These Black Soldiers Fought for America. It Didn’t Protect Them From Jim Crow.

These Black Soldiers Fought for America. It Didn’t Protect Them From Jim Crow.

In a little-known chapter of World War II, hundreds of African-American troops skilled to fly barrage balloons, defensive weapons used to guard Allied troopers from dive-bombing enemy planes throughout the D-Day invasion. This is their story.

Linda Hervieux

Part 1: Paris, Tennessee

Wilson Caldwell Monk stepped off a prepare automotive in a quiet nook of northwestern Tennessee in September 1942 that was a world away from his native Atlantic City, with its crowds of pleasure-seeking vacationers, amusements and marquee performers.

The 23-year-old Army non-public was the farthest south he had ever been, and like many black recruits from the North, he was nervous. They had heard tales in regards to the Deep South, about black males being arrested and pressed into service on chain gangs. Monk would study that you simply could not look a white particular person within the eye, and that you simply needed to step off a sidewalk if one was coming at you. That was the legislation beneath Jim Crow.

On his first prepare experience south as well camp in Maryland, Monk, soft-spoken and exceedingly well mannered, had been requested to maneuver to the “Negro automotive,” all the time the final automotive by the filthy coal engine. Later, he would brush off the black soot sullying his khaki uniform. He was already seething. And it solely bought worse.

But when Monk and his fellow recruits disembarked in a city known as Paris and noticed a pastoral panorama of inexperienced fields and forests, the South did not appear so dangerous. A heavy rucksack on his shoulder, Monk stared up on the sky, dotted with sausage-shaped orbs greater than college buses.

Monk was assigned to the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, a specialty unit the Army created to guard Americans from dive-bombing enemy planes. The males of the 320th would storm the seashores of Normandy in June 1944—the one black fight unit—alongside the infantry, carrying silvery balloons. Except these balloons could be armed with a top-secret deadly shock.

The 320th males would win accolades for their service on D-Day and return house as celebrities. But within the years to return, their story could be all however erased from the report. Few books on D-Day point out the black balloon flyers, and no films about that epic day present black troops, although the balloons are seen in Saving Private Ryan.

The 320th was one in every of two black models at D-Day to obtain a commendation from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. A battalion medic injured within the touchdown, Waverly Woodson, Jr., saved scores of lives and was nominated for the Medal of Honor. He by no means acquired it. No black troopers had been awarded the nation’s highest honor throughout World War II. (There is a marketing campaign beneath approach to change that.)

The United States got here late to concept of utilizing barrage balloons. The hydrogen-filled spheres had been already flying over Britain, Russia, Germany and Japan in December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It was the precise form of assault the balloons had been designed to forestall. With robust metal cables anchored to the bottom, the balloons might ensnare the wings of a airplane, inflicting it to stall and crash. And the gasbags pressured pilots to fly increased, giving anti-aircraft artillery weapons on the bottom a greater shot at them. They weren’t as efficient in defending a sprawling metropolis like London, however they had been excellent for holding planes away from a goal corresponding to an influence plant, a seashore—or a Navy base. One day earlier than Japanese bombs devastated the U.S. Pacific fleet, a spy in Honolulu reported again to Tokyo that “there are not any indicators” of barrage balloons.

“Every man thought it was an essential job … As massive because the Army was, it solely had a couple of barrage balloon battalions.”

— Wilson Caldwell Monk, soldier within the 320th

A yr earlier, Monk had been ready tables at Heilig’s Restaurant on the famed Atlantic City Boardwalk, serving up specialties like stewed snapper to well-heeled diners. Now, he was studying to make extremely flammable hydrogen fuel, predict climate patterns, gauge wind velocity, and different duties essential to hold the balloons within the air, and to maintain secure the lads on the bottom dealing with them.

Monk was taught the workings of the balloons’ secret weapon, 4-pound bombs the dimensions of soda cans that will be anchored to the balloons that went to battle. With a cable strike, the bombs would descend. A superb hit might blow off a wing or ignite the fuel tank. The Army took pains to maintain the weapons secret, however propaganda hinted on the balloons’ lethal booby entice. German pilots had been petrified of them.

“Every man thought it was an essential job,” Monk advised me. “As massive because the Army was, it solely had a couple of barrage balloon battalions.”

Of the greater than 30 barrage balloon models that will prepare at Camp Tyson throughout the conflict, 4 had been all-black, which within the segregated Army meant the troops had been black and the highest officers had been white. Black troopers had their very own barracks and mess halls. At first, some weren’t conscious they shared the bottom with white troopers. On and off base, they had been routinely harassed by white army law enforcement officials. At Monk’s earlier publish at Fort Eustis in Virginia, tensions flared after a white MP killed a black soldier. “That is the second homicide of its variety in two weeks,” Monk wrote to his mom, Rosita, in June 1941.

“Black males ain’t no males … We had been like little canine.”

— Samuel L. Mattison, soldier within the 320th

Camp Tyson was on excessive alert for riots in June 1943 after a black 320th soldier, Herman “Hank” Hankins, was shot within the again off base. A white soldier advised investigators he fired at a fleeing “prowler” who was peeping in home windows and refused orders to cease, although different 320th males disputed these information. “He would not have gone wanting in home windows,” Monk mentioned. “That was the excuse they gave.” After Hankins’ demise, black troopers had been scared to enter city.

Another 320th soldier, Samuel L. Mattison, mentioned he did not need to go into Paris as a result of “each time you go to city, somebody will get beat up.” But it was throughout a kind of instances that he suffered a vicious beating by two MP’s and a pair of white civilian cops. Mattison bought his revenge, breaking the fingers of 1 cop who cracked him within the head with a billy membership. Mattison, beneath arrest, was relieved when he was taken again to base as a result of in a civilian jail, he mentioned, “they’d in all probability grasp me.” Records present Mattison was court-martialed.

Mattison, a street-smart orphan from Columbus, Ohio, by no means bought used to life within the South, and the dangerous remedy black males had been speculated to tolerate, the day by day indignities and racial slurs.  “Black males ain’t no males,” he advised me in 2010, 9 months earlier than he died at age 92.  “We had been like little canine.”

It was on a weekend move to Memphis that Monk discovered the extremes of racism. Eager to blow off steam and listen to some blues on Beale Street, the lads stopped to seize some drinks at a diner. Monk plopped a 50-cent coin on the counter and requested for change to play the jukebox. The barman glared at him, retrieved some nickels from the register and threw them throughout the counter. “If you wasn’t in uniform,” the person advised Monk, “you would not get nothing from me.”

It might have been worse. Southern whites had been recognized to treat a black man sporting a uniform as a provocation, and lots of could be brutally overwhelmed once they returned house from the conflict, simply had they’d been after World War I.

Later that day, when Monk and his mates stopped for a chunk, they had been shocked to see a line of enemy prisoners of conflict submitting right into a restaurant the place black males—even troopers—weren’t welcome. The 425,000 German and Italian POWs interned at U.S. Army bases throughout the conflict typically loved privileges denied to the African Americans stationed there.

“It actually damage us,” Monk recalled, the wound nonetheless contemporary seven a long time after the conflict. White guards shared cigarettes with their expenses whereas spitting out expletives at males like Monk. A black soldier in Texas fumed at “American MPs and a few of Hitler’s bully boys… having a ball collectively, wining and eating.”

After tensions flared at Camp Lawton in Seattle, black troopers had been charged with attacking Italian POWs, killing one. They had been disciplined within the largest court-martial of the conflict, although their convictions had been dismissed in 2008 after the Army concluded their trial included a cover-up and was “basically unfair.”

As racial tensions mounted, a War Department order banning white commanders from utilizing slurs and abusive language went largely ignored. Appalling remedy of black troopers could be blamed, partially, for greater than 240 race riots that erupted throughout the nation in 1943.

Monk was hardly naïve. He knew racism was alive and nicely within the North, too. As a boy he watched the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross close to his household’s house in Pleasantville, N.J. He famous that he was not welcome to dine at any of the eating places the place he labored on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. But by some means this was worse. He was keen to battle for his nation, and he anticipated higher remedy.

Still, Monk mentioned, he and his fellow troopers of shade had been able to die in order that others, far-off, would reside free. “There was by no means any doubt in regards to the loyalty of black troopers,” he mentioned. “Even contemplating the truth that we weren’t handled equally.”

Next: The balloon flyers go to conflict

Linda Hervieux is the writer of Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home and At War (Harper). For extra on the lads of the 320th, go to

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