IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

France honors D-Day vet from all-black unit

William Dabney, a member of the only all-black unit in the D-Day landings on Omaha and Utah beaches, is in France this weekend to receive that nation's highest award: the Legion of Honor.
Actor Tom Hanks shakes hands with U.S. war veteran William Dabney, 82, after Dabney was awarded the Legion of Honor medal by French Defense Minister Herve Morin on Friday in Paris. Dabney, then 17, took part in the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, in Normandy, with the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Ballon Battalion. Jacques Brinon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As a soldier in World War II, William Dabney was used to the military's segregated quarters. An African-American, he had no contact with his white counterparts.

Until D-Day.

Black and white soldiers stormed Omaha Beach together on June 6, 1944, Dabney recalled.

"When I landed, quite a few white guys were on the landing barge," he said. "There wasn't any segregation there."

But until now Dabney's all-black unit, the 320th, has received little recognition for its service that day.

Dabney, the 320th's last known survivor, is in France this weekend to receive that nation's highest award: the Legion of Honor. The Roanoke resident will be in Normandy for ceremonies commemorating D-Day's 65th anniversary on Saturday that President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will attend.

Dabney's participation in the event was arranged hastily after the executive director of a federal agency that honors war casualties learned last week that the 320th had gone largely unrecognized.

Carmella LaSpada, of the White House Commission on Remembrance, contacted the French Embassy as soon as she found out that one member — Dabney — was still alive.

"They were very accommodating," LaSpada said Friday. "I said 'He has to go.'"

Under fire
Dabney, who turns 85 later this month, signed up with the Army when he was 17 1/2 after his buddies were drafted.

"After they left I was kind of lonesome," he said.

After the war, Dabney started a flooring business in Roanoke. His son accompanied him to France this week.

Dabney was the leader of a barrage balloon battalion that protected anti-aircraft guns. Barrage balloons were like small blimps filled with helium, he said, and were used to interfere with enemy strafings.

The troops were under fire when they hit the beach, he said.

Dabney said he didn't have much interaction with the white soldiers on D-Day.

"We were going in to battle," he said. "Nobody had much to say."