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.