When actor Tom Hanks was asked why there were no black soldiers shown in the movie Saving Private Ryan, he replied that there had been none in the area. He was mistaken; click on the small photos below to see full sized images. They, and the accompanying text, are from the book "Spearheading D-Day: American Special Units in Normandy" by Jonathan Gawne.
*The 320th Barrage Balloon Bn. (VLA) (Colored)
The 320th Barrage Balloon Bn. was unique at Normandy for two reasons. First, it was the first barrage balloon unit in France and second, it was the first black unit in the segregated American Army to come ashore on D-Day.
The VLA in the 320th designation stood for "very low altitude." These units used smaller barrage balloons that could easily be moved by a few men and transported across the channel on landing craft. A standard balloon crew was normally four men, but trained personnel were in short supply and the 320th reduced the crews to three men to get as many balloons in the air as possible.
The barrage balloon concept was simple, lighter-than-air balloons were tethered over an area that the Army wished to protect from air attack. The balloons were flown at irregular intervals and altitudes. If an enemy plane attempted to fly into the area, it ran the risk of striking one of the wire cables holding the balloons. This could be enough to slice off a wing or the cable could become entangled in the propeller. It was a passive form of defense which forced the enemy aircraft to fly above the balloons where it would be harder to hit the target. Many of the ships taking part in the channel crossing flew barrage balloons to prevent low level attacks.
The men of the 320th were not second rate soldiers. They were highly trained and took pride in their job. When they were told they were going to land in France to protect the invasion beaches, they quickly realized that the standard VLA balloon winch was too heavy and cumbersome to lug ashore from a landing craft. The M-1 US Army winch had a gasoline motor and weighed 1,000 pounds. The British Mark VII weighed almost 400 pounds. They developed an expedient by adding two handles to a Signal Corps RL-31 Winder and putting the balloon wire on the DR-4 drum. This new winch weighed only 50 pounds and could easily be carried ashore by one man.
The 320th Headquarters and Battery A were assigned to the 1st Div. at Omaha, and Battery C to the 4th Div. on Utah Beach. This makes the 320th one of the very few units to be assigned tasks on both Omaha and Utah. Battery B was part of the follow-up force that landed over a period of time from D+1 to D+4. The area they had to cover was so great they reduced each balloon crew from four to three men, and some records indicate that they even used two man balloon crews at times.
Click the link below to read an account by Bill Davison, son of one of the men who served with the 320th on D-Day:
* Spearheading D-Day, American Special Units in Normandy, by Jonathan Gawne, Pages 187-191. More information on the 320th may be found at the following web site: 320th Anti-Aircraft Balloon Battalion (VLA)
http://www.bjmjr.net/ww2/320th_dday.htm one of Bennie J. McRae, Jr.'s web sites. Mr. McRae has excellent and detailed information concerning African American soldiers in WWII,
"Lest We Forget." and African American military history from the Revolutionary War to Viet Nam: