I am proud to interview Linda Hervieux, author of the remarkable book FORGOTTEN: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home and At War.
When and why did you move to Paris?
I moved to Paris in October 2004 from New York after my husband, who is also a journalist, was transferred by his press agency. I was a metro desk editor at the New York Daily News and was very reluctant to give up a job that I loved, in a city I love, to become a freelance writer, which is an extremely tough way to make a living. It worked out well for me in the end because thanks to a story I wrote for the Daily News for the 65th anniversary of D-Day in June 2009, I discovered the forgotten African-American battalion that is the subject of my book.
How did you come up with the idea to write Forgotten?
The origin of the story was the French government’s decision to present the country’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, to an American veteran for the 65th anniversary celebration of D-Day. I wrote about the man who was honored, William Dabney. http://www.lindahervieux.com/the-320th-blog/2015/9/10/william-garfield-dabney
from Roanoke, Virginia, who was a member of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. It seemed a shame to do only one newspaper story on these men – D-Day’s only black combat unit, who were written out of the story of D-Day. Movies do not show them and most books do not mention them. But they were there, landing on Omaha and Utah beaches in the early waves of the Allied landings. They flew barrage balloons, which formed a sort of aerial curtain over the beaches. A German plane that hit the wires tethering the bombs to the ground risked being blown to bits by small bombs anchored to the balloons. One man in the unit would be nominated for the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for valor. His name is Waverly Woodson and he was a premed student when he signed up to serve his country. He saved lives on Omaha Beach for 30 hours before he collapsed from his own injuries. There is a campaign underway to secure this honor for him posthumously, led by his family and a Maryland congressman.
I found the story fascinating, and I wanted to know more. So I hired a researcher and began looking for other veterans from this unit who might still be alive.
How long did your research take and how did you go about it?
My researcher and I eventually found 12 men from the battalion, and the families of many others. It was my great privilege to interview these men over the years – from 2010 to 2014 -- in person and over the phone. In all, I worked on the book for nearly six years. I traveled to Army archives in several US states, plus various libraries and sources. I traveled to Wales and to the British archives outside London. This battalion was stationed in the United Kingdom for nearly seven months and the story of the tens of thousands of African Americans who experienced true freedom in the UK for the first time in their lives was truly fascinating to me. I had never learned the story of African Americans who found freedom from Jim Crow America – segregated, racist America – abroad, in Europe and Asia, where they were welcomed as Americans, as heroes. These experiences laid the seeds of the civil rights movement that would rock the country in the coming decades.
What were the most surprising things you learned?
The most surprising thing I learned was how we, as Americans, are not taught the history of our own country. The African-American experience is the story of America, and based on the scores of emails and letters I have received, and comments shared with me during an extended book tour, these experiences are largely unknown, lost to history.
What shocked you?
The treatment of African Americans in the southern United States, decades after the end of slavery, was truly shocking to learn. We have all heard the stories of Rosa Parks and people of color relegated to the back of buses, banned from lunch counters. But it was so much worse than that. Men and women – even soldiers in uniform – had to step off sidewalks and avoid eye contact with whites. They could be arrested under Jim Crow laws for “pretending to be a white man.” A soldier in uniform risked a beating and worse. Lynchings, even of men returning from serving their country, were a constant threat for people of color. It was a form of terror that is, as I’ve said, largely lost to history. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, including southerners who grew up just after the war, that they also have never heard these stories. “I can’t believe how bad it was,” so many of them told me.
Is there a particular story or incident that moved you the most?
There are many -- too numerous to tick off here. My book is largely the sum of them – of the journey these men embarked upon through a thicket of racism in America to unexpected freedom in Britain and, finally, to war. From Atlantic City, New Jersey, to the Jim Crow Deep South, the stories of racism and segregation – even in the North – were shocking to learn.
War ends the book, but this is largely a story of America. Along the way, I recount story after story of how horribly these men were treated by their own fellow Americans. There were many times along the way that I was moved immensely – and enraged -- hearing their stories. And so were their children, some of whom were hearing these stories for the first time.
You recently did a book tour in the U.S. How did people respond to the book and what were some of the questions they asked?
The response and reviews have been incredible: enthusiastic, passionate, generous, and for that I am so grateful. From Boston to Los Angeles, the reception was so very welcoming to this book and particularly for two surviving veterans of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion who appeared with me along the way, in Washington D.C. and Roanoke, Virginia.
When black soldiers were sent to England, they were warmly welcomed and without prejudice or racism. Why do you think they were accepted there and treated so badly in the U.S. ?
They were accepted because the British people, who had never seen people of color until the Americans arrived, did not have preconceived notions of how and what they were as people. Their impressions were not poisoned by two centuries of racism. They treated the black soldiers as Americans first. In the video trailer on my website https://youtu.be/e73e26_qcQ8 -- you can hear George Hamilton of North Carolina, say exactly that. “We were like kings in this part of the world,” says Albert Wood from Baltimore. “It was a spark of light,” says Arthur Guest from South Carolina. Like their white counterparts, African-American soldiers were treated like the prized Allies that they were. They were welcomed as guests in a country that was quite happy to have them, finally, after three years of suffering. Chapter Seven of my book, which tells their story in Britain, was a revelation for me. I had never heard an inkling of this story, of the joy and freedoms experienced by so many African American men – and women too. And from the responses I received, I am not alone.
After the book was completed and you were on your book tour, did you learn new things and did people tell you stories you haven’t heard before?
Since the book was published in October 2015, I’ve received many emails from people wishing to tell me their stories, and the stories of their relatives. It seems that FORGOTTEN has tapped a well of emotion about other stories lost to history and I have been happy to hear these stories. I hope to continue to share them on my website, http://www.lindahervieux.com/ which is a tribute to the men of this lost battalion and a complement to the book.
What’s next for you? Are you working on a new book?
I am very happy that FORGOTTEN: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, At Home and At War will be published in Britain in November. The U.S. paperback edition comes out in November. I have received some invitations already to speak in the fall, ahead of Veterans Day, including in Washington D.C. at the soon-to-open Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. I’m very excited about that invitation.
As for me, I am still recovering from this project! During the writing stage, in order to meet my deadline, it required seven days of work for 14 months straight. I think I took four days off. Since the release last October, I have been working on promoting it and traveling almost non-stop. In a while, after a breather, I’ll figure out what comes next for me.
FORGOTTEN is available at local book stores in the US or online:
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