A long-overdue, sympathetic treatment of the barrage balloon operators who fought valiantly on the beaches of France.
In her debut, journalist and photographer Hervieux unearths a valuable piece of the D-Day landing story scarcely included in the official records: the contributions of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only African-American combat unit to land at Normandy. (The 320th medics were heralded for their heroics in saving lives.) The balloons, whose cables and bomb cargo kept the enemy flying too high to strafe the vulnerable coasts, were a novelty but a proven deterrent to the German aircraft. They had evolved from the time of Napoleon through the American Civil War and World War I. Since the armed barrage balloons were maneuvered by cables from the ground, they required highly skilled operators. Though not a military specialist, Hervieux became entranced by the stories of these “forgotten” heroes, several of whom she was able to track down in the last few years. She methodically follows the training of the young Southern black recruits such as Henry Parham and Wilson Monk, among others, at Camp Tyson, Tennessee, from late 1942 onward, where discrimination against black soldiers was staggering. Considered by the then-segregated military as “too dumb to fight,” African-Americans soldier knew they were proving themselves mightily in this unusual mission of diverting bombers from important sites in Britain. Shipped out of New York harbor in November 1943 to Britain during the preparation for D-Day, the 320th was delighted to be welcomed by the fairly unbiased Britons, who offered them a taste of freedom for the first time. The battalion landed on the Normandy beaches after the initial waves of casualties, establishing 20 balloons over Omaha and 13 over Utah on June 7 and incurring fierce enemy fire. Eventually, as many as 143 balloons floated 2,000 feet over the beaches, offering crucial protection to the precariously installed Allied troops.
A useful history of an important, fairly unknown part of the American contribution to the Allied victory.