HENRY PARHAM was a member of the U.S. Army’s 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion that stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy, June 6, 1944. (Photo by J.L. Martello)
by Christian Morrow, Courier Staff Writer
Henry Parham was a 21-year-old Private First Class when he and his fellow members of the U.S. Army’s 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion joined the third wave of troops storming Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. They were the first African American troops in the then-segregated armed forces to take part in the invasion of Hitler’s “Fortress Europe,” an action that would end World War II in Europe in less than a year. Parham is the last surviving member of his battalion.
Last week, during ceremonies at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial and the Heinz History Center commemorating the 75th anniversary of that day, Parham, now 97, and several other survivors of the D-Day invasion—ages 94 to 104—were honored for their service.
Barrage balloons, filled with flammable hydrogen gas, carried heavy steel cables several hundred feet into the air to keep German aircraft from strafing the troops on the ground with machine gun fire. The cables could cut through wings and foul propellers, bringing the planes crashing to the ground. Parham’s job was to keep them flying day and night—and that’s exactly what he and his battalion mates did in Normandy for 68 days straight.
But when he first hit the beach, a strafing run wasn’t his immediate concern—German infantry soldiers shooting at the Allied forces from reinforced bunkers atop the cliffs above Omaha Beach were.
“It was a scary thing. It was hard to take cover,” Parham told the Heinz History Center audience last week, June 6. “But we did it…I guess with the help of the good Lord.”
During an interview with CNN the day before, Parham told CNN, “Of course I was scared for my life…but I did my duty. I did what I was supposed to as an American.”
Well into his retirement, Parham worked at the New Pittsburgh Courier and is still highly regarded by all who know him there. In 2013, he told Courier reporter Ashley Johnson he would be heading to Washington, D.C. for D-Day because he would be named a “Chevalier” and receive the French Legion of Honor for his part in liberating France from the Nazi occupation.
“I am excited and really looking forward to it. I really don’t know what to say,” he told Johnson. “It was quite an experience, but I got through it and I’m proud of it.”
He and his wife of 45 years, Ethel, live in Wilkinsburg and he remains active volunteering for the Veterans Administration and with the American Legion.
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