320th Barrage Balloon Battalion

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320th Barrage Balloon Battalion
CountryUnited States
BranchU.S. Army
EngagementsWorld War II

The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion was an African American United States Army unit that saw combat in Europe during World War II. This VLA (Very Low Altitude) barrage balloon battalion "was raised up in 1942 just a year after the Coastal Artillery Corps took over responsibility for barrage balloons from the Army Air Corps." [1] Their first assignment was Utah and Omaha beaches on 6 June 1944 (the D-Day invasion). The mission of the 621-man assault force was to raise hydrogen-filled barrage balloons to protect assaulting infantry and armor from being strafed by enemy aircraft. "They flew at an altitude of around 200 feet to defend soldiers landing on the beaches against strafing attacks by German aircraft."[1] A commendation by Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower cited the unit for conducting "its mission with courage and determination, and proved an important element of the air defense team".[2] The battalion served 140 days in France.[3] In late July 1944, Battery A of the 320th moved from Omaha Beach to the port city of Cherbourg. The remaining three batteries stayed on Omaha and Utah Beaches until early October, when deteriorating weather prevented ships from landing. The battalion’s service in France came to and end on 24 October, when the men boarded ships bound for England.<[3] "By the end of October 1944, the 320th VLA Battalion was on its way back to Camp Stewart, Ga., to train for service in the Pacific Theater. They eventually made it as far as Hawaii before the war ended."[1]

The 320th Barrage Balloon Bn. was unique at Normandy for two reasons. First, it was the only American barrage balloon unit in France and second, it was the first black unit in the segregated American Army to come ashore on D-Day.[4] Five battalion medics were the first to land on Omaha Beach at approximately 9 a.m.[5] A wounded medic, Waverly B. Woodson Jr., was nominated for the Medal of Honor, though he never received it.[6]

The VLA units used smaller barrage balloons weighing only 35 pounds that could easily be moved by a few men and transported across the channel on landing craft. A standard balloon crew was normally five men, but the 320th reduced crews to three and four men for the Normandy invasion.[7]

Corporal William G. Dabney was one of the last surviving members of this unit, and received the French Legion of Honor in 2009 for his participation in the Invasion of Normandy. He died in December 2018.

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  1. ^ a b c Sherman 2014.
  2. ^ Hervieux 2015, p. 239.
  3. ^ a b Hervieux 2015, p. 251.
  4. ^ Gawne, Jonathan. Spearheading D-Day, American Special Units in Normandy. pp. 187–191.
  5. ^ Hervieux 2015, p. 213.
  6. ^ Hervieux 2015, p. 242.
  7. ^ Hervieux 2015, p. 236.