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Common Experience pays tribute to black WWII heroes

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Linda Hervieux and her book ,"Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day's Black Heroes, at Home and at War,” are a part of this year’s Common Experience events.
Photo by: Cassandria Alvarado | Staff Photographer

On Nov. 3, a lecture hall in the Hines Academic Center filled with students, many of whom were in uniform. Veterans, current members of the armed forces and civilians came out to hear journalist and author Linda Hervieux discuss her recently published book, “Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War.”

“I am honored to be speaking to you today,” Hervieux began. This was the first time she had delivered her presentation to an ROTC group, she said.

As an expatriate from Massachusetts currently living in France, Hervieux has written for a number of newspapers and journals, including The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune.

“We Americans are told to remember our history, but not all of it,” Hervieux said, in reference to the erasure of black history from the mainstream American school system. “We are implored to remember the Alamo, but not the war of attrition waged against African Americans during the Jim Crow era. Kids learn about Paul Revere, but not Crispus Attucks.”

Part of that forgotten history revolves around the events of June 6, 1944, when nearly 2,000 African-American soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy.

“There are many who consider D-Day to be one of the most momentous days of the 20th century,” Hervieux said. “I would argue that to exclude such a significant portion of those involved does a disservice to the American people.”

Like her book, Hervieux’s presentation focused on the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only African-American combat unit present during the D-Day landings.

“At the time, there were two armies in America: black and white,” Hervieux said. “They required separate transportation, separate barracks, separate mess halls…it was an incredibly inefficient way to operate. These soldiers were told they were fighting for freedom…the freedom of a country where they were treated like second-class citizens.”

One soldier was Waverly Bernard “Woody” Woodson Jr., a promising pre-med student who enlisted at the earliest opportunity, rather than wait to be drafted. Initially trained as an anti-aircraft artillery officer, Woodson was reassigned to train as a medic because he was ineligible for promotion due to the color of his skin.

When the Allied invasion of Normandy came, Woodson collapsed after providing medical aid to fellow soldiers for a period of no less than thirty hours while wounded. For this feat, he received a Purple Heart, a belated Bronze Star and a nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor – an award which was instead given to a white medic who performed a similar feat, without having sustained any wounds.

For many members of the audience (military personnel and civilians alike), the contents of Hervieux’s presentation were shocking. Her mention that German POWs held in United States internment camps typically received better treatment from white Americans than black Allied soldiers elicited a raised eyebrow among the audience.

“Most of this stuff isn’t talked about,” said Daniel Duncan, army cadet and physical geography sophomore. “It was a shock to me. History is surprising.”

The lecture was coordinated by a number of entities active on-campus, including the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, the History Department, the Honors College, and the Center for Gender & Diversity Studies.

“There was so much information I didn’t know,” said Shaquille Henry, army cadet and criminal justice sophomore. “It’s insane to see how much the army has changed.”

The army may have changed for the better, but Waverly Woodson still hasn’t received his medal of honor. In fact, none of the 1 million African-Americans who served in WWII received the nation’s highest honor until the Clinton presidency, over fifty years after the war’s end—despite the fact that many of them were awarded equivalent medals by the French government immediately following the war. However, there is a movement to have Woodson awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously.

“There is an entire generation of Americans of color whose contributions have not been recognized,” Hervieux said. “It’s not just black history, it’s American history.”