France to honour black US veteran from D-Day

5th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Except for a US television documentary that aired in 2007, little has been written or recorded about the all-black unit's involvement in the D-Day landings.

Washington -- An African-American veteran who served in the D-Day landings will receive the French Legion of Honour at this year's commemoration, the first time black soldiers have been officially recognized for their role in the famed 1944 operation, a US agency said.

The French government plans to award its highest decoration to William Dabney, 84, believed to be the last known survivor of the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion -- an all-black unit that deployed in the invasion.

"I feel pretty good about it," Dabney told AFP. "It's late but recognition is recognition."

Except for a US television documentary that aired in 2007, little has been written or recorded about the black soldiers' involvement in the D-Day landings.

"This is the first official recognition of the 320th and their sacrifice and contribution to the invasion of Normandy," the White House Commission on Remembrance, a US government agency devoted to honouring soldiers killed on the battlefield, said in a statement.

Three soldiers from the 320th battalion were killed in the Normandy landings and are buried at the American cemetery at Collville-sur-Mer, the commission said.

The US armed forces remained racially segregated through the war with African-American soldiers forced to serve in all-black units.

Dabney, who lives in Roanoke, Virginia, recalled landing at Omaha beach on a barge with his three-man crew along with about 75 to 100 army infantry and marines.

"Tracer bullets were firing on both ends -- from the other side of the beach and from the ships in the channel," he said by phone.

His battalion used balloons tied down with metal cables to ward off German dive-bombers and other low-flying aircraft.

On D-Day, he was assigned the job of keeping a balloon over the beach to help protect allied ground forces from strafing and bombing by Nazi warplanes.

But in the chaos of the landing, the balloon came loose, and to this day he is not sure if it was due to a German aircraft or all the heavy gunfire.

Dabney said he and his crew jumped off the barge, waded into waist-deep water and once they made it to Omaha beach, they got out their shovels and took cover as best they could.

"We dove in the sand on the beach to save ourselves," he said. "The only thing we saw were dead bodies laying on the beach."

He said he and his crew were "stuck on the beach there for a couple of days" before bulldozers and tanks cleared the way for the US forces to move ahead.

"We thought at one point that we might be pushed back into the English Channel," he said.

He said he and his crew all survived D-Day, though he lost touch with his comrades who were sent to different units afterward.

In contrast to discrimination back home, black soldiers were given a mostly warm welcome during their stay in Britain before the landing, and strict rules on segregation tended to melt away in combat conditions.

But upon return to the United States, the black troops once again faced the same discrimination and second-class status.

Dabney, who will travel to France to receive his medal at the D-Day commemoration, said his wartime experience overseas made him and his fellow soldiers hope that something might change for blacks back home.

But he said he kept his expectations in check.

"We knew the law,” he said. “That’s the way it was.”

In 1948, the US government ended segregation in the military even as the practice continued in civilian life throughout the US South.

Dan De Luce/AFP/Expatica

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