Official histories of D-Day have long excluded the contributions made by African Americans. Literature professor Alice Mills waded into the past to uncover these forgotten World War II heroes.
William Dabney could barely see the outline of the French coast as his landing vessel made an unsteady approach before dawn on June 6, 1944. A giant, zeppelin-shaped helium balloon hovered over the Allied boat. Strapped to Dabney via a long steel cable, it was designed to dissuade German fighter pilots from strafing the US soldiers who were about to hit Omaha Beach.
In the bloody chaos that ensued, Dabney’s balloon was shot out above him. “Some marines had already landed before us and the beach was just about covered with dead bodies,” he told FRANCE 24 in a recent interview. “Of course we were still coming in, just stepping over the bodies, moving forward.”
With no replacement balloon to raise, he dug into the sand and survived long hours of carnage before regrouping with other members of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion – the first African American unit in the segregated US Army to come ashore on D-Day.
Dabney, like other black WWII soldiers, didn’t just play a key role in reclaiming and keeping France’s northwestern shores on D-Day, he actively contributed to the entire war effort. Following the heroic invasion, the young soldier was then dispatched to a 90 mm anti-aircraft gun team.
“I followed the big gun wherever it went. I went to Saint Lo, then near Paris, and then later to Belgium and Holland,” he remembered. His task was always to raise the explosives-packed helium balloons, a defensive measure that proved decisive in protecting Allied materiel and men from Luftwaffe bombings.
Dabney returned stateside only when the war in Europe ended and nearly saw combat in the Pacific. Japan capitulated as his unit was on its way to the Philippines. However, the commitment and bravery that members of the 320th Battalion displayed during World War II would then fade into obscurity for decades.
A personal quest
Half a century after that fateful day, Alice Mills, a French scholar of African American literature, joined the Université de Caen, not far from the American war cemeteries in Normandy. That year the city was celebrating the 50th anniversary of D-Day with billboards of archive photos.
Mills was struck by the fact that not one poster included an African American soldier. “They had been erased from memory. I wondered, why this complete absence? It didn’t seem fair,” she told FRANCE 24.
Furthermore, she recurrently heard historians say that black troops had stood out in Normandy for their criminal behavior toward the locals – claims contradicted by her conversations with people who had lived through the war.
“I began to systematically record eye-witness accounts,” she recalled. “Most often older people would tell me: ‘We were terrorised by the Germans, but not by the black soldiers. For me the white and black American soldiers were the same’.”
In 2006, Mills was able to take her investigation further. Far from the familiar field of literature that was her specialisation, she amassed a trove of interviews about war-time Normandy, and delved into WWII archives in Washington, DC.
She resurfaced clutching a completely different story about African Americans in the Normandy campaign.
The importance of the 320th Battalion for D-Day’s success had been recognised in an address by General Eisenhower himself. African American soldiers had fought Germans, sometimes in hand-to-hand combat. They had almost exclusively manned the so-called Red Ball Express operation, a massive round-the-clock truck convoy that re-supplied the Allied front line and made the push toward Paris possible.
Yes, some excesses had been committed in Normandy by black soldiers, as was the case with white soldiers, but the story of African-American GIs did not start and end with court-martial cases.
An overdue thank you
In 2009 Mills received an unexpected phone call. Her research had been highlighted in an article in the French newspaper Le Monde and then the International Herald Tribune, and the White House was calling her to ask if she had contact with any surviving members of the 320th Battalion.
One of them was William Dabney, by then a pensioner in Roanoke, Virginia. He had returned to a still segregated US in 1945, and while he earned an electrical engineering degree, sector jobs were largely barred to black candidates. Instead he became a carpet layer and tile setter and ran his own successful business for 40 years.
Several weeks after the surprise phone call, Dabney and his son travelled to Normandy for the 65TH anniversary of D-Day. The veteran shook hands with President Barack Obama and received the Legion of Honour from France. “I had to stand at attention and salute the flag for four national anthems. I felt like my arm was going to fall off because I was in my 80s then, and now I’m 90,” he admitted with a laugh.
Alice Mills says she is happy she has contributed to the true story of African Americans in World War II. The Peace Memorial in the city of Caen now includes photos of black GIs. But as the world marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day she says “official” histories continue to present a distorted and superficial account of African American soldiers. She hopes her book “Black GIs Normandy 1944”, published in March, will encourage historians to dig deeper.