the theater as volunteer as infantry replacements. Truman (another great book, Pulitzer Prize book: Truman: John McCullough), one of the Democratic presidents, increasingly rare, of whom we can all be proud, gave equal treatment and opportunity for all servicemen. Thank you for bringing the African-American patriots in WWII back into focus.