An Untold Story of D-Day's Black Heroes
In 2009 Linda Hervieux, an American journalist based in Paris covered the 65th anniversary of D-Day for a New York newspaper. A US veteran, William Dabney, was to receive the Legion of Honor and organizers said he was probably the only member of his battalion who was still alive. No one, however, had bothered to look for other members of the battalion. Dabney had been part of the unique, highly trained African American combat unit that landed on D-Day and set up balloons that shielded soldiers and equipment from German planes. At the time of the Second World War, African Americans were for the most part service troops in labor units. Her curiosity piqued, Hervieux dug deeper and found that upon returning home, the battalion had made headlines in the black newspapers of the day as well as in the mainstream press. Since then, however, the men and their stories had faded into oblivion. One military historian warned Hervieux that she wouldn’t find enough material about these men to write a book. As Hervieux reported in an article, "An independent panel of researchers commissioned by the Army in 1993 to investigate why none of the more than 1 million African Americans who served in World War II received the Medal of Honor found no records to indicate that any had been nominated for the high award. They concluded that failure to acknowledge soldiers of color “most definitely lay in the racial climate and practice within the Army.”
In the end, Hervieux found and interviewed twelve men from the battalion and spoke to the families of several others. When she found one of them, 91-year-old Wilson Monk, he told her “I’ve been waiting for someone to call me for fifty years.”
The fruit of nearly six years of research, Forgotten: the Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes is a compelling history of an all-black battalion and its men who went unrecognized until now. It is also a frank account of "a white woman from Massachusetts" educating herself about the African American experience. And it is above all, the sobering story of the United States, the "Jim Crow" laws that enforced segregation from the 1880s into the 1960s, and a reminder of the shocking racism that permeated the lives of African Americans at the time; a reality still unresolved today.
Linda Hervieux kindly answered a few questions for Bookwitty:
When did you begin to see that your book was going to be about a bigger picture? How did you feel as you moved ahead in your research?
Right from the beginning I was angry. The realities of Black America unspooled before my eyes and opened them to a history that I never learned. I was immediately outraged when I learned about the treatment of these men. They weren’t given even a modicum of equality. William Dabney, who got the Legion of Honor, said he was part of a forgotten battalion. At the time, when they came home they were big; they were interviewed on national radio. The black press was very dynamic back then and was calling on the White House to give them awards. Then the story just died down and they were written out of history. The African American experience has been whitewashed in American history. The story of black achievements being written out of the record is very common. I never learned about this in school. The more I found out about how terribly these men were treated was not only infuriating but also unconscionable.
In your chapter “A Taste of Freedom” you describe how African American soldiers arriving in Britain were welcomed by the population, causing outrage on the part of the white American soldiers posted there too…
African American soldiers were welcomed in the UK; this was before a wave of immigration to Britain when race became very contentious. At the time, everywhere in the world African Americans were treated better than in their own country. And yet [In regards to Germany] there’s a quote in the book by a civil rights activist who compares Nazi Germany to Jim Crow America—it didn’t take long for African Americans to draw parallels between park benches marked for Jews and benches marked “Colored” in Florida. Imagine facing that. What position do you take? If you’re W.E.B. Du Bois you take the position that Germany is a worse enemy and you fight the enemy first. These experiences abroad helped fuel the American civil rights movement. What is astonishing is that every American did not want to right their wrong. Their descendants don’t feel that it’s a story that has anything to do with them.
I was at the Smithsonian museum of African American history and culture in November where I gave a talk. It’s an astounding museum. It starts from the beginnings of slavery and goes up through modern times. On the lower levels there are things that are heart-stoppingly sad, like slave journals. But there is also the first reparations note to a Massachusetts slave who was actually paid reparations. But reparations are off the table right now.
What was the reaction of the army or of people in general to your book?
Army reviewers have had nothing but praise for the book; nobody has said ‘the army has a lot to account for.’ It’s seen as ‘we corrected this problem.’ People’s reaction is dismay, but no one takes ownership because they think it’s in the past. So Southerners say ‘Oh that was then.’ People don’t feel guilty about the way it used to be. Their descendants don’t feel like they were part of the system. These days when we see protests calling for support of the confederate flag, I wonder, do the people who support this flag not make the connection that it was our forefathers who committed horrors against people? No one feels that parts of this history that we should all be ashamed of are in any way directed at them.
How are things different today? Racism is still a huge issue in the US.
There has been a history of taking away rights of African Americans. Many people say the prison system was one of the post slavery institutions that popped up to keep blacks in one place. After slavery we saw a system of slave labor continue in the south. African Americans were picked up en masse for crimes they did not commit, given fines they couldn’t pay and then they were put to work and disappeared from the legal system. Are we better off today? Even now, are cities any less segregated than during the Jim Crow era? One of the things I learned was that in the North, segregation was hidden. It wasn’t legal, but anyone with eyes could see that the cities were segregated. We’re living with the effects of Jim Crow today. There is a direct tie between the wrongs perpetuated against America’s black citizens and how we’re living today.