Normandy, Liberated Northwestern France June 7, 1944

On this date in 1944 soldiers of the First U.S. Army’s 320th Bar­rage Bal­loon Bat­talion suc­ceeded in per­ma­nently raising the first of scores of 35‑ft-long hydro­gen-filled, low-floating bar­rage bal­loons that would bob in the skies over Omaha and Utah inva­sion beaches. The morning before, hun­dreds of trained but unsea­soned men of the 320th—the only African Amer­i­can com­bat unit to take part in Oper­a­tion Over­lord’s ini­tial landings on June 6—had exited their landing crafts under withering fire. The men slogged through 56‑degree surf lugging the first of 6,600 hydro­gen gas cylin­ders, 50‑lb hand winches, reels of cable, and other sup­plies. A few men wearing leather gloves man­handled the first several dozen Very Low Alti­tude (VLA) gas­bags onto Normandy’s beaches. Three 320th men were killed and 17 wounded that day.

As an uneasy darkness settled on the first day, balloon crews on Omaha Beach, trying hard not give German artil­lery obser­vers and snipers some­thing to sight in on, slowly cranked 12 bullet-shaped, steel-cable-tethered “babies,” as they called their 125 lb charges, hun­dreds of feet into the air. Made of two-ply cotton fabric impreg­nated by vul­ca­nized or syn­thetic rubber and coated with alumi­num, not a single “baby” sur­vived the morning. On Utah Beach bal­loon crews delib­er­ately cut loose their 25 floating gas­bags on sus­pi­cion that they were drawing enemy fire on them­selves. (They weren’t.) Not until the evening of D+1 were more lighter-than-air bal­loons floating over both Amer­i­can inva­sion beaches, 20 over Omaha and 13 over Utah, and there they stayed. By June 21, 141 silvery orbs dotted the skies.

Nearly four years earlier, on Septem­ber 16, 1940, Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt signed the Selec­tive Training and Ser­vice Act requiring all able-bodied men aged 21 to 35 (later raised to 44) to serve in the U.S. armed forces for at least 12 months. For many mili­tary-aged men ser­vice turned into years that lasted the dura­tion of the global con­flict and beyond. A total of 10 mil­lion Amer­i­can citi­zens and resi­dents were drafted and 6.1 mil­lion volun­tarily enlisted, among them 1.2 mil­lion Afri­can Amer­i­can men and women. Yet out of a total of 57,500 U.S. soldiers who landed on two inva­sion beaches in North­western France on June 6, 1944, fewer than 2,000 were black. Of these, two-thirds were assigned to non-combat units where, under appalling con­di­tions, they served with honor, dis­tinc­tion, and cou­rage as steve­dores, truck drivers, and main­te­nance men, unloading and trans­porting cru­cial sup­plies from ships and landing craft to the beaches and to points beyond where they were needed.

Unique among the few black service­men on D‑Day were 621 men who, from their com­ple­ment of 1,500 black sol­diers and 49 offi­cers, com­prised the 320th’s initial assault force. Divided into four bat­teries, three-quarters of the men were strewn across 5 miles of Omaha Beach, one-quarter on Utah. The planned one-day landings took 5 days. Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Supreme Allied Com­mander Allied Expe­di­tion­ary Force, praised the all-black bal­loon flyers, writing they had “proved an impor­tant ele­ment of the air defense team.” He con­tinued: “I com­mend you and the offi­cers and men of your bat­talion for your fine effort which has merited the praise of all who have observed it.”

The nucleus of D‑Day’s 320th balloon flyers started training in December 1942 in the U.S. Jim Crow South. Sadly, in the early 1940s the U.S. Army was highly segre­gated. Though black service­men at the time were chiefly rele­gated to sup­port roles, by 1944 50,000 out of 700,000 black sol­diers would even­tu­ally serve as front­line troops, for example, on the ground as tankers in Lt. Gen. George C. Patton Jr’s Third U.S. Army’s all-black 761st Tank Bat­talion (“Black Pan­thers”) and in the air as the cele­brated Tuske­gee Air­men of the 332nd Fighter Group and 99th Fighter Squadron.

Following 140 days on the front­line in France the 320th balloon crews shipped home to train for more action abroad. The men were slated to reprise their bar­rage bal­loon role, this time against fleets of one-way fliers known by their Japa­nese name, kami­kaze. How­ever, a pair of mush­room clouds and the unex­pected entry of the Soviet Union into war with Japan in August 1945 brought the cur­tain down on further com­bat and with it on the 320th Bar­rage Bal­loon Bat­talion’s extraor­dinary ser­vice to their country as well as on the memory thereof.

320th Barrage Balloon Battalion: D-Day’s Black Heroes

D-Day beach several days after initial invasion320th Barrage Balloon Battalion: Omaha Beach barrage balloon being readied for flight

Left: The men of Headquarters Company and Bat­tery A of the 320th Bar­rage Bal­loon Bat­talion (some­times refer­red to as the 320th VLA Bat­talion) began landing on Omaha Beach at 9 a.m., a little more than two hours into the June 6, 1944, Allied inva­sion of North­western France. Battery C began splashing onto adja­cent Utah Beach on the same day. After dark­ness had set in an hour-and-a half earlier, Battery A floated a dozen bar­rage bal­loons over Omaha Beach. Within hours of first light, enemy fire had downed all of Omaha’s bal­loons. Later that second inva­sion day Bat­tery B landed at Omaha with new bar­rage bal­loons, which were quickly filled with hydro­gen gas and floated. By their very nature bar­rage bal­loons are pas­sive forms of defense, one that force enemy pilots to fly above them while making sur­face targets harder to hit. Many ves­sels crossing the English Chan­nel also flew bar­rage bal­loons, more to boost ship­board morale than deter low-level enemy attacks en route to North­western France or while beached at the shore­line as LSTs (“large station­ary targets,” their nick­name). This photo of Omaha Beach taken a few days after the ini­tial landings shows bar­rage bal­loons flying over ships and landing craft dis­gorging fresh stocks of men, material, and muni­tions needed for expanding the Normandy beach­head. Just 7 days after D‑Day more than 300,000 Allied troops had landed in France, and the inva­sion beaches were fully under their con­trol. By that time, in addi­tion to troops, 50,000 vehicles and over 100,000 tons of equip­ment had been deposited on Normandy’s beaches.

Right: In this rare daytime close-up of members of 320th Bar­rage Bal­loon Bat­talion in action Bat­tery A Cpl. A. John­son of Houston, Texas, with help from two men in his 3‑man crew, walks an inflated 125‑lb, 35‑ft‑long VLA bal­loon toward a 50‑lb winch that will float the bal­loon over Omaha Beach. Most bal­loons were raised at night after Allied planes had returned to their bases. Filled with hydrogen or non­com­bus­ti­ble helium gas, they could be raised in a minute. Costing $600 apiece ($9,500 in today’s dollars), VLAs flew at very low alti­tudes (between 200 ft and 2,000 ft), and they were planted at irreg­u­lar inter­vals, making enemy efforts to pilot a strafing or bombing run through the haz­ard­ous, nearly invis­ible thicket of dangling 1/8‑inch steel cables extremely diffi­cult. The cables could neatly slice off a war­plane’s wing or tail or foul a pro­peller. Some cables were made more lethal when 4‑lb bomb­lets were attached to them, turning them into “flying mines.” On D+10 the 320th bat­talion scored a con­firmed “kill” by cutting off the wing of a two-engine Luft­waffe Junkers Ju 88 flying over Omaha Beach. The bat­talion was also credited with a large number of possible “kills.” A news­paper reporter on Omaha Beach mar­veled that one of the Allies’ more unusual lines of defense was “one of the most impor­tant mis­sions of the war.” Sadly, the role played by the 320th did not make it into two of the most popu­lar and highest-grossing cine­matic retellings of the Normandy landings, Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Longest Day (1962) and Steven Spiel­berg’s Saving Private Ryan (1999).

320th Barrage Balloon Battalion: Camp Tyson training camp320th Barrage Balloon Battalion: Group photo

Left: The Jim Crow South was home to most of the U.S. Army’ training camps. White offi­cers were put in charge of black units. This was true of the 320th Bar­rage Bal­loon Bat­talion, a white South Caro­linian, Lt. Col. Leon J. Reed, com­manding. The all-black bal­loon fliers were not the first black recruits trained at Camp Tyson near Paris, Ten­nes­see, shown here in this photo. Of the more than 30 bal­loon units trained at Camp Tyson beginning in March 1942, just four were African Amer­i­can. And of those four only one, the 320th, was chosen (nobody knows why) for com­bat. That sur­prise choice came 11 months after a white Amer­i­can bar­rage ball­oon team had made a test appear­ance on July 11, 1943, during Oper­a­tion Husky, the invasion of Benito Musso­lini’s Italy.

Right: Twenty-three members of the 320th Bar­rage Bal­loon Bat­talion pose for a photo­graph at Camp Tyson. The camp, in ser­vice from 1941 to 1944, was the training center for the U.S. Coast Artil­lery Corps and other com­mands. It con­sisted of 450 buildings sprawled over 2,000 (even­tually 6,000) acres. The camp trained service­men to fly, build, and repair VLA bar­rage balloons and equip­ment. By the end of the war, Camp Tyson’s occu­pancy ranged from 20,000 to 25,000 sol­diers. Inter­est­ingly, nearly 600 of over a thou­sand Luft­waffe air­craft lost in Normandy during the first week of com­bat were lost not over the inva­sion coast—the bar­rage bal­loons, wrote one news­paper­man “keep the front door to the front lines open”—but lost at sea as Germans tar­geted Allied shipping while thou­sands of U.S. and RAF fighter planes in turn targeted the attackers. Ship­board and land-based anti­aircraft crews posi­tioned near the black bal­loonists upped the ante on German raiders becoming MIAs (missing in action).

African American Fighting Units in World War II