Dr. Bryon Greenwald is a retired U.S. Army officer currently serving as a Professor in the Joint Advanced Warfighting School in Norfolk, Virginia.
Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War
By Linda Hervieux
353 pp. $27.99
Reviewed by Bryon Greenwald
Linda Hervieux’s well-written and thoroughly researched book, Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War, is a micro history that makes three macro contributions to American military history. At its core, Forgotten is the story of the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, VLA (Very Low Altitude), the only African-American combat unit to land in France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. As such, it pulls double duty by highlighting the untold story of this innovative method of protecting Allied ships and troops from air attack as well as by emphasizing the role of African-Americans in Operation Overlord.
Forgotten is also a poignant reminder that the men of the 320th Battalion were part of a force of one million African-American men and women who fought for freedom and democracy abroad while being denied the same rights at home. Finally, Hervieux uncovers the forgotten story of Waverly Woodson, Jr., a balloon battalion medic from Philadelphia, whose heroic care for mostly white Soldiers on D-Day should have earned him the Medal of Honor, except that in Jim Crow America, blacks were essentially ineligible for such distinctions regardless of their actions. Fortunately, thanks to Hervieux’s history, Congress and the U.S. Army are reexamining Woodson’s actions, albeit over 72 years after the event and 11 years after his death in 2005.
Of the over 30 balloon battalions fielded by the Army, African-Americans manned just 4. As Hervieux highlights, these units—the 318th, 319th, 320th, and 321st—were a “source of tremendous pride for black America” and received frequent coverage in the African-American and white press. But of all of these units, only one—the 320th—landed in Normandy on D-Day. Before it redeployed to England 140 days later, the 320th destroyed at least one JU-88 and possibly other German aircraft, particularly in the early days of the invasion, and received a commendation from General Dwight D. Eisenhower for its service at Omaha Beach. Moreover, the 320th captured the attention of servicemembers across Europe and changed some, if not all, minds about the ability of African-American Soldiers. As Bill Richardson, a military correspondent, noted to Eisenhower’s staff, “It seems the whole front knows the story of the Negro barrage balloon battalion outfit which was one of the first ashore on D-Day. [They] have gotten the reputation of hard workers and good soldiers. Their simple earnestness and pride . . . is obvious to some of the most Jim-Crow–conscious southerners” (p. 238).
The Army created barrage balloon battalions to deploy aerial obstacles to deter enemy aircraft from strafing and dive-bombing ships and friendly locations. A battalion consisted of four batteries, each able to fly several “silver sausages” simultaneously to an altitude of 2,000 feet. Three- or four-man crews tethered each 35-foot-long balloon to the ground with a long cable that held a small explosive at each end. If not fouled outright by running into the cable, an attacking aircraft activated two quick releases that freed the cable from both the balloon and the ground. As the cable separated, it deployed two small but different-sized drag chutes that pulled one of the explosive charges toward the plane, detonating on contact. Ideally, Army antiaircraft artillery machine guns, 40-millimeter (mm) Bofors, or 90-mm guns engaged any enemy aircraft flying above or around these aerial obstacles or drove them even higher, where they fell prey to Allied defensive fighters prowling the skies—a truly joint effort.
Forgotten makes its second important contribution with Hervieux’s recounting of segregation in America in the 1930s and 1940s. It is the quality of the unit’s service when compared to the inequality of its servitude to a disapproving and discriminatory nation that makes the history of the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion compelling for the reader. Hervieux vividly recounts the fear black Northern Servicemembers had when traveling in curtained railcars to training bases in Tennessee or Georgia and the treatment they received in some quarters from white officers and others in authority, particularly military and civilian police. This behavior stood in stark contrast to how the British and French welcomed them as equals. As damning as their treatment before the war, it was America’s failure to recognize their wartime service with a measure of equality that spurred many African-American Soldiers to join the growing civil rights movement. As such, Forgotten serves as a window into America’s past and places contemporary racial issues into important historical perspective.
As a final contribution to American military history, Hervieux’s work corrects past oversights and shortcomings. For Forgotten is built around the individual histories of several members of the 320th Battalion—Wilson Monk, Henry Parham, George Davison, and William Dabney, to name a few. None is more famous, but still forgotten to history, than Waverly Woodson, Jr., whose skill as a medic found him assigned to an early arriving landing craft, tank (LCT) with the 29th Infantry Division. As Woodson’s LCT arrived at Omaha Beach around 9:00 a.m., it struck a mine that disabled the motor and hit another mine that tore into the hull. Then an artillery round landed in the jeep on deck, killing several men. Woodson suffered shrapnel wounds to the leg, the first of two wounds, and soon found himself struggling to get ashore, out of the frigid water. Once on the fire-swept beach, he quickly set up an aid station and treated 200 wounded and dying Soldiers until he collapsed 30 hours later from his wounds and sheer exhaustion. As he would tell the story years later, when men needed aid, “They didn’t care what color my skin was.” As the black press recounted, his actions merited the Medal of Honor.
But back then, black men did not receive the Medal of Honor. Of the 433 Medals of Honor awarded for actions during the war, none went to African-American Soldiers. Woodson’s commander, a white officer, recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross, the Nation’s second highest award. As Hervieux records, Lieutenant General John C.H. Lee, the Deputy Commander of U.S. Forces in Europe, believed Woodson deserved the Medal of Honor and ordered the recommendation changed. Hervieux notes that mention of the award even reached the White House, but whether the recommendation reached President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was not as farsighted regarding race relations as his wife Eleanor, was lost to history. In the end, Woodson received the Bronze Star, the Nation’s fourth-highest award for valor.
Why Woodson did not receive the Distinguished Service Cross, one can only guess. Perhaps in upgrading the award recommendation, Lieutenant General Lee actually did Woodson an unintended disservice. Although a strict disciplinarian, Lee was ahead of his time regarding race relations and equality. When a shortage of infantrymen threatened to slow American combat operations in Europe, Lee offered black men, serving as laborers in the U.S. Army Services of Supply, the chance to become infantry replacements. Major General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s Allied chief of staff, initially resisted the move, fearing it broke the Army’s policy on the segregation of units—a silly rule that ignored the reality of infantry combat. Many of his contemporaries considered Lee arrogant and self-aggrandizing; some even referred to him as “Jesus Christ Himself” after his initials J.C.H. It is conceivable that Lee’s reputation within the European theater of operations (ETO) for racial tolerance combined with his personal demeanor to have a chilling effect on Woodson’s award recommendation. Unfortunately, the ETO awards board recommendations are also lost to history.
In 1992, the Army ordered an independent inquiry to determine why no World War II African-American Soldiers received the Medal of Honor. The panel concluded that the racial climate and practice within the World War II Army contributed to the failure of African-American Soldiers to be awarded the medal. The panel also found that it could not determine if Woodson deserved the Medal of Honor because it lacked his Army file, which had been destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Fortunately, due to Hervieux’s research, Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) asked the Army to review Woodson’s actions and recommended he receive the Medal of Honor. While Woodson may get his due eventually, posthumously awarding him the Medal of Honor will not repair the damage done at the individual and collective level to the fabric of American society by what Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in his award-winning memoir, Between the World and Me, as essentially decades of overt and covert, conscious and unconscious racism and discriminatory treatment.
Forgotten is an excellent book. Linda Hervieux deserves great credit for uncovering this long-forgotten and unique history. Her book not only preserves the past, but also brings to light legacies that are otherwise grievously forgotten. JFQ