Member of All-Black D-Day Battalion to Receive Overdue Honor
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 5, 2009 Sixty-five years ago, he was a young black soldier whose role in the allied landing at Normandy would go largely ignored. But now William Dabney returns to France with due honors.
William Dabney, a veteran of the D-Day invasion, poses with son Vinny Dabney at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., on June 4, 2009, ahead of their trip to France where the elder Dabney is to receive the Legion of Honor, the French government's highest award for his actions in WWII. DoD by John J. Kruzel
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Then a 20-year-old corporal, Dabney stormed the beleaguered Omaha Beach armed with a type of explosive-laden helium balloon the Army floated at low altitude to interfere with German aircraft. He represented the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, the first exclusively African-American unit to fight in World War II.
Dabney, the lone surviving member of the 320th Battalion, will receive France’s Legion of Honor tomorrow in conjunction with other D-Day ceremonies across France. The honor marks time the black soldiers of the battalion have been officially recognized for their role in the famed 1944 operation, a defense official said.
“Whether we got credit for it or not, we still felt that we did our job,” the 84-year-old Dabney said in an interview yesterday at the French Embassy ahead of his flight abroad. “And we felt that maybe one day we would get recognition, and this has come that I’m getting some recognition for what I did.
“I’m very thankful for it,” he said of receiving the Legion of Honor, the French’s government highest award.
Dabney is one of about 40 Americans to receive the Legion of Honor during the D-Day anniversary ceremonies tomorrow. The event holds additional significance, since it will be presided over by President Barack Obama, the first African-American to hold the highest U.S. office, Dabney said.
“It’s going to make me feel real proud. I feel as though that we – African-Americans -- have come a long ways,” he said. “And it’s not only me, but it’s something that my grandchildren, my great grandchildren have seen already, and they are grateful.”
For Dabney, Obama’s ascension to the White House reflects the American values he felt he was fighting for during World War II.
“I never would have thought that I would see the day that we would have an African-American president,” he said. “That sort of relieved me. I was over here fighting, and now I can look and see that we have an African-American president.”
Dabney was one of five World War II veterans on hand yesterday with their families at the embassy for a luncheon before their voyage. Joining the elder Dabney was his son, Vinny Dabney, of Roanoke, Va.
“It’s really an honor for me to be able to accompany him as he receives this magnificent honor,” Vinny Dabney said. “He was able to attend the 60th anniversary, but this one is even more important because of the honor, the medals, that will be bestowed on the veterans.
“The contribution of my dad and other African-Americans was kind of something that was swept under the rug for a long time. And now they’ve finally pulled the rug back, and here’s all this history.”
The other veterans at the embassy yesterday who are attending the D-Day anniversary in Normandy include:
-- Burnett Bartley, who also took part in the D-Day landing. For 264 consecutive days, he fought with the 35th Infantry Division, in which more than 25,000 soldiers would lose their lives. During a battle to liberate the town of Destry, he was wounded in the throat; his vocal cords were severed, and the effects have endured to this day. Bartley distinguished himself during the war by his behavior, his courage and his keen judgment, as attested by the honors bestowed upon him by U.S. military officials.
-- Elmer De Lucia, who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day with the 81st Chemical Mortar Battalion. During this operation, he saw dozens of his friends die; he witnessed the beach become a veritable mass grave, with hundreds of young soldiers mowed down by enemy fire. With his company, he spent 313 days in Normandy, including 60 consecutive days without a day of rest. He fought in five major campaigns -- Normandy, Northern France, the Rhineland, the Ardennes and Central Europe -- earning five Bronze Stars. Twice wounded in action, in France in October 1944 and in Germany in March 1945, he also received the Purple Heart.
-- James Huston, an intelligence officer with the 35th Infantry Division’s 3rd Battalion, 134th Regiment, who participated in the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach. During his first battle, in Saint-Lô, with a five-man patrol, he took Hill 122, a heavily fortified and mined position occupied by the enemy. This act earned him the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. He subsequently served as a commander when his unit crossed northern France toward Nancy. He then led the battalion that crossed the Meurthe as an operations officer. He carried out the attack and capture of Malzeville, east of Nancy, to establish a bridgehead for the region. His strategic abilities, sharp analyses and personal involvement during his command of this action earned Huston a Bronze Star.
-- Nathan Kline, who was 18 when he enlisted in the Army in 1942. After months of training, he was assigned to the 323rd Bomb Group of the 9th Air Force as a bombardier/navigator on a B-23. He took part in the D-Day landing, with subsequent missions taking him to Reims, Chartres, the Belgian border and, in May 1945, Valenciennes. He carried out no fewer than 65 bombing missions during World War II. His plane was hit twice during the battle of the Ardennes. Without abandoning his position, he continued bombing his target until the action was successful. He provided first aid to his radio operator, who was wounded, before returning to his navigator post and bringing the plane back down into allied territory. For this action, which was decisive to the outcome of the battle, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Before their departure, French Defense Attache Maj. Gen. Gratien Maire saw the veterans off and told them it was a pleasure to honor their sacrifice.
“Thank you for what you did for