Many of us recently commemorated the 77th anniversary of the June 6th Allied invasion at Normandy during World War Two – the beginning of the end of the Nazi conquest of Europe. But little is said about the few Black American soldiers who participated in that great endeavor. The American 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion was the only all-Black unit to land on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
This week, the last surviving member of that courageous and unique, all-Black unit, Henry Parham, died at age 99 in Pennsylvania. His loss marks the end of an era.
As PennLive reported:
Before 2009, the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, Henry Parham got little recognition for his role as a African-American soldier in a segregated Army during one of the most important — and bloodiest — battles of World War II.
When writers and historians figured out that the Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County, man was likely the last surviving African American combat veteran of D-Day, as his wife, Ethel Parham, puts it, “All hell broke loose.”
“We were just plain, simple people; we weren’t looking for awards and all that stuff. Then all of a sudden, people got interested when they heard his story,” said Mrs. Parham, his very sprightly wife of 47 years. “Every Tom, Dick and Harry called here and wanted an interview, interview, interview. Before that, nobody really bothered. But after the 65th anniversary, people’s eyes were really opened.”
Parham and all his fellow Black soldiers in that unit deserve the recognition. They were American heroes.
He was drafted into a segregated U.S. Army at 21 and trained at Camp Tyson, Tenn., with the 320th, before shipping out to England in 1943 for additional training in anticipation of the Allied invasion of Northern France.
D-Day was his first combat experience.
Mr. Parham’s unit landed at Omaha Beach — by far the deadliest landing spot on D-Day among the five beaches used for the invasion — at 2 p.m., as part of the third wave.
His unit was spared the massive casualties that was encountered by the first wave of infantry, Mr. Parham said in an August 2012 interview.
During his talk, Parham shared vivid memories of wading ashore with his brothers in arms, as landmines and other obstacles planted by the Germans forced the soldiers out of their boats and into the surf.
“We landed in water up to our necks,” Mr. Parham said, recalling a shorter man in his unit who had to be carried onto the beach because the water was over his head, and he couldn’t swim. “Once we got there, we were walking over dead Germans and Americans on the beach, it was so heavily mined. While we were walking from the boat to the beach, bullets were falling all around us.”
PennLive reports that:
His unit dug foxholes on the beach during the day and used the cover of darkness to launch helium-filled barrage balloons over the combat area, forcing German bombers to fly at higher, less effective altitudes.
From the balloons hung steel cables, fitted with small packs of explosive charges, which could — and did, even on that first night of June 6 — destroy the wings and propellers of aircraft that became ensnared in the cables.
The 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion spent the next 68 days on Omaha Beach, where they deployed improvised winches to raise and lower the balloon defense system, preventing German strafing attacks on the beach so that critical reinforcements and supplies made it through to the front lines.
After Normandy, Parham’s unit moved on to Sherburne, France, where it provided defense for Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army.
As to Normandy, Parham said, “I was fortunate that I didn’t get hit. There was no place to hide.”
In 2013 the French government bestowed on him the Legion of Honor, elevating him to a “Chevalier.” This is the highest military distinction in France, the Legion of Honor was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
Henry Parham and all his Black American brothers who served at Normandy deserve our nation’s gratitude and respect. RIP brother.
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