Unknown Soldiers – How Black Barrage Balloon Troops Kept the D-Day Beaches Safe

Barrage balloons over Normandy. History has largely forgotten the African American soldiers who were responsible for these vital inflatables. Journalist Linda Hervieux is hoping to change that. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Barrage balloons over Normandy. History has largely forgotten the African American soldiers who were responsible for these vital inflatables. Journalist Linda Hervieux is hoping to change that. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Despite their achievements, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion is largely absent from the D-Day story.”

By Linda Hervieux

IN THE FALL of 1942, thousands of young American men descended onto a peaceful corner of northwestern Tennessee, where green fields and forests had given way to a sprawling new army base.

There at Camp Tyson, the men were met with a puzzling sight: oblong balloons bigger than buses floating high in the sky. Were they manned blimps? Moving closer, they saw no signs of cockpits, only wires anchoring the inflatables to the earth.

Tyson was America’s first base built for the purpose of training soldiers to fly barrage balloons, the army’s newest defensive weapon. These unmanned gasbags, piloted by a team on the ground, were destined to hover in large numbers over strategic sites, particularly West Coast defense plants and shipyards, creating dangerous obstacles for low-flying enemy aircraft. Similar balloons were already in use over Britain, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Hundreds floated above London alone, protecting Big Ben, White Hall, the Tower Bridge and other key sites from dive bombers. Each trailed thin steel cables strong enough to shear the wings off an enemy plane. But even without such collisions, the mere presence of barrage balloons was expected to force attacking aircraft to reduce their speed, leading to stalls and even crashes. Britain’s tethered blimps also packed a secret and deadly punch: many were armed with small bombs that could blot planes from the sky.

Barrage balloons were a fixture in the skies above London during the Blitz. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Barrage balloons were a fixture in the skies above London during the Blitz. (Image source: WikiCommons)

America was a late adopter of barrage balloons; the delay came at a great cost. Their presence at Pearl Harbor might have thwarted the Japanese sneak attack that devastated the Pacific Fleet. In the spring of 1941, a diligent Japanese spy named Takeo Yoshikawa sent daily messages back home detailing both U.S. ship movements and harbor defenses. Tokyo was particularly interested in barrage balloons.

On the day prior to the attack, Yoshikawa sent a final message home: “There are no signs of barrage balloon equipment,” he reported. “There is considerable opportunity left to take advantage for a surprise attack.

Ironically, the U.S. Army had planned to send 200 balloons aloft over Hawaii, but on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, there were none in the air.

Prior to the raid, an army report concluded that barrage balloons “would hamper the activities of low-flying enemy aircraft, and if properly placed would deny [pilots] the opportunity of pressing to low altitude with dive bomber attacks.” The paper further cited the balloons as a “mental hazard to enemy bombers,” particularly at night and in low visibility. That point would prove instructive in later years, when the balloons went to war in Europe.

The men of the 320th prepare to launch their hydrogen barrage balloons. (Image source: U.S. National Archives)

The men of the 320th prepare to launch hydrogen barrage balloons. (Image source: U.S. National Archives)

American barrage balloons saw their first test in battle in July 1943, when they landed with the Allies in Sicily, where they were deployed to shield men and matériel from enemy aircraft.

On June 6, 1944, they would appear over the beaches of northwestern France with the the U.S. Army’s 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only African-American combat unit to take part in the D-Day invasion.

Like much of the United States in the 1940s, the army was segregated by race. Of the more than 30 barrage balloon units that trained during the Second World War at Camp Tyson, four were African American. These trailblazers were a source of tremendous pride for black America. Reporters from the robust black press of the day, along with the white national media, descended on Henry County, Tennessee to write stories about “our boys” and the “silvery sausages” they were training to fly. The Baltimore-based Afro-American newspaper chain likened the troops to the pioneering Tuskegee Airmen, the United States first black flying squadrons. Unlike the “glamorous” Negro pilots, one correspondent wrote, “these sky fighters keep both feet firm on the ground as they skillfully jockey elephantine monstrosities of destruction thousands of feet high in the sky.”

The all-black Tuskegee Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The all-black Tuskegee Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The 320th would eventually comprise 1,366 enlisted men from across the country. Balloon training involved six intensive weeks of classes. Experts from Great Britain filled out the teaching ranks. Instructors showed recruits how to inflate the balloons with care so as not to spark the hydrogen. To avoid static electricity, wool uniforms were banned — a bona fide hardship in the frigid month of February when, according to one Tyson soldier, “the cold seemed to penetrate through our bones.” The men of the unit also learned how to handle the four-pound British-designed bomblets that armed the balloons.

Of all the Tyson balloon units, only the 320th was sent to Britain in November 1943 to train for the invasion of France.

The battalion waded ashore with the infantry early on June 6, 1944. In order to ensure enough of the troopers survived the assault to complete their vital mission, the unit was divided into crews of three or four men spread across more than 150 landing craft.

The 320th medics landed first at around 9 a.m. and treated the hundreds of casualties from the invasion’s opening waves. They “covered themselves with glory on D-Day,” wrote a Stars and Stripes correspondent. One medic, Waverly Woodson, worked for 30 hours despite being wounded himself before collapsing from exhaustion. He was later was nominated for the Medal of Honor, though he did not receive it. In fact, no African Americans from the Second World War received the prestigious citation until Jan. 13, 1997, when President Bill Clinton awarded seven of them.

Utah Beach. Barrage balloons made it impossible for the Luftwaffe to strafe the beach head. (Image source: U.S. National Archives)

Utah Beach. Barrage balloons made it impossible for the Luftwaffe to strafe the landing zones. (Image source: U.S. National Archives)

With the invasion beachheads secure, the men of the 320th were able to deploy their barrage balloons all along the coast of Normandy. The giant inflatables kept the seemingly endless procession of landing craft safe from air attack enabling the massive the Allied army to surge into France. The balloons “confounded skeptics,” Stars and Stripes wrote in July 1944, “by their part in keeping enemy raiders above effective strafing altitude.”

Despite their achievements, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion is largely absent from the D-Day story. Most history books do not mention them, and movies about the Normandy invasion all but ignore them.

Military correspondent Bill Richardson set out to raise their profile. Shortly after the invasion, the editor of Yank magazine wrote to Gen. Eisenhower’s staff: “It seems the whole front knows the story of the Negro barrage balloon battalion outfit which was one of the first ashore on D-Day.” The 320th men, he added, “have gotten the reputation of hard workers and good soldiers.”

unnamedThe high command agreed. A commendation to the 320th signed by Eisenhower on July 26, 1944, reads: “Despite the losses sustained, the battalion carried out its mission with courage and determination, and proved an important element of the air defense team.”

Linda Hervieux is the author of Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home and At War, published by HarperCollins in October 2015. She is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications including The New York Times and The New York Daily News. A native of Lowell, Massachusetts, she lives in Paris, France, with her husband. This is her first book. Follow her on Twitter. 

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