It was in 2009 when Linda Hervieux met a shy 89-year old veteran in Paris while covering the 65th anniversary of the infamous D-Day landing in Normandy. Little did she know that this chance meeting would have a significant impact on both their lives. Meeting William Dabney would launch her on a six year-long odyssey to know everything about him and his vital role in the liberation of France and Western Europe from Nazi Germany control.
There have been countless books and films documenting the heroic deeds and enormous sacrifices of the men and women who fought during WWII. For their heroics, they are best remembered as the “greatest generation” of our time. Corporal Dabney was clearly part of this immortalized group, but nowhere could Linda find any trace or resemblance of his story in the American history books.
It was as if his role had simply been “forgotten”. In fact, she discovered every man in his battalion was omitted from the history books. Why?
Linda Hervieux, an American journalist living and working in Paris, was both shocked and intrigued by this glaring omission. Her piqued curiosity developed into dogged research and an intense hunt for any surviving African American soldier. Her diligence produced the remarkable book Forgotten: the Untold Story of D-Day’s Back Heroes.
This powerful, non-fiction book blends social and military history with personal storytelling to shed light on why these heroic men were segregated not only in life but also in history. It painfully and accurately documents the lives of 12 Black men before, during and after the war, and in these poignant biographies we learn not only how these dignified men evolved, but how society failed for so long to give them the respect and recognition they so deserved.
INSPIRELLE asked Linda how her chance encounter with a veteran uncovered the untold story of D-Day’s Black heroes.
Linda, tell us how you came to the realization that the story of Black American soldiers who landed on D-Day was an unknown, untold story?
This story began for me in June 2009, on the 65th anniversary of D-Day, when the French government awarded the country’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, to an American veteran. Like many American reporters, I wrote about the man who was honored, William Dabney, from Roanoke, Virginia, who was a member of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. It seemed a shame to do only one newspaper story on these men from D-Day’s only African American combat unit. So I began looking for more information about them.
It turns out they were largely written out of the D-Day story. Movies do not show them and most books do not mention them. But they were there, landing on Omaha and Utah beaches in the early waves of the Allied landings.
They sent aloft a curtain of barrage balloons to protect the men and material. Any German plane that struck the wires tethering the bombs to the ground risked being blown to bits by small bombs anchored to the balloons.
In the fall of 1944, one man in the 320th was nominated for the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for valor. He was a young medic named Waverly Woodson, who was wounded during the landing. Woodson saved countless lives on Omaha Beach for 30 hours before he collapsed. I found out during my research that he was nominated for the Medal of Honor. He never received our country’s highest honor because no African Americans did during World War II (until President Bill Clinton awarded seven of them in 1997).
The more I looked, the more fascinated I became by the lost story of this battalion. And that launched my search for more men from the 320th who might still be alive. It turns out Bill Dabney was the baby of the unit; he was 89 when we met. I would go on to find 11 others who could give interviews, and the families of many others. I’m still being contacted by family members of 320th men today, including earlier this month, after they learn about the book.
How is it possible that neither the Americans nor the French spoke of the role of these men for 70 years when there were numerous memorials and commemorations, books and films that paid tribute to the “Greatest Generation” which fought for liberty?
We know about this story thanks to the French, but it wasn’t their story to tell. This is an American saga, and we Americans do not know our history. Most of us were never taught about the African American experience in real detail. In emails and during three extended book tours, readers have told me that they learned a great deal reading “Forgotten”. That has been gratifying to me, that this book is the source of information about a very painful chapter of our history.
While the book ends on the beaches of Normandy, this story is largely a social history of America, chronicling a time of distressing racism, discrimination and segregation that few imagine the depths of today.
Even many of the children of the men in the 320th did not realize how bad their fathers had it in the Army, and in the larger society. It was certainly a surprise to me. The story of the black soldier throughout America that I recount in Chapter 2 also came as a shock.
What was it like for William Dabney to come back to France for the first time and receive the country’s highest honor?
In fact, it was Dabney’s second visit to Normandy since the war. The first time, he was invited back by a filmmaker who never finished the documentary he was making. But the June 2009 all-expenses trip at the invitation of the French government was very special for him. He was the star at a ceremony at Invalides, that Parisian temple of all things military. He shook the hands of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, which was an encounter fraught with irony.
Most Black veterans I spoke with knew that their movie, “Saving Private Ryan“, failed to show any soldiers of color in the landing. It remains a sore point. The following day, at a ceremony in Normandy, Dabney shook President Barack Obama’s hand and the First Lady kissed him on the cheek. He was ecstatic, and we were all happy for him. Bill Dabney is a very charming man. Knowing him and his wonderful family has been a wonderful privilege for me.
What made you want to learn more about these soldiers?
I was angry to learn about their treatment in the Army – an Army calling on them to fight for freedom for Europeans when they had little at home, in the cradle of democracy. And I was offended that this was news to me, that I had never learned this history in any of the schools that I had attended, not in any real detail. And the more I learned, the most outraged I became.
In 1944, the 320th men were well known. They were stars in Black America and had made the pages of “Stars & Stripes”, the military newspaper, along with White newspapers. Waverly Woodson was interviewed on national radio. The Black press began calling on the White House to award Woodson the Medal of Honor. Then, the story faded away, which is not unusual. The African American experience has been whitewashed throughout American history, going back to the very beginnings of our country.
Were the veterans surprised when you came knocking at their door?
“I’ve been waiting for someone to call me for 50 years,” Wilson Monk told me over the phone.
Very few of these men had ever recounted their war experiences, even to their families. Besides William Dabney, Henry Parham in Pittsburgh was the only man from this battalion, to my knowledge, who had ever spoken publicly about the war. Parham, who is active in veterans’ groups, was well-known in the Pittsburgh area as a veteran of D-Day. But for the others, the war was a very personal and painful experience that few had ever spoken about before I came calling. I was thankful they were ready to share their story.
In profiling several soldiers in your book, you take the reader back to America before the outbreak of WWII, when segregation and Jim Crow laws put a Black man in his place. There are several painful chapters to read about how these young Black men were treated and how they were received even after they served their country in war. How should we look at this history?
The treatment of African Americans in the southern United States, decades after the end of slavery, was truly shocking to learn. We have all heard the stories of Rosa Parks and people of color relegated to the back of buses, banned from lunch counters. But it was so much worse than that. Men and women – even soldiers in uniform – had to step off sidewalks and avoid eye contact with Whites. They could be arrested under Jim Crow laws for “pretending to be a White man.” A soldier in uniform risked a beating and worse, for the uniform of the American Army, when worn by a Black man, was a provocation to southern Whites.
Lynching posed a constant threat, even for Black veterans returning from serving their country. It was a form of terror, the after-effects of which still resonate today.
I can’t tell you how many people have told me, including southerners who grew up just after the war, that they had never heard these stories. The takeaway is that African American history is our history as Americans, and these painful chapters are our shared experience. Racism and segregation are as active as ever today. Discrimination simply wears a different cloak.
Do you think these veterans have been properly recognized?
They clearly have not been recognized. Conventional wisdom still has it that there were no African Americans at D-Day, even though there were some 2,000 men of color on those beaches by the close of June 6, 1944. Most of those soldiers were assigned to labor and service battalions, unloading ships under withering fire. The movie director John Ford, who was filming from a safe berth on Omaha Beach, watched in awe as a Black soldier raced back and forth to a ship to ferry supplies, with German bullets popping the sand around him.
“If anyone deserves a medal, that man does,” Ford said. That brave soldier almost surely didn’t get a medal, because relatively few soldiers of color did in WWII, certainly not high decorations.
In the case of medic Waverly Woodson, I recount in Chapter 9 how a White soldier received the Medal of Honor for actions strikingly similar to Woodson’s. But there was one key exception: unlike Woodson, the White soldier was not injured.
Half of the 12 survivors of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion whom you interviewed for your book are still with us today. What is your best memory working on the story of D-Day’s Black heroes?
In fact, only a couple of the men are still with us. We’ve lost so many, including a few just in recent months. The fact that we are losing them means that we are losing our last connection to this brave generation. I only wish I had learned about this story a decade earlier. My best memory while working on this book was reconstructing Wilson Monk’s experience in the village of Abersychan in southern Wales. Monk found a surrogate mother in a woman named Jessie Prior. She and her husband all but adopted Monk, their own son being away with the British forces. Monk always regretted losing touch with the Priors. I managed to find their grandchildren, who remembered Jessie’s dear American. I called Monk to tell him the good news, only to learn from his wife, Mertina, that he had passed away a few days earlier. I was crushed.
African Americans stationed in the United Kingdom were treated far better than they were at home. How did these experiences shape the future when these men returned home?
Wilson Monk‘s happy story is a microcosm of the African American experience in Britain. For the most part, the 120,000 black GIs (as they were universally known) who passed through the UK during the war were treated with kindness, respect and generosity. The great majority of Britons had never seen people of color, and had no preconceived notions about them. Their impressions had not been poisoned by two centuries of American racism. They treated the Black soldiers as Americans first.
They were welcomed as guests in a country that was extremely happy to have them, finally, after three long years of war. Chapter 7 of my book, which tells their story in Britain, was a revelation for me. It was another part of history that I had learned nothing about. Britons have told me they also had no inkling of this story. The Guardian newspaper published a piece upon the UK publication of “Forgotten” discussing how in light of Brexit, perhaps these lessons of the tolerance have relevance today.
For those of us who are too young or who have never been to Normandy and walked the beaches of the D-Day invasion, remind us why this chapter in history should never be “forgotten”?
It is powerful to walk those beaches in Normandy, preserved as a tribute to the Americans, Britons, Canadians, and other Allies who fought and died there. It makes a sobering, emotional visit. But short of a trip to Normandy, we as Americans have an obligation to the WWII generation to remember their sacrifice for our freedom.
For African Americans, we ought to remember that they were asked to fight and die in the name of freedom and democracy, when they were granted neither by their own country.
They were second-class citizens under the law yet they served their country with dignity, honor and bravery. And they got little in return. The epilogue of “Forgotten” recounts what happened to them after the war. It makes me angry, still, to this about this injustice.
We must never, ever forget them.