When Allies hit the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago today, there were black soldiers.
The US Army’s assault force, however, was still segregated.
In fact, the US First Army Omaha Beach assault team had less than 500 blacks out of 29,714 troops.
The black soldiers made up one section of the 3275th Quartermaster Service Company and less than one battery of the 320th Anti-aircraft Balloon Battalion. The balloons they deployed were meant to protect those storming the beach from low-flying strafing aircraft.
The iconic pictures of those silver barrage balloons floating over Omaha and Utah beaches were defacto flags marking the presence of African-Americans on D-Day.
Of the 31,912 U.S. troops landing on Utah Beach, approximately 1,200 were black and included troops of the remaining battery of the 320th Balloon Battalion, the 582nd Engineer Dump Truck Company, the 385th Quartermaster Truck Company, and the 490th Port Battalion with its 226th, 227th, 228th, and 229th Port Companies.
Jonathan Gawne, a military historian who specializes in chronicling U.S military service from 1916-1945, wrote about the experiences of the 320th in his book Spearheading D-Day: American Special Units in Normandy. Utilizing detailed records and extensive interviews, his examination of the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches revealed little-known facts about the invasion that other writers ignored.
Among the people Gawne profiled in his book was James Hardy Sims of Whitmire, SC.
Sims was assigned to Battery C of the 320th Balloon Battalion. Sims’ unit supported a British regiment and went in with them to Normandy.
Sims recalled his unit did not lose a man in combat. The rapidly changing environment of combat constantly exposed them to enemy fire and at times required them to take up arms to repel counter attacks and surprise assaults.
And there were also snipers.
“They told us to be careful and not to smoke at night,” Sims said. “One night we were talking with a soldier from another unit. He pulled out a lighter to light a cigarette, and he was shot dead by a sniper.”
The 320th earned a letter of commendation from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and additional individual awards were given to some of the unit’s soldiers.
War historians do note that one man in the 320th distinguished himself above many others that day.
Corporal Waverly B. Woodson, Jr. enlisted to fight in World War II out of love of country and a sense of duty. Despite this, when Woodson and other African-Americans put on their uniforms in the early 1940s, they still found themselves considered second-class citizens by others.
This would certainly prove true when it came to recognizing Woodson’s valor.
Serving as a medical corpsman with the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, Woodson rode in a landing craft during the initial assault on Omaha Beach.
He reportedly suffered a shrapnel wound to the groin when the vessel struck a floating mine upon approach. Under continuous mortar and machine gun fire, corpsman Woodson ignored his own wounds and assisted in establishing an aid station on the beach. He remained on continuous duty treating casualties for the next 18 hours.
He then assisted in retrieving and reviving three soldiers who had nearly drowned while leaving a landing craft that had slipped its anchor and drifted into deep water.
In the book The Exclusion of Black Soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War II, writers Elliot V. Converse III, Daniel K. Gibran, John A. Cash, Robert K. Griffith, Jr. and Richard H. Kohn worked to chronicle Woodson’s valor and document efforts to honor him for his actions that day.
Their research shows that Woodson was given the Bronze Star, but records suggest that Woodson was originally recommended for a Medal of Honor.
According to research done by The Norfolk Journal and Guide, the white commander of the 320th, Lieutenant Colonel Leon J. Reed, forwarded recommendation for a higher honor up the chain.
But researchers note that through the years, and as late as 1973, efforts to award Woodson the nation’s highest military decoration were lost when a fire at the National Personnel Records Center destroyed all evidence of Woodson’s actions on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Waverly Woodson was 21 years old when he went in with the first wave on D-Day. The Philadelphia native treated hundreds of men and saved numerous lives in service to his country on D-Day. In his book Behind Enemy Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters, Andrew Carroll published this letter Woodson wrote to his father detailing his sense of honor and duty:
June 21, 1943
Sunday is Father’s Day, and by the time you get this letter, the day itself will have come and gone. But the day isn’t important, Dad, when there are so many things I want to thank you for — the little things and the big things you have done for me.
I remember when you used to give me a dime or more to go to the movies. At the time I appreciated the sum, but now that I look back on the past, I am even more appreciative of the things you have done for me.
I remember the time I wanted a bicycle and asked you to buy me one: at the time there wasn’t anything I wanted more than that. You told me to save up a certain amount and then you would get me it. After having worked and saved that amount, you added your money, obtained the bicycle. I really appreciated it as I have always appreciated everything you got for me.
I remember my first year at college, when you practically paid all the expenses, hoping that I would be able to receive a better education than you have. You always wanted to see that Lloyd and me had more advantages than most fellows, so that we could start off where you left off.
For all those things and many more which you have done for me, I am deeply appreciative. For sometimes it was a sacrifice to do some things for me.
And I know, Dad, that while we’re here, you and all the families are behind us. I know it wasn’t easy to give up one son or possibly two to the U.S. Army, but we are here to finish a job which was not done before so that we can make the world safe for future generations.
I don’t think I’ve ever known you, Dad, the way I do today. I never understood you as I do now. I thank you, Dad, for what you have been.
Tell Mom I said “Hello” and give her a big hug for me. Tell her I will write soon. But this is for you on Father’s Day.
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