Sometimes what you’re looking for falls right into your lap, and it did this morning when I was wondering who would be the subject of this week’s column. There he was, Henry Parham, his obituary in several Black and white dailies, which meant he was a convenient crossover personality too. Parham, who died on the Fourth of July, was 99 and putatively the oldest living African American veteran of the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II.
Henry was born in Emporia, Virginia in Nov. 1921, the son of a sharecropper. He was raised by an aunt since both his mother and father were working in various fields. By the time he was old enough to go to school, there were few that welcomed him. When the family moved to Richmond he was 17 and found employment working as a porter for Trailways buses. He was 21 when he was drafted and did basic training in Tennessee at Camp Tyson before being shipped to England in 1943 as a member of the 320th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Balloon Barrage Battalion.
His all-Black unit was part of the buildup to D-Day for the invasion to help allied forces in the fight against Germany. They were primarily responsible for protecting Omaha Beach, one of the landing areas during the invasion as well as the American aircraft delivering supplies and other reinforcements. They also released balloons loaded with explosives to destroy enemy airplanes. It wasn’t unusual for Henry and his five-man crew to fly from dust to dawn, and they occupied the beach for 68 days.
During a 75th anniversary of D-Day, Henry was honored for his service at the Heinz History Center and Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh. When asked to comment on what it was like during the D-Day landing. “It was awful,” he said.
By now millions have seen the movies or read the books about the Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944 but know nothing of the African American segregated troops, some 2,000, who hit those beaches—Utah Beach was the other one. Thankfully, President Obama in his recognition of the soldiers gave them the honor they deserved to the only Black combat unit assigned to balloonist units. Even a White House commission that organizes such commemorative events were not aware of Henry. After President Obama’s salute to them, Henry began speaking of his experiences across the state of Pennsylvania and on several radio and television programs.
There were occasions during extensive interviews in which Henry elaborated on that unforgettable day. He related that when the balloonists stepped off small boats, they witnessed a scene of carnage. The American forces, raked by German fire from high ground, had taken heavy casualties. “We landed in water up to our necks,” he told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Once we got there we were walking over dead Germans and Americans on the beach. Bullets were falling all around us.
“Staying in your trench was the hardest thing,” he continued. “It was two months of ducking and dodging and hiding. I was fortunate that I didn’t get hit. I managed to survive with God’s strength and help.”
Henry said that his battalion returned to the U.S. in November 1944, six months before Germany’s surrender. Based in Hawaii, they trained for deployment to the Pacific. The unit was there when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945 that brought the war to an end.
After the war, Henry moved to Pittsburgh in 1949 and worked as a machine operator for the Buncher Company. He worked at the Pittsburgh Courier as a messenger before his retirement. He and his wife, Ethel, lived in East Liberty and later moved to Wilkinsburg. “We were just plain, simple people,” she told the Post-Gazette, “we weren’t looking for awards. Then all of sudden, people got interested when they heard his story. After the 65th anniversary, people’s eyes were really opened.”
In 2013, Henry became a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, a gesture accorded by France to many American servicemen who fought the Germans on French soil.