by Linda Hervieux
“For many African Americans, their parting view of Lady Liberty was a bittersweet reminder that they were off to fight, and perhaps die, to protect freedoms afar that they had never known at home.”
Watching movies about World War II, you might be forgiven for thinking that no African American soldiers served in that war. Yet more than two thousand African Americans were on Utah and Omaha beaches on D-Day, a mere fraction of the 130 000 sent to England over the preceding months in anticipation of the invasion of the continent. Most of the African Americans at D-Day were service troops, working as stevedores and truck drivers, but one black combat unit participated, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Over six-hundred men strong, the battalion was spread out over more than 125 landing craft arriving on the beaches on June 6, and in the weeks that followed. Their job was to raise a defensive curtain into the skies, protecting the invading forces from low altitude bombing runs and strafing by the Luftwaffe. Yet there is nary a black face to be seen anywhere in the storming of Omaha Beach depicted in such films as Saving Private Ryan. But they were there, and Forgotten is Linda Hervieux’s effort to write those men back into their rightful place in history.
Hervieux became aware of the existence of the 320th after writing a story about veteran Bill Dabney, who was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Organizers believed that Dabney was likely the last living member of the battalion, but when Hervieux dug into that claim, she discovered that it was unfounded. Moreover, time was running out to capture the stories of these men; most of the remaining veterans would be in their nineties. Military historians warned Hervieux, a journalist, that there were not enough records to support a book about the unit, but Hervieux persisted, unearthing at least twelve 320th veterans who were still alive and able to talk about their experiences. She also uncovered the only proof that a member of the 320th was recommended for the Medal of Honor, medic Waverly Woodson, who passed away in 2005.
Forgotten opens on Atlantic City in 1941, where Wilson Caldwell Monk—future member of the 320th—was waiting tables on the Boardwalk. Though New Jersey was a northern state, Atlantic City practiced a form of de facto segregation; the restaurants where Monk worked during the Season would never serve a black man. In addition to Dabney and Woodson, Monk is one of the main figures in the book, along with Henry Parham, who hailed from sharecropping country, and was working as a porter in Richmond, Virginia when he received his draft notice. Dabney, Monk, and Parham were all alive for Hervieux to interview, while the accounts of Woodson are based on newspaper articles from the period, and interviews he gave before his death, as well as the cooperation of his widow.
After the players are introduced, the first third of the book is largely contextual, including sections on Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, the history of black military units, and the use of various types of balloons in the military, beginning with the Napoleonic wars. Although she talks about Jim Crow generally, Hervieux also examines its specific effect on the military experience. The army itself was segregated, and most of the training camps were located in the South. Far from being welcomed into the military, blacks were discouraged because they were believed to be less brave and less intelligent than white people. Black soldiers were regularly insulted and even assaulted, as white Southerners struggled with the cognitive dissonance of their respect for the military colliding with their dehumanization of African Americans. A black man in uniform was perceived as a provocation, a demand for respect, and the situation was so fraught that trains carrying black soldiers through the South traveled with curtains drawn, because white Southerners were known to shoot at trains carrying African American troops.
Perhaps the most revelatory section comes in the middle of the book, which covers the 320th deploying overseas, landing in Scotland, and proceeding south. They were encamped in Oxfordshire and Wales, where they were part of the growing mass of American forces being squirreled away in anticipation of Operation Overlord, as the invasion of France was known among the planners. Britons, by and large, did not discriminate against the black soldiers, and in some cases even preferred them, finding that they were usually more polite than their white counterparts, and better accustomed to the hard living conditions imposed by war-time rationing. In England, a black man could drink in any pub, go to any church, and dance with any girl, unencumbered by the colour of his skin. But this treatment caused tension with white American troops, who had somehow expected that Britons would participate in American-style segregation and subjugation. In fact, Britons roundly refused, and even raised public outcry against the harsher treatment they saw African American soldiers receiving from the American military command.
Only the last few chapters of Forgotten deal with the event itself, the crossing of the channel, the landing at D-Day, and the long fight to control the beaches. Nothing went as planned that day, and the first 320th men on the ground, including Waverly Woodson, were more infantry troops than balloon men, given the amount of artillery fire that was still underway. Fortunately most of the Luftwaffe was elsewhere, and later waves of 320th men were able to raise their balloons. Hervieux also briefly deals with the aftermath of the war, recounting the difficulties African American veterans faced in accessing the benefits of the GI Bill. Black veterans were still unable to obtain loans from most banks, and while educational benefits were available, African Americans were shunted into vocational training programs of dubious quality, and often emerged to find no jobs available to them.
Anyone who is very knowledgeable about either African American history or military history will probably find that this book retreads a lot of ground in an effort to contextualize the experiences of the men of the 320th. Perhaps due to the sparseness of the military records, Hervieux relies on this background material to flesh out the narrative, as a military history cannot rest on personal accounts alone. Yet if anything she is simultaneously a little too wary of personalizing the narrative, and letting the personalities of the men shine through. It is hard to get a good sense of them individually, and that is a bit of shame. Nevertheless, Hervieux successfully sheds light on the contributions of a group that has almost been erased from history.
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