All-black balloon unit served with distinction on D-Day

By Ben Sherman, Fort SillMay 1, 2014

1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – The barrage balloons depicted in this D-Day invasion photo were a vital part of protecting Allied forces from strafing German aircraft. The balloons were manned by Soldiers of the all-black 320th Very Low Altitude (VLA) barrage balloon battalion. Ste... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Soldiers of the all-black 320th Very Low Altitude Battalion prepare a barrage balloon for launch on Omaha Beach during D-Day, June 6, 1944. The battalion was the only black combat unit to take part in the invasion. Some 700 black Soldiers served in t... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT SILL, Okla. (Feb. 6, 2014) -- There were many heroes and heroic sagas during World War II, many documented in military history books and retold over the decades. But, many other equally heroic actions received little or no recognition because the American Army was segregated; and the Soldiers and their units were black.

One such all-black unit was the 320th Very Low Altitude (VLA) barrage balloon battalion. The battalion was raised up in 1942 just a year after the Coastal Artillery Corps took over responsibility for barrage balloons from the Army Air Corps.

"The 320th VLA was the only black combat unit to take part in the D-Day landings and was the only barrage balloon battalion to land on the beaches. Units from the 320th landed on both Omaha and Utah beaches and, if you look at pictures of the D-Day beachhead and you see barrage balloons there, they were manned by three to five black troops from the 320th," said Jonathan Bernstein, Army Air Defense Artillery Museum director here. "The first Soldiers from the battalion landed on Omaha Beach at 9 a.m., two hours after the invasion began. The first balloon was floated at 11:15 p.m. that night, and by the next day all of their balloons were knocked out by German artillery fire. But, they were resupplied and were able to quickly float new balloons."

Bernstein said the 320th VLA Battalion had five batteries and a headquarters battery, with around 700 Soldiers. The reason it took them so long to deploy their balloons was because of intense fighting on the beaches. As infantry units solidified their lines, the 320th Soldiers established their positions.

"But if you put up a balloon on the beach, that gave German artillery observers something to sight-in on. So they didn't float balloons until the night of June 6," he said.

Soldiers of the 320th VLA came up with an ingenious solution to one problem they had during the landing. The normal winch for the balloons was an M-1 motorized unit which weighed half a ton; many feared they would sink to the bottom of the channel as they were brought ashore from the landing crafts. So the Soldiers refitted RL-31 Signal Corps field cable winches with barrage balloon reels.

The RL-31 only weighed 35 pounds and was mounted in the back of a jeep to deploy and control balloons on D-Day. They flew at an altitude of around 200 feet to defend Soldiers landing on the beaches against strafing attacks by German aircraft.

"Once deployed the balloons had steel cables hanging down from them, which would neatly slice off an airplane's wing if it hit the cables at 300 or 400 miles per hour. The 320th battalion did actually score a confirmed "kill" by cutting off the wing of a Junkers Ju-88 over Omaha Beach on D-Day," Bernstein said.

The 320th stayed on Omaha and Utah beaches providing low altitude defense. Omaha Beach was one of the major points where supplies continued to come onto the European continent until other ports were secured. By September 1944, Antwerp, Belgium, was secured and Omaha was too far behind the lines.

Barrage balloons became a liability as Allied forces pushed inland and took control of the countryside. VLA units were slow and cumbersome, and to deploy them, units had to have hydrogen generating trucks, tank trucks and all sorts of equipment to maintain the balloons. By the end of October 1944, the 320th VLA Battalion was on its way back to Camp Stewart, Ga., to train for service in the Pacific Theater. They eventually made it as far as Hawaii before the war ended.

There were 39 black anti-aircraft battalions deployed during WWII. Many of them manned mobile and semi-mobile automatic weapons and were detailed to defend various units. But the 320th holds the distinction of being the only all-black balloon battalion.

The newly reopened Army ADA Museum here has a display of some of the 320th VLA barrage balloon battalion's equipment, including an M1 winch, an RL-31 cable winch, a jeep with "1st Army 320th VLA" markings and several mannequins in WWII uniforms. The museum is at 1506 Bateman Road and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 580-442-0424.