News / USA

    Author Remembers D-Day’s 'Forgotten' African-American Heroes

    George Davison scrawled the names of his buddies from the 320th on this snapshot taken in Octeville, France, in July 1944. (Photo courtesy of Bill Davison)
    George Davison scrawled the names of his buddies from the 320th on this snapshot taken in Octeville, France, in July 1944. (Photo courtesy of Bill Davison)
    Lisa Bryant

    On June 7, 1944, a 20-year-old medic named Waverly Woodson plunged into the surf of Omaha Beach to drag four drowning British soldiers to safety. Injured by shrapnel, he’d already spent marathon hours treating other wounded men during the D-Day landings in Normandy. He collapsed from exhaustion shortly after.

    William Dabney was also hit by shrapnel as he waded to shore through waist-deep water.

    George Davison saw "bodies being blown to bits" as he ducked from German fire on the wide, flat beach.

    Waverly Woodson’s first Army portrait. (Courtesy of Joann Woodson)Waverly Woodson’s first Army portrait. (Courtesy of Joann Woodson)
    x
    Waverly Woodson’s first Army portrait. (Courtesy of Joann Woodson)
    Waverly Woodson’s first Army portrait. (Courtesy of Joann Woodson)

    All were members of the U.S. Army’s 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only African-American unit to participate in the Allied invasion to liberate France. Their orders: raise blimp-like balloons meant to deter enemy aircraft.  

    The men were praised for their heroism and, in Woodson’s case, recommended for the Medal of Honor.

    But little record remains of their existence and their bravery – or the collective legacy of the more than 900,000 African Americans who served during World War II. At least until now.

    Unearthing their stories

    "The men in this unit themselves did not think anyone would care about the deeds of black men," says Linda Hervieux, a Paris-based journalist and author of a recently published book on the 320th called "Forgotten." "These men were treated terribly during the war. Segregation and discrimination were horrible things to live with."

    William Dabney wears the French Legion of Honor that he received at a ceremony in Paris in June 2009. (Photo: Linda Hervieux)William Dabney wears the French Legion of Honor that he received at a ceremony in Paris in June 2009. (Photo: Linda Hervieux)
    x
    William Dabney wears the French Legion of Honor that he received at a ceremony in Paris in June 2009. (Photo: Linda Hervieux)
    William Dabney wears the French Legion of Honor that he received at a ceremony in Paris in June 2009. (Photo: Linda Hervieux)

    Hervieux stumbled on their story during the 65th anniversary of D-Day in 2009, when Dabney received France’s prestigious Legion of Honor.

    "I thought their mission was really interesting, and it would be a shame to write just one newspaper article on it," recalls Hervieux who covered the story for the New York Daily News.  

    She spent three years digging through phone records and public archives in the United States and Europe for scraps of information. A dozen of the men were still alive.

    Tracing their stories from civilian life to boot camp in the U.S., and then onward to war-torn Europe, "Forgotten" is as much a social history as a military one.

    "It’s about Jim Crow America," Hervieux says, referring to laws enforcing racial segregation in the U.S. South, which also shaped military life. Black soldiers were subject to different rules and treatment. Few served overseas. Those who did fought in segregated battalions.  

    "All of them, to a man, said that the discrimination, the racism, the segregation, the race hatred they were exposed to during the war was absolutely devastating," Hervieux says of those she interviewed.

    "Men from the South weren’t surprised; it was like back home," she adds. "But those from the North were staggered."

    Broader picture

    "Forgotten" fits into a broader retrospective about how minority soldiers were treated during last century’s wars – not only in the U.S. but also in Europe. That includes Britain, where the largely forgotten contributions of Indian troops fighting alongside WWI allies is the subject of another recently published book, "For King and Another Country."

    More than a million Africans also served colonial powers during WWII, with the survivors receiving little compensation. Algerian veterans who sided with France during Algeria's bloody war of independence are also still claiming greater recognition.

    "Many people ask why we’re dredging up this dirt from the past," Hervieux says. "But there’s a whole line of thinking that believes we must absolutely confront the past and remember it."

    For the soldiers of the 320th Battalion, WWII was also liberating. Stationed in England before the allied landing, they were treated as heroes – although white GIs tried to have them banned from pubs and cinemas.

    "A lot of Britons had never met a person of color before, and they did not have preconceived notions of what to expect," Hervieux says. "So they were welcomed with open arms as Americans, as treasured allies."

    Medal for Woodson

    "Forgotten" is earning sterling reviews and Hervieux is currently on book tour in the U.S. But one battle is unfinished.

    On her website is a petition to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to Waverly Woodson, the medic who worked tirelessly to save lives on Omaha Beach. Despite being recommended for the highest military honor for his service, he was instead given the lesser Bronze Star.

    Waverly Woodson is buried at Arlington National Cemetery where American buries its heroes. . Each May around Memorial Day, his widow, Joann, arranges the red roses her husband loved so much beside his grave. (Photo: Linda Hervieux)
    Waverly Woodson is buried at Arlington National Cemetery where American buries its heroes. . Each May around Memorial Day, his widow, Joann, arranges the red roses her husband loved so much beside his grave. (Photo: Linda Hervieux)

    Indeed, no black soldiers were given the Medal of Honor during the war. An Army study later found a climate of racism influenced the awards process, and in 1997 seven were awarded the medals, six posthumously.

    Woodson, who died in poverty more than a decade after the war, was not among them.

    You May Like

    Post-White House, Obamas to Rent Washington Mansion

    Nine-bedroom home is 3 kilometers from Oval Office, near capital's Embassy Row; rent estimated at around $22,000 a month

    Red Planet? Not so much!

    New research suggest that Mars is in a warm period between cyclical ice ages, and that during Ice Age Maximum over 500,000 years ago, the red planet was decidedly ice, and much whiter to the naked eye.

    Taj Mahal Battles New Threat from Insects

    Swarms of insects are proliferating in the heavily contaminated waters of the Yamuna River, which flows behind the 17th century monument

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora