The salty spray of the ocean battered their faces as the boat rocked with the waves. High above in the thick grey clouds, the thunderous drone of Allied planes could be heard. In the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, these men were, “about to embark on the Great Crusade.”
Operation Overlord, D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, Omaha beach—these words invoke the memory of the events of June 6, 1944 when the combined allied nations assaulted the Western Front of Hitler’s Fortress Europe. As a result of media entertainment, the images that are associated with these words are often historical films of men running ashore through the high surf, John Wayne and Henry Fonda in The Longest Day, and Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore in Saving Private Ryan. Unfortunately, this remembrance of D-Day omits the contributions of the African-American troops who supported the invasion at Normandy.
The 621 men of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion were split up amongst the thousands of troops who would storm the beaches on June 6. Their job was to go ashore and raise hydrogen-filled barrage balloons to protect the landings from strafing runs by enemy aircraft. Despite their defensive mission, these men were not immune to the merciless fire of the German guns.
“…the 88s hit us. They were murder.” Waverly Woodson Jr., a corporal and medic with the 320th, recalled during a 1994 interview with The Associated Press. “Of our 26 Navy personnel, there was only one left. They raked the whole top of the ship and killed all the crew. Then they started with the mortar shells.” Woodson was wounded in the back and groin by a mortar shell. After receiving aid from another medic, he went on to tend to the other wounded men aboard the landing craft.
Despite his own injuries, Woodson went ashore and continued to provide medical aid to his wounded comrades. For the next 30 hours on the blood-soaked beach, Woodson removed bullets from wounds, dispensed blood plasma, reset broken bones, amputated a foot and saved four men from drowning. Only after he collapsed from exhaustion and his own wounds, was Woodson evacuated to a hospital ship.
For his actions on D-Day, Woodson received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Woodson’s commanding officer had originally recommended him for a Distinguished Service Cross, and a memo from the War Department to the White House uncovered in 2015 revealed that Woodson had been recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor. The push to upgrade Woodson’s award continues to this day.
Waverly Woodson in his Army photograph (photo provided by Joann Woodson)
Another corporal in the 320th, William Dabney, had his barrage balloon shot out above him. Without a replacement balloon to raise, Dabney dug in and did everything he could to survive. “The firing was furious on the beach. I was picking up dead bodies and I was looking at the mines blowing up soldiers…I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not,” Dabney recalled in a 2009 interview with The Associated Press. Dabney survived D-Day and continued the war providing barrage balloon cover for an anti-aircraft gun team. “I followed the big gun wherever it went. I went to Saint Lo, then near Paris, and then later to Belgium and Holland.” In 2009, Dabney was awarded the French Legion of Honor at the 65th Anniversary D-Day Ceremony at Normandy.
William Dabney and his son, Vinnie Dabney, at the French Embassy in Washington D.C., before their trip Normandy in 2009 (photo provided by Vinnie Dabney)
The men of the 320th that survived the invasion of Europe were eventually reassigned to the Pacific Theater. They trained at Camp Stewart, Georgia, to fight the Japanese and protect friendly forces from the suicidal kamikaze planes. The 320th made it as far as Hawaii before the war ended.
Johnnie Jones, Sr. was a warrant officer responsible for unloading equipment and supplies at Normandy. As he came ashore, Jones and his men came under fire from a German sniper. “The bullets were going in front of you, back of you, side of you, everywhere,” Jones recounted. He grabbed his weapon and returned fire with his fellow soldiers. As he attempted to suppress the sniper, Jones witnessed another soldier rush the pillbox concealing the enemy. “I still see him, I see him every night. I know he didn’t come back home. He didn’t come back home but he saved me and he saved many others.” Jones is one of the last surviving African-American veterans of D-Day.
The contributions of these men and their African-American comrades was invaluable in saving lives and achieving victory in WWII. Though many of them have passed away, their memory lives on in our remembrance of D-Day as their stories are finally told.