Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Amberley (15 Nov 2016)
The sceptics might have been right when they told Linda Harvieux that there wasn’t enough information available to tell the story of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion at D-Day. But they were dead wrong if they thought there wasn’t a story to tell, and if I’m honest, although only the last few chapters concern themselves with Omaha Beach, there are testimonies in this book that have never seen the light of day, and thus add another element to the drama of the story.
Some of the veterans in this book have waited 70 years for someone to be brave enough to dig out their story, and it is a remarkable one, even for someone like me who is a complete novice when it comes to WW2.
A popular TV sitcom from 1965/71 was Hogans Heroes, a show about POW’s who ran sabotage operations from their prinson camp. Oneof the main supporting cast was a Black sergeant named Kinchlow, played by Ivan Dixon. He’s just one of the popular representations of equality in WW2 that makes us take for granted the promise that “all men are created equal”. I never really give much credence to comedy, it’s just entertainment after all. It was probably a few years ago I really gave some thought to segregation in the 1940s and what that meant for the army.
The African American population of America was treated despicably by its own government and fellow, white, citizens. Not to tar the good with the same brush, but there’s no escaping the fact that for decades Black people were legally discriminated against in their own country under a system nicknamed Jim Crow. In 1930s USA discrimination had a personality, he was a presence to revile and mock and yet put up with. You hear absurdities like segregated bathrooms, water fountains and the thing about having to give up your seat on a bus, yet the terrible cruelty doesn’t come through the childish bigotry. It does in this book, as the author paints a portrait of inter War America that really doesn’t look pretty. Even joining the army didn’t help. You’d have thought that by enlisting a black soldier might get a few breaks, you’d be wrong. In fact it could often be worse, as after thousands had left the south, thousands were sent back in uniform to train, right down to where they were most unwanted.
The mind boggling absurdity of racial attitudes at this time, and in all times, are something that never cease to shock. All the books dealing with the Black troops of the world wars have this capacity but double because it’s about men fighting for the government that was in no small way persecuting them. There isn’t enough time to go into hypocrisy of it all. But it was felt that Black soldiers were inferior to white soldiers, and that somehow they would be liabilities on the front line and better suited to fatigue and pioneer work. This was an old prejudice, the British had initially felt the same way when they recruited escaped slaves during the American revolution. Yet America never lost the stigma even after the civil war and in a repetitive cycle, the Black soldiers of the army had to prove themselves over and over again with each new war. And the men of the 320th just thought that this was the way it was everywhere, but it wasn’t, as many veterans of the First World War in Europe would have told them.
This is a book perhaps calculated to stroke the ego of British people proud of their multiculturalism and open mindedness, though it should be remembered that this mindset existed primarily at home and the colonies were a different matter altogether. However it is an undeniable truth, backed up by black soldiers coming to the UK, that they found a taste of freedom that they never knew existed. For many it was the best time of their lives. The realisation that white people were willing to treat them as Americans first was something many black soldiers had discovered during WW1. Although the Europeans had their own forms of bigotry, they treated the Black American’s who came to fight for their cause as heroes. This stirred something in many segregated battalions, used to being treated as second class citizens in their own country and yet expected to fight for liberty and democracy. Many came to the uncomfortable realisation that once the war was over Jim Crow would be waiting for them back home. The Americans indeed had the gall to try and educate their indifferent allies about the benefits of Segregation. Happily the majority of these self appointed professors of bigotry failed, and indeed when push came to shove the British civilians were more than likely to take the side of the African Americans if it came to a fight, and it often did. The tension about bringing Jim Crow to Britain went to the top, and the British, agonised on how to say, no thank you, without causing a disastrous rift between them and the USA.
As usual when push came to shove, the men of the segregated units, across all the forces proved their worth as reliable and useful combat troops. Not least those of the 320th. Which in itself is an interesting subject for a book, the barrage balloons are familiar parts of many photographs but they don’t get allot of attention in print. And it was nice to read about training, upkeep and deployment about these workaday by vital elements of modern warfare.
The author handles the tale effortlessly. With a measured, flowing narrative that glides along, like a good blues tune, without the need to hurry to get to the end, but when you get there you wonder where the time went. There’s probably a measure of white guilt at play here and there, quite allot of time is spent providing background but this is undeniably excellent.
In the end the Black battalions made Jim Crow eat Crow by proving themselves in battle but this book is about more than D-Day. It’s about more than the personal stories of the surviving veterans. Forgotten vividly presents how WW2 sowed the seeds in many thousands of hearts for a much wider and organised movement for equality. Linda Harvieux tells their story brilliantly, bringing to life the faces and lives of those daring young men and their barrage balloons, the “Forgotten” 320th.