Congress Blog

We must remember D-Day's black heroes

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It is a fact that too few know: 75 years ago, it was American soldiers of every race that hit the beaches of Normandy. 75 years later, it is our duty to remember and honor the courage of these men. As the world hung in the balance, it was the sacrifices of ordinary Americans that saved our democracy. This is made all the more remarkable - and tragic - by the fact that for many of the Americans who served on D-Day, our democracy was not yet one they could participate in.

Over 900,000 African-Americans served in the United States military during World War II, and all in segregated units. You may have heard of the Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group or the 761st Tank Battalion, who led the way into Germany. But largely forgotten today is the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion: an all-black unit that went ashore with everyone else on D-Day.

The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion were among the first to land on Omaha Beach. Their mission was to raise hydrogen balloons laden with explosives as a defense against strafing by German aircraft. Each balloon was anchored to the ground by a steel cable - together these cables presented a web of formidable obstacles to enemy planes, each cable strong enough to rip the wing off a colliding fighter. But before they could raise their balloons, the 320th had to clear the beach, fighting their way as infantrymen across the beach under machine-gun and artillery fire. They were right there with their white comrades-in-arms, segregated both at home and in the army but equally vulnerable to enemy fire.

Among those who landed in Normandy with the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion was Corporal Waverly B. Woodson Jr. of Philadelphia. He trained as an officer, but an Army quota for black officers blocked his commission. Becoming a medic instead, he was wounded twice on D-Day but continued to render medical aid to his fellow soldiers, saving many lives until he finally collapsed. For his heroism, he was recommended to the White House for the Medal of Honor.

Unfortunately, Corporal Woodson would never receive his Medal of Honor. In fact, no African-American soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. And while many African-American servicemen who were unfairly overlooked have since been honored, Corporal Woodson, who died in 2005, has not been among them. His family continues to advocate for a Medal of Honor, pledging that the posthumous award would be donated to the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture for all to see.

The contribution of Corporal Woodson and other African-American soldiers on D-Day is still only slowly being recognized. Despite D-Day being one of the most commonly depicted and celebrated moments of the war, not a single film or television recreation of the D-Day landings has shown that African-American soldiers were present at Normandy. This erasure is part of a dispiriting trend of erasing the service of African-Americans during WWII, a direct consequence of the racist decision to not give Medals of Honor and other recognition to African-Americans.

The men of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion are an extraordinary example for all Americans. Now, on the 75th anniversary of their heroic actions, we in Congress have a unique opportunity to rectify this injustice by awarding the men of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion the Congressional Gold Medal - the highest honor Congress can give. We must also encourage President Trump and the Department of Defense to revisit the decision to not grant Corporal Woodley the Medal of Honor.

But our honoring of the sacrifice at D-Day cannot be merely about rectifying the past. We must also ensure that the democracy they fought for never again marginalizes anyone else for the color of their skin. Legislation that protects the voting rights of all Americans is as much a part of honoring the sacrifices made on D-Day as any memorial or wreath laying. Let us strive to be a society worthy of their sacrifice. It is in the story of the African-American veterans of World War II, who fought fascism abroad and returned to fight Jim Crow at home, that we find the clearest reminder of what D-Day was all about.

It is a remarkable act of patriotism to risk your life for a country that has not treated you fairly. We are all of course fortunate that African-Americans did so. Had they chosen not, an Axis victory would have been much more likely. World War II's African-American soldiers helped save the very democracy that excluded them. In doing so, they exhibited that most American of attributes: the ability to see through the country that is to envision the country that could, and should, be.

Veasey represents the 33rd District of Texas.