Updated date:

African American Heroes at Omaha and Utah Beaches on D-Day in WW2

Ron is a student of American history who writes frequently about the Civil War and WWII eras.

Color guard of Black soldiers in WW2

Color guard of Black soldiers in WW2

Most people believe there were no Blacks among the Allied soldiers who hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Historical researcher Linda Hervieux relates a conversation she had with a U.S. Army Museum archivist who stated flatly, “There were no black men at D-Day.”

That archivist was wrong. There were hundreds of African American soldiers who fought, performed heroically, and in some cases died on Omaha and Utah beaches on June 6, 1944.

But the widespread belief to the contrary is understandable. In the multitude of books and films made about that pivotal event in world history, there is almost no acknowledgement of the presence of African Americans. Their contributions to the the Allies' D-Day victory have been practically erased from popular history. But, as one of them put it decades later:

You won’t read much about what Black soldiers did on D-Day, but we were there.

— Tech. Sgt. George Davison, 320th Antiaircraft Balloon Battalion

Yes, they were there. And now their story, deliberately neglected for decades, is finally being rediscovered and made known. A good example of that trend is the comprehensive account provided by Linda Hervieux in her book, Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War. Much of the information in this article comes from that source.

Why You Never Heard About Blacks at D-Day

For most of World War II African Americans were not allowed to fight. They were reluctantly brought into the military due, in large part, to political pressure placed on the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt by Black newspapers, the NAACP, and other civil rights organizations. But once enlisted, Blacks were put in racially segregated units that were used mostly for non-combat support roles such as supply, transportation, and maintenance. This statistic tells the tale:

That’s why on D-Day there were no African American soldiers whose primary mission was to storm the beaches as assault troops.

But African Americans were nonetheless a key element of the D-Day invasion plan.

The African American Units That Participated in D-Day

Among the 59,000 American soldiers who came ashore at Omaha and Utah beaches on June 6, about 2,000 were Black. They included members of the 3275th Quartermaster Service Company, the 582nd Engineer Dump Truck company, the 385th Quartermaster Truck Company, and the 490th Port Battalion.

These men assisted the assault troops by unloading supplies from ships, and driving trucks, earth-movers and ambulances on the beach. They did their jobs well, showing extraordinary bravery under extremely dangerous conditions. John Ford, the well known Hollywood director of such films as Stage Coach (with John Wayne) and The Grapes of Wrath (with Henry Fonda), witnessed one such incident.

Ford, serving as a Commander in the United States Navy Reserve, was on Omaha Beach (in, as he said, "a relatively safe place") directing a Coast Guard film crew. He later recalled his awe at the bravery of one African American soldier who was fulfilling a "support" role:

"I remember watching one colored man in a DUKW loaded with supplies. He dropped them on the beach, unloaded, went back for more. I watched, fascinated. Shells landed around him. The Germans were really after him. He avoided every obstacle and just kept going back and forth, back and forth, completely calm. I thought, By God, if anybody deserves a medal that man does."

Another African American who displayed great bravery in a "support" capacity during the invasion was Coast Guardsman John N. Roberts. He served aboard an LCI(L) [Landing Craft Infantry – Large] that was transporting troops to the beach under heavy fire. As he was taking a message from the ship's commander to the engine room, a German shell exploded beneath him, causing the loss of one leg and serious injury to the other. Roberts was awarded two purple hearts at the time, and in 2008 received the French Legion of Honor for his heroism.

The only African American command that was specifically designated as a combat unit, and the one that had the greatest impact during the early hours of D-Day, was the 320th Antiaircraft Balloon Battalion.

How the 320th Antiaircraft Balloon Battalion Helped Secure the Beaches

The 320th Very Low Altitude (VLA) Barrage Balloon Battalion, consisting of about 1,500 soldiers and 49 officers, was tasked with deploying balloons over the beaches to protect them from air attack by Luftwaffe planes. These helium-filled inflatables, each about the size of a small car, were designed to fly over the beach at an altitude of about 2,000 feet. Their purpose was to serve as obstacles to low-flying planes attempting to strafe or bomb attacking soldiers as they emerged from their landing crafts and attempted to cross the beach.

Barrage balloons put up by the 320th over a D-Day beach

Barrage balloons put up by the 320th over a D-Day beach

Capt. R. E. Cunningham, the executive officer of one of the batteries of the 320th, explained how barrage balloons were used on D-Day:

“The primary aim of these balloons is to keep the enemy's planes up so that the AA (anti-aircraft) automatic weapons can track them, and to render their bombing ineffective and strafing impossible in the area being defended.”

A plane hitting one of the cables by which the balloons were tethered would likely be brought down by having a propeller fouled in the wire or a wing sliced completely off. To make doubly sure, some balloons even had explosives attached to their cables. A plane hitting one of these “flying mines” was almost certain to be destroyed.

The D-Day planners considered having adequate barrage balloon coverage so important that they reduced the normal crew of four men per balloon to three to ensure that they had enough trained personnel for the number of balloons needed.

Soldiers of the 320th launch a barrage balloon on Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Soldiers of the 320th launch a barrage balloon on Omaha Beach on D-Day.

The 320th Performed Heroically During the Landings

Due to the nature of their mission, the men of the 320th had to be among the first U.S. troops to hit the beaches. Members of the battalion first landed on Omaha Beach at 9 a.m., about two hours after the invasion began. A July 5, 1944 article in the army newspaper Stars and Stripes detailed the reception they received:

"The [320th] has the distinction of being the only Negro combat group included in the first assault forces to hit the coasts. The balloons were flown across the channel from hundreds of landing craft, three men to a balloon, and taken ashore under savage fire from shore batteries. Some of the men died alongside the infantryman they came in to protect, and their balloons drifted off. But the majority struggled to shore with their balloons and light winches and set up for operation in foxholes on the beach."

The assault troops the 320th "came in to protect" recognized and appreciated their bravery and commitment. The reputation the battalion earned for itself that day was reflected in a letter from the editor of Yank, the US Army’s weekly magazine, to the staff of Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower:

“It seems the whole front knows the story of the Negro barrage balloon battalion outfit which was one of the first ashore on D-Day… [they] have gotten the reputation of hard workers and good soldiers.”

General Eisenhower Commends the 320th

Gen. Eisenhower took note of the “splendid manner” in which the men of the 320th got their balloons into the air and kept them there while under intense German artillery and machine gun fire. In an official commendation of the unit he said:

Despite the losses sustained, the battalion carried out its mission with courage and determination, and proved an important element of the air defense team.... I commend you and the officers and men of your battalion for your fine effort which has merited the praise of all who have observed it.

— Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower

A Soldier Who Earned – But Did Not Get – the Medal of Honor

A member of the 320th who displayed extraordinary heroism during the landings at Omaha Beach was a 21-year-old medical corpsman, Sgt. Waverly Woodson.

Because it was anticipated that there would be heavy casualties among the troops assaulting the beaches, the medics of the 320th were not kept in a racially segregated group, but were distributed among the incoming units without regard to race. Sgt. Woodson was assigned to an LCT (Landing Craft Tank) that never made it to shore. It first struck a mine in the water, then was hit by an artillery shell. Most of the Army and Navy personnel aboard were killed. Sgt. Woodson suffered shrapnel wounds to his groin and back.

Under withering fire from artillery, machine guns, and snipers, the severely injured Woodson made it to the beach and set up a medical aid station. For the next 30 hours, still under intense enemy fire, he cared for wounded soldiers, patching wounds, removing bullets, dispensing blood plasma, and helping to rescue and revive men who were half-drowned in the surf. He even performed at least one amputation.

Finally the effects of his own wounds caught up with Sgt. Woodson, and he collapsed. He was evacuated to a hospital ship, but within three days was asking to be sent back to the beach. According to a contemporary account, he finally underwent a three-hour operation several days later to remove a piece of shrapnel that had torn through his leg and embedded itself in his groin.

Staff Sergeant Waverly B. Woodson Jr.

Staff Sergeant Waverly B. Woodson Jr.

Sgt. Woodson was awarded the Bronze Star for his extraordinary bravery and commitment to duty. Actually, his commanding general recommended him for the Medal of Honor, but he never received that award – and neither did any other African American during WW2. A 1995 Army investigation concluded that it was not any lack of heroism on the part of Black soldiers, but “pervasive racism” that accounts for that fact.

Finally, in 1997 President Bill Clinton awarded long overdue Medals of Honor to seven Black WW2 soldiers. Because his service records were lost in a fire in the seventies, Sgt. Woodson was not among them. But his case is not yet closed. Although Waverly Woodson died in 2005, an effort to have him awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor is currently under way, spearheaded by Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

The Waverly Woodson Story

The D-Day Record is Being Set Straight

The African Americans of D-Day have been unjustly overlooked or ignored for far too long. Even the highly acclaimed 1998 Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks film, Saving Private Ryan, faithfully showed the barrage balloons put up over Omaha Beach by the 320th, while totally ignoring the men who put them there. Hopefully, that kind of neglect will never happen again.

As Gen. Omar Bradley said years after D-Day, “every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero.”

It's taken decades, but the African American heroes of D-Day are finally beginning to receive the recognition and honor they deserve for the courage and sacrifice they displayed that day.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ronald E Franklin

Comments

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 10, 2021:

Thanks. I appreciate that.

E Randall from United States on March 10, 2021:

Thank you for writing this and shedding some light on this. We did play a pivotal role, just like the Wereth 11 some history tends to be overlooked or forgotten. Thanks again, this article is so good, you gained a follower. Take care and God bless.

Related Articles