Written Out of History: The Black Soldiers who Stormed Normandy

Anna Venturelli

One of the most iconic photos of the Normandy landing was captured a few days after the initial invasion

One of the most iconic photos of the Normandy landing was captured a few days after the initial invasion. The photo shows several landing ships beached on Omaha beach while men, supplies and munitions are offloaded into military vehicles to support the expansion of the beachhead. Floating over them, several barrage balloons are providing critical protection to the ships and soldiers below from enemy aircraft attack. The cables anchoring the balloons to the ground posed indeed a huge risk to any aircraft as not only they were extremely difficult to notice, but they were also loaded with small explosive charges: to avoid them, the enemy aircraft was forced to fly higher and into the range of the anti-aircraft gunfire stationed on the beaches. These balloons were therefore vital to the entire Operation Overlord from its early stages to the end of the campaign, meaning they had to be brought ashore in the invasion’s first waves by a highly specialised unit: the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only unit composed entirely by African American soldiers to land in Normandy on D-Day. As the news coverage avoided mentioning them due to the segregation and racism of the American society at the time, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion was written out of history: not mentioned in most historical books and not shown in shows and movies about D-Day, their contributions had remained unrecognised and forgotten by historians and the general public for a very long time. As a matter of fact, the American military command never even planned to build and deploy Black units into combat at the time. Although black soldiers had participated in every war since the American Revolution, the American army was still extremely segregated at the outbreak of the Second World War. Not only were black soldiers only allowed to train exclusively in black units, but they were also considered not as capable as their white counterparts in leadership and combat positions, and therefore relegated to service units (e.g. cooks, mechanics, supplies division). However, as the military and economic efforts of the war started to weigh more and more heavily on the country, the American public opinion began to pressure the US Army to increase the combat responsibilities of black soldiers: while not abandoning segregation, the American military command promoted the creation of black-only units in every military branch.
Written Out of History: The Black Soldiers who Stormed Normandy
Landing ships with barrage balloons deployed, unloading supplies on Omaha Beach. The balloons were raised by the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion.

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Written Out of History: The Black Soldiers who Stormed Normandy
Men of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion raise a balloon on Omaha Beach.

Among them was the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion

The 320th – consisting of 1,100 men and 50 balloons – was formed in 1942 and trained at Camp Tyson in Tennessee alongside over thirty other battalions, including three other African American units (318th, 319th and 321st). Soldiers chosen to join the 320th underwent basic training followed by ‘balloon school’, a six-week regimen that taught them how to handle the balloons in combat. This regimen – held in segregated facilities for only black soldiers – involved learning how to inflate and deflate the balloons with inflammable hydrogen gas, how to attach an explosive charge to their cables, and how to manoeuvre, camouflage and repair them. After completing this training, the 320th men had to undergo an additional twelve-week programme on weather forecasting, which was essential considering how vulnerable the balloons were to strong winds and difficult weather conditions. At the end of this long training period, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion was given its first assignment: landing on Utah and Omaha beach on D-Day. Their task was to defend the invasion and the beachhead from enemy aircraft attacks by raising their hydrogen-filled balloons 200 feet into the air over the Allied troops and ships. On the eve of D-Day, the men of the 320th were spread across 100 landing crafts - mostly headed to Omaha beach - with the pre-inflated balloons attached to their boats for the crossing of the Channel. Once they reached the beach, their first task was to move the pre-inflated balloons from the landing crafts to the shores, in teams of 4 to 5 men. However, like the fate of many other units that day, their plans fell apart once they hit the ground. The aerial and naval bombardments, which according to the attack plan were to precede the actual landings, destroyed fewer German defence positions than expected. As a result, the men of the 320th along with the other troops in the first waves had to face extremely heavy resistance and artillery fire. At Omaha, many men lost their balloons before they could even step on the beach. Even at Utah, where the German defence was less intense, most men lost their balloons nonetheless. Stranded on the beach, the 320th soldiers were forced to dig in while waiting for the sweepers to clear the mines hidden in the sand and for the infantry to break through enemy defence lines. As the infantry started to control the beachhead at last, it became essential to raise the balloons before nightfall, when most of the enemy aircraft fire was expected. Although most of the initial equipment had either been lost or scattered around the beach, the men of the 320th fought against time and the first balloon was raised above Omaha beach at 11:15 pm on D-Day. Another 12 balloons followed before dawn. By the night of June 7 (D-Day +1), 20 balloons were floating above Omaha beach, and 13 were aloft over Utah beach. The contribution of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion to the invasion proved to be essential also in the following days: the balloons were constantly shot down by German aircraft fire, and had to be replaced daily. However, the prompt and meticulous work of the 320th soldiers ensured that the ships could continue to unload the soldiers, materials and supplies necessary for Allied success. For their contribution at Omaha beach, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion received a commendation from the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force General Dwight D. Eisenhower; only to be faced again with segregation and racism once the battalion was disbanded and its soldiers discharged at the end of the war. The sacrifices of the 320th black soldiers meant nothing to the American society and they were even denied the benefits of the GI Bill of Rights – an act providing returning servicemen with funds for education, unemployment allowances and job-finding assistance.
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An example of the pervasive racism and non-recognition of their heroic acts is the case of Cpl. Waverly Bernard Woodson, Jr. (1922-2005).

After being assigned to the Anti-Artillery Officer Candidate School, Woodson was informed that it was not possible to billet him there because of his race and he was sent to train as a combat medic in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. On D-Day, during the approach to Omaha beach, Woodson’s landing craft hit a sea mine and he was wounded by shrapnel. After treating his own wound, he continued onto Omaha Beach where he set up the medical aid station using the cover of a rocky embankment to shield himself from German machine gun fire. There, he assisted wounded and dying soldiers for the next 30 hours, pulling out bullets, setting limbs, amputating a foot and even resuscitating four drowning men. At that point, he collapsed and was transferred to a hospital ship where he was treated for his wounds. Three days later, he asked to return to the beach and treat more soldiers. For his efforts on D-Day – which are believed to have saved 200 soldiers – Woodson was highly praised by his commanding officer and by the black press, calling him ‘No. 1 Invasion Hero’. Even the official US military newspaper Stars and Stripes praised him for his heroic acts. Unbeknownst to him, Woodson was also nominated for the Medal of Honour, the highest US military decoration, but never received it. An independent Army investigation led in 1995 concluded that the pervasive racism of American society had ensured that black soldiers like Woodson were not commemorated for their heroic actions, and that their courage and sacrifice remained unknown for many years. In fact, of the hundreds of Medals of Honor given out during the Second World War, not a single one went to a black soldier, even though more than 1 million African Americans served in the conflict. Though Woodson died in 2005, his family is still pushing the Army to award him a Medal of Honor posthumously.
Written Out of History: The Black Soldiers who Stormed Normandy
Waverley Woodson's official US Army portrait, taken while he held the rank of sergeant.
Written Out of History: The Black Soldiers who Stormed Normandy

Anna Venturelli

Anna Venturelli studied History at the Univerisità degli Studi di Milano in Italy and completed a MA in Public Histories at Birkbeck, University of London. She specialises in contemporary history and recently wrote her dissertation on the absence of a museum about Fascism in Italy, analysing the still unresolved reconciliation between Italy and its difficult past. Anna has worked in an antique gallery, before moving to the higher education sector, and she is interested in empowering the public connection with the past.
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