Jun 8, 2020

The ‘Forgotten’ Battle of D-Day with Linda Hervieux

June 6 marked the 76th Anniversary of the start of D-Day and Operation Overlord. On this special occasion, we have a very special guest today on this blog.

Linda Hervieux is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the New York Daily News, and The Daily Beast.

A native of Lowell, Massachusetts, she lived for many years in Brooklyn before moving to Paris, France, with her husband.

Forgotten: The Untold Story Of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home And At War, is her first book that has been critically acclaimed as one of the best books to read on the D-Day operation.

We had the honor to speak with Ms. Hervieux on June 5 about D-Day and her book, Forgotten. Here are some excerpts from our conversation with her:

NOTE: Make sure to read this till the very end for a very important message and links to helpful resources.

Question) What were the general sentiments of the Americans towards the African American community in the US before the war started (in the 1940s)?

Well, that depends on where you lived.

If you lived in the South, you were experiencing life under Jim Crow. These were a series of laws that justified segregation between races where somebody of color like a black man trying to act like a white person. This was how crazy some of these laws were.

They were placed after America had abolished slavery (in 1865). So, we had a period of reconstruction, after the civil war and after slavery was ended, where the federal government and troops ensured that the rights of African Americans were protected.

Then slowly, we saw this disintegrate and white nationalism come back and these rights were taken away, little by little until we had this full-blown system that came to be known as Jim Crow laws. These relegated the African American community to second class status.

Now, again, racism, segregation, discrimination, injustice in the law were all allowed and codified by law.

In the North, we saw a different form of Jim Crow, which was not necessarily bound by law. So, we saw communities that were ghettoized.

We saw a lot of people of color fleeing from the south looking for better opportunities and what they found in Harlem, New York, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, and these other Northern states were de-facto. This meant that segregation wasn’t prescribed by law but was still very much practiced.

So, no matter where you lived in the US, you had very segregated societies and that was until the doorstep of the Second World War.

Question) What was life like for an African American soldier in the army in the US?

So, what happened was the when war broke out in Europe, America was not directly involved at the time but young men were drafted and called for what they thought was a one-year commitment because the US was not at war in 1941.

It was later in December 1941 after the Pearl Harbour attack that the US joined the war and mass amounts of men were being called for the war, including African American men.

What they found after they entered the US army was a type of brutality that many of them had not known. The training camps for the US army were in the South, owing to the milder climate there.

So, you have men like the one I lead within my book, Wilson Monk from Atlantic City, New Jersey which was America’s first resort community and vacation destination, built by African Americans from came from the West Indies and down South.

Wilson Monk is called up and sent to training camp, he’s put on a train to Tennesse, where his training camp was (in the South). Once the train crossed to Southern half, somewhere North of Washington DC, he had to move to the ‘negro’ car. He didn’t know at the time what this meant until the porter said that you have to go.

These cars were the first few bogeys of the train, directly next to the dirty coal-powered engines. So, you can imagine, these young men in their crisp, clean uniforms would sit in this car and be covered in dark soot from the engines by the time they arrived at their destination.

Now, this was the first taste for the Northern recruits of what it was going to be like in the US army, and it just got worse after this point.

Question) So, you’ve authored the novel, ‘Forgotten: The Untold Story Of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home And At War’. Can you tell us what this book is all about and the stories that it entails?

My book is about the only African American combat unit that landed in D-Day. By the end of June 6, 1944, which was the massive allied invasion in Europe, had been planned for a long time.

Typically, in our history, we have not been told about the role of the African American community in combat in the world war, especially as part of the D-Day when in fact there were nearly 2,000 African American soldiers that took part in D-Day.

What I found out in 2009 when the French Government honored one of these men, there had been a combat unit who flew these kinds of balloons (see the picture below for illustration) that were armed with bombs.

These were flown off the ground and were not piloted and unmanned). The idea was that they would be up hidden in the clouds and their steel cables would trigger the bombs to drop down in case a German aircraft hit those cables.

Often we’ve seen them fly over London in England during the Blitz (the German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941). They’ve been depicted in various movies and were not effective in protecting cities but they were very effective in protecting a beach and were used by armies all over the world including the Germans and Japanese.

Balloons have a long history of being used in war but what we didn’t know was that all of these balloons that were flown on D-Day were deployed by soldiers of color (including African Americans).

So, that’s the role that these combat units played, and they were referred to as combat soldiers since these men landed and served with the infantry soldiers until the beaches were cleared. There were five beaches in total on D-Day and Americans covered two of those- Omaha and Utah. The rest were British and Canadian beaches.

A lot of the colonial soldiers of the British Empire were also serving in the battle and they enjoyed a much more equal treatment in terms of their ranks and what they were allowed to do.

Something to note here is that the American Army at the time was segregated. All units were led by white men and the lower ranks were held by people of color and African Americans.

So, the book covers the role of the 320th Balloon Battalion, follows the various men of this battalion from the time they were called to serve but it also looks back on their lives from their hometowns. These men were sharecroppers, worked for other farmers, some were barely literate, etc. This book reflects their journey from American to France on D-Day through Britain, where they were treated very well.

Question) So, how was life for the African American soldiers different in Britain as compared to the US?

What they found in Britain was a population that had not been exposed to people of color a lot. These people had no preconceived notions of these African American men. The prejudice that I don’t need to tell you about in Britain, would, for the most part, come later in history.

These men were welcomed and treated as allies, as soldiers, and as Americans, who had come to help Britain in war. They were treated as celebrities owing to their black skin and people just found them gorgeous and attractive. Girl’s went crazy after them, everyone wanted to call these men home, and spend them with them.

These men could not believe the treatment they got from these white people. They were warmly welcomed, respected, and called,” Sir”. The white American soldiers were resentful to their kind and just treatment and objected to it.

This was very surprising to me, and even the black British community who can’t believe that those were treated that way.

Question) Sgt. Waverly Woodson is one of the prominent African American soldiers whom you’ve covered in detail in your book. A lot of people, including myself, had never heard of him before we read your book. Can you tell us about his life and involvement in the D-Day battle?

So, Waverly Woodson has a very interesting story. He was a medical student going to an all-black college, Lincoln University. And, Waverly Woodson trained to be an officer. So, he passed the test for officer candidate school.

Even though the army was segregated, the black men at the time weren’t considered smart enough to pass this test, so they didn’t bother segregating officer candidate school. So, Waverly Woodson tested in becoming an officer with very high scores and finishes his training as an officer.

Later, he learns there are quotas to the number of African American soldiers in a unit, and that there isn’t a position vacant for him. Another problem that black officers encountered was that they could not be ranked higher than white officers, which greatly limited their number.

Thus, Waverly Woodson was sent to be trained as a medic with the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion which is the unit that I follow in my book. His experiences up to the battle have been detailed in the book and then D-Day was his big moment.

He arrives on the beach under heavy fire, his boat had been hit twice, his leg had been ripped open which was patched up by a fellow medic.

He sets up a medical camp on the beach and works for the next day and night, patching up men, and saving numerous lives for 30 hours continuously until he passed out of exhaustion.

He was later nominated for the Medal of Honour, the highest decoration of honor in the US, but he didn’t get it, neither did any of the other African American soldiers owing to the color of their skin.

It wasn’t until Bill Clinton was President in the 1990s that he awarded 7 Medals of Honour to African American soldiers.

We are still hoping that he would get the Medal of Honour which he deserves. We’ve gotten support from a senator in Maryland, which was where Mr. Woodson lived post WW2.

He died in 2005, and his widowed wife has been pushing forward to make this happen. So, we’re really hoping that this goes well and he is awarded the medal.

Question) After the war was over, did the role of the African American soldiers in the war impact the civil rights movements in the country?

That’s a very good question.

So, when these men returned from the war, they were treated the same way as they had left.

They thought that the bravery and courage they showed, just like every other American who fought in the war, would change things. Their families thought that they were sending their boys to defend the country and fight and die for it.

There was hope and expectation that life would change for them. Pilots who served in the Air Force in the war were denied employment in commercial airlines claiming they didn’t hire people of color.

The men in the unit that I cover, the 320th Balloon Barrage Battalion Unit, were told that they could not work to repair televisions, which was the booming industry at the time.

A lot of these soldiers were looking for work opportunities to support their families, they were refused employment everywhere.

They were deeply offended and hurt by this. They felt betrayed by their country.

Now, what this group of African Americans would contribute to the next chapter of American history was very profound because what they did was refuse the status quo. All the segregation and humiliation they faced laid the foundation for the civil rights movement in the country.

This in the coming decades, the 1950s and 1960s, we would see African Americans pushing non-violence movements inspired by the likes of Gandhi. We saw both the branches of civil rights movements, the violent groups led by Malcolm X, and the non-violent group by Martin Luther King emerged.

Today, we are seeing a rise up again in such movements. We have not seen these kinds of movements since 1968. So, it’s really something to see.

So, what have we learned from all this is that eventually, people will not accept mistreatment.

Question) How did you come across this story? What inspired you to write about it?

Well, I wrote an article about one man in this unit, William Dabney from Virginia. He received the Legion of Honour in France. I’m in the US right now, but, normally I live in Paris.

I was looking for a story for the 65th D-Day Anniversary in 2009 and the French Government honored William Dabney with their highest honor. He was a symbol for all African Americans who fought with valor and in this case, it was a big thank you from France.

Since I’m a journalist, I wrote about him. I didn’t think that just one article would do justice to this story since most of us in the US never learned that the US Army was segregated and that these men were subjected to the horrors that they were.

So, I was suggested to write a book, and I had never written a book. Another thing was that there was not enough information since most of these men had died and their stories and letters went with them.

It took me five years and I finally finished the book. It was published by a major American publisher for which I am very grateful for.

I found in total twelve of these men and heard all their stories, including William Dabney. So, I’m thankful to you and others who still want to listen to their story and I think I owe to these men to reiterate their stories.

Question) With all that’s happening in the world right now, is there any message that you would like to send across to our readers?

As someone who has studied a very tumultuous period of American history, when we don’t know our history then we are a great disadvantage.

What we have learned from History is that when we have institutional wrong in our societies, when we have inequity, when we have different levels of justice under the law- we all lose.

The mistreatment of African Americans is the mistreatment of all Americans because we are not benefitting from the non-participation of society. When they are hurt, we are all hurt as people and are less of people ourselves.

It is so saddening to the TV to watch America’s law enforcement going after protestors and politicians saying that we need to “put down” these peaceful protestors.

When communities cry out for attention, we have to learn from history that we cannot ignore them. And, that is the challenge now in the US.

There are similar problems in France, and so many other places, hence we are witnessing protests all over the world. Injustice is something that resonates with people of color from all around the world.

It’s the white people around the world with the power who need to listen to this, its everyone’s problem. When there is injustice, we all lose.

So, that is an emotional message that we’ve been seeing this week and I hope that we all listen to these messages. I hope that we can learn from history how we can be better than this.

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