Willie O. Howard
The injustices of 1940s Jim Crow America are brought to life in this extraordinary blend of military and social history—a story that pays tribute to the valor of an all-black battalion whose crucial contributions at D-Day have gone unrecognized to this day.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, a unit of African-American soldiers, landed on the beaches of France. Their orders were to man a curtain of armed balloons meant to deter enemy aircraft. One member of the 320th would be nominated for the Medal of Honor, an award he would never receive. The nation’s highest decoration was not given to black soldiers in World War II.
Linda & William Dabney
Drawing on newly uncovered military records and dozens of original interviews with surviving members of the 320th and their families, Linda Hervieux tells the story of these heroic men charged with an extraordinary mission, whose contributions to one of the most celebrated events in modern history have been overlooked. Members of the 320th—Wilson Monk, a jack-of-all-trades from Atlantic City; Henry Parham, the son of sharecroppers from rural Virginia; William Dabney, an eager 17-year-old from Roanoke, Virginia; Samuel Mattison, a charming romantic from Columbus, Ohio—and thousands of other African Americans were sent abroad to fight for liberties denied them at home. In England and Europe, these soldiers discovered freedom they had not known in a homeland that treated them as second-class citizens—experiences they carried back to America, fueling the budding civil rights movement.
In telling the story of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, Hervieux offers a vivid account of the tension between racial politics and national service in wartime America, and a moving narrative of human bravery and perseverance in the face of injustice.
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Reader comment by Alan Marty
"Between 1940 and 1945, more than one million black soldiers would don uniforms." (p 36)
"The suffering of the Jews in Europe drew sympathy from African Americans and, much to the annoyance of the Roosevelt administration, led to comparisons between Nazi Germany and Jim Crow America." (pp 59-60)
In early 1942 "African Americans began flashing a variation on the omnipresent 'V for Victory' sign....Their version formed a V with each hand, 'the first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for Victory over our enemies from within'." (p 62)
To combat widespread prejudice that barred hiring blacks, FDR signed Executive Order 8802 which also created the Fair Employment Practices Commission. In October 1943, "equality in hiring was a subject of a presidential 'fireside chat'. Tens of millions of Americans tuned their radios to hear Roosevelt urge employers to hire Negroes, women, and older people to keep the war economy moving. 'We can no longer indulge such prejudices or practices,' he said." (p 112)
"During the war, more than 130,000 African Americans passed through Britain and were welcomed by the people who noted their courteous demeanor and friendly smiles." As Ollie Stewart, a journalist for the Afro-American newspaper chain, wrote: "The English people show our lads every possible courtesy and some of them, accustomed to ill will, harsh words, and artificial barriers, seem slightly bewildered. They never had a chance to leave their Southern homes before, and therefore never realized there was a part of the world which was willing to forget a man's color and welcome him as a brother." (p 157)
" 'The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.' wrote George Orwell in the Tribune, a leftist weekly. Mistreatment of blacks at the hands of white Americans only enhanced their populrity." (p 188)
The white American military's judicial system was biased. "While black soldiers represented 8 percent of all (military) personnel in Europe. they comprised 21 percent of servicemen convicted of crimes, and 42 percent convicted of sex crimes. Those figures appear particularly stark when considered alongside the many accolades showered on African Americans during their time in Britain." (p 190) (citing Smith, Graham, When Jim Crow Met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain, NY, St Martin's press, 1987)