A former member of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion will be joining President Obama at Omaha Beach this month to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the French invasion. Dabney was awarded the French government’s Legion of Honor for his efforts during the war. The White House Commission on Remembrance will conduct a service at American war memorials to honor the men and women who fought and died in World War II.
320th Barrage Balloon Battalion
In 2009, the French government awarded World War II Veteran William Dabney with the Legion of Honor, the highest military honor. He had recently visited France for the 65th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. Dabney, a former flooring salesman from Roanoke, Va., was assigned to a 90-mm anti-aircraft gun team. The first African American soldier to be drafted into the US Army, Dabney was proud to be part of the war effort.
In 1942, Dabney was just 17 years old when he enlisted. He was assigned to a support role in the Army, and only a small number of African American soldiers served in combat arms. Dabney, who was also black, craved more action, and decided to volunteer for’special service,’ thinking it meant loading artillery weapons. But he didn’t know he’d be flying balloons. Dabney was assigned to the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, which was meant to deploy blimp-like balloons in coastal defense. He was subsequently assigned to France and the invasion of England.
In September, President Barack Obama will attend a service in honor of William Dabney, World War II veteran from Roanoke. The meeting is part of a larger commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Dabney was a part of the first wave of Allied troops to land on Omaha Beach. He was carrying a barrage balloon that caught fire from the German gunfire. After enduring intense battles, he survived and returned home to Roanoke to work as a heavy equipment operator.
When William Dabney enlisted in the army at age 17, he was a teenager. Back then, black servicemen were often assigned to support roles in the U.S. military. He wanted to see first-hand what it was like to be on the front lines of war. He decided to volunteer for “special service,” which he thought meant being a pilot or loading artillery. Dabney’s training included being assigned to a unit that trained to fly blimp-like balloons in coastal defense. He was then sent to England to fight in the invasion of France.
Hill 881 S
On March 16, 1969, the U.S. Army was facing a North Vietnamese invasion. In response to this invasion, Dabney and his men fought back. They were able to see enemy artillery and rockets, and they heard them too. The sound of these weapons was like a squirrel running through a field of dry leaves. Large artillery rounds can travel great distances and can kill a man in a matter of seconds.
The Marines defended several hills in Khe Sanh, including the iconic Hill 1015. These included Hills 950, 558, and 861. The Marines also held Hill 881S, which was defended by Capt. William Dabney. Dabney’s company had positioned themselves to the south of the hill opposite Hill 881 North, which was occupied by the NVA and digging in. The hill was nearly treeless in 1967. His outpost remained the furthest west of any South Vietnamese command, overlooking the Khe Sanh combat base.
Waverly Bernard Woodson Jr.
A man of humble beginnings, William Dabney described his experience on D-Day as the most difficult he had ever experienced. He was still in his early teens when the war started and he had enrolled at Lincoln University. But he soon dropped out of school to join the army in late 1942. Initially, he hoped to enter officer training with an anti-aircraft unit, but instead, he was posted to the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. There, he trained to serve in a new role – that of a medic for the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion.
In World War 2, Dabney was a member of the 320th Infantry Regiment, the only African-American unit to land on D-Day. It was split between Omaha and Utah beaches. A book about the regiment, “Forgotten”, by Linda Hervieux, was published in 2015. Dabney, a local resident, spoke with Woodson about his experiences.