A Remembrance on D-Day: The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion


By Pierre Tran

Paris – The 80th anniversary of D-Day June 6 1944, marks significance for the family of the late Waverly Woodson, a black army corporal and medic who landed on Omaha beach, Linda Hervieux, journalist and writer, told the Anglo-American Press Association, a press club.

Hervieux is author of Forgotten (U.S. Harper; U.K. Amberley), which tells of the combat soldiers in the U.S. army’s 320th barrage balloon battalion, an African American unit which landed under deadly fire on the Normandy beach.

“Why does it matter?” she said May 15 to the AAPA.

Those black soldiers, after winning initial praise for their part in the longest day, were later largely “excluded” from the history of D-Day, reflecting a history of racial discrimination in the U.S. army, she said.

Some of that social exclusion has been addressed, with Woodson awarded the posthumous award of the Distinguished Service Cross, the army’s highest medal, just as the anniversary of D-Day loomed.

“…the Pentagon and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) announced that Woodson will receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest medal for combat valor — as part of a long overdue recent reckoning by the military about how institutional racism suppressed awards for heroic Black soldiers in World War II,” Politico magazine reported June 3.

Woodson’s widow, Joann Woodson, 96, has campaigned for the award of the highest distinction, the Medal of Honor, and that requires presidential approval, as well as the detailed checks by the Pentagon.

“They want the Medal of Honor,” Hervieux said. “They want the big one.”

That battalion of black combat soldiers brought on shore and deployed barrage balloons, seen as vital equipment to protect the troops from attacks from the air. Those hydrogen-filled balloons were designed to deter dive bombers and force enemy fighters to stay high in the sky, putting them in the sights of allied anti-aircraft fire.

Some balloons also were armed with a secret weapon, namely explosives. If a fighter plane hit the restraining wire, there was risk of not just shearing off wings or getting entangled, but also triggering the small bomb attached just below the balloon.

Those barrage balloons were deployed on both the beaches assigned to the American troops, namely Omaha and Utah.

The historical narrative, Forgotten, recounts the stories told by soldiers who served in the all-black combat battalion.

Epic Battle

The secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, is aware of the campaign to award the late Woodson the Medal of Honor, Hervieux said. Such an award would be something of a victory in an “epic battle,” she added.

The formation of the 320th barrage balloon battalion in the second world war marked something of a cultural break for the U.S. army, which drew many of its officers from the south, she said. That meant most black soldiers were assigned to labor and service battalions, not integrated into combat units.

The Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 changed that, with a pressing need for combat troops no matter what the racial origin. That meant a re-assignment of black American soldiers to combat units.

That barrage balloon battalion was a segregated unit, and the only black combat unit deployed on the assault on Omaha beach on that historic day, the opening of the bloody battle for Normandy.

Woodson was wounded by shrapnel when his landing craft was hit on the morning of 6 June, Hervieux wrote in Time magazine. The corporal made it on to the beach, where he set up a first aid station and gave medical help to dozens of wounded soldiers for 30 hours, before being relieved.

Woodson’s giving medical aid under enemy fire led to a nomination to a Medal of Honor, but that award was withheld.

A fire in 1973 of the national personnel records center in St. Louis destroyed many files, which included accounts of Woodson’s service.

France awarded medals to the American ex-serviceman and other veterans of the balloon battalion, and invited them to Normandy in previous D-Day anniversaries.

Woodson died in 2005, and was buried in Arlington cemetery.

France has withdrawn an invitation to Russia to attend the D-Day anniversary, reversing a decision to allow senior Moscow officials to attend, while excluding president Vladimir Putin.

Some 200 veterans are due to attend.

Several heads of state and government will attend, including U.S. president Joe Biden and his Ukrainian counterpart, president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Both Britain’s King Charles and the prime minister, Rishi Sunak,  are due to attend, along with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and German chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Credit Photo: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/events-programs/events/129290-320th-barrage-balloon-battalion-african-american-heroes-d-day