How Wilkinsburg’s Henry Parham survived 68 days on Omaha Beach
It’s hard to say for sure if the 68 days that Private First Class Henry Parham spent on Omaha Beach in 1944 were the most challenging of his life.
He grew up working on a Virginia farm in the segregated Jim Crow South during the 1920s and ‘30s.
There were the many months of training after he was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1942 at Camp Tyson, Tennessee, where the white soldiers were on one side and the black soldiers were kept on the other and treated as second-class citizens.
But D-Day marked the start of a special kind of hell for Parham, who was 22 at the time. For more than two straight months, he and the other members of the all-black 320th Very Low Altitude Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion fought a desperate daily battle to survive.
Their largely unpublicized mission, from early June to well into August 1944, involved staying on the beach and raising hydrogen-filled barrage balloons to deny low-level airspace to enemy planes. The balloons were anchored to the ground by steel cables, with small explosive charges attached to them, that were capable of taking the wing off of a swiftly moving enemy plane.
The balloons could be raised or lowered to the desired altitude by a winch, thus protecting the assaulting infantry and armor from being strafed by German planes. The balloons and their cables dot the sky in many photos of the Normandy invasion.
Parham and the other soldiers operating the balloons were essentially sitting ducks.
“As long as you were on the beach, you were being attacked, so you had to protect yourself,” said Parham on a recent June afternoon in his Wilkinsburg high rise.
Serving a segregated country
On June 6, the world observed the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that marked the turning point of World War II, leading to the Allied liberation of Europe. But that day was only the beginning for Henry Parham. By early July 1944, he and many others were still on the beach, not even at the halfway mark of a horrific stretch of death-defying days.
Parham is now 97, and time slowed his sturdy frame as he walked into the Wilkinsburg Borough Building late last month, accompanied by his wife, Ethel. He was recognized that night by the Wilkinsburg Borough Council and Mayor Marita Garrett with a proclamation for “outstanding service to our country.”
Among those on hand to honor Parham was Allegheny County Councilman DeWitt Walton whose district includes Wilkinsburg.
“I think Mr. Parham did something really special,” said Walton. “Given the history of segregation, he made a commitment to go defend his country when his country wouldn’t defend him.”
Parham was working as a porter for a bus company in Richmond, Virginia, when he received his draft notice, two days before Christmas in 1942. He said he never questioned the idea of fighting for his country.
Sleeping in a foxhole
He was assigned to the only black combat unit to take part in the D-Day invasion, and the only barrage balloon battalion to land on the beaches.
Before he could do anything else on D-Day, Parham had to get off the landing craft and make it to the beach. He was in the third wave to land at Omaha Beach, which was better than being in the first wave, but it still wasn’t easy. The water was up to his neck, all of his equipment was on his back, and he didn’t know how to swim. He had to hold his rifle over his head to keep it dry.
Sitting in his living room, Parham relived the fear that he felt seven and a half decades ago.
“It was awful. It was a scary thing, but it was one of the things you had to do because there was no turning back,” he said.
Once they got to the beach, there was no place for the soldiers to take cover. In addition to carrying rifles, they also carried shovels to dig foxholes in the sand. Jumping into those foxholes was the only way to escape the barrage unleashed by German soldiers, who had dug in and constructed pillboxes from which they could fire at anyone on the Normandy coast.
The intense fighting on the beaches prevented the soldiers of the 320th from deploying their balloons right away. Eventually Parham and the other 620 troops in the battalion established their positions as infantry units solidified their lines.
By the evening of June 6, they were finally able to float their first balloons. German artillery fire shot them down the next day but they were quickly resupplied.
Day after day, Parham stayed out on the beach, in harm’s way, as he helped float the balloons that protected allied soldiers and reinforcements and supplies arriving at Omaha Beach. A change of clothes was considered a luxury. The beach was where everyone went to the bathroom. And there were no tents. He slept in a foxhole.
“That’s right. There was no bed,” said Parham with a hearty laugh. “Staying in your trench was the hardest thing.”
Parham said his faith in God is what got him through the ordeal.
“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.”
Parham’s battalion ended up serving 140 days in France, including a stint in Cherbourg protecting Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. A commendation by Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower cited the 320th for the “splendid manner” in which it carried out its duties.
“Despite the losses sustained, the battalion carried out its mission with courage and determination, and proved an important element of the air defense team,” Eisenhower wrote.
Parham returned to Richmond after the war. He didn’t exactly receive a hero’s welcome. However, he did get his old job back at the bus company .
“People showed a little more respect for you, of course, because you saved their lives as well as your own,” said Parham.
Honored decades later
Four years later, in 1949, Parham moved to Pittsburgh where better opportunities awaited. He used the GI Bill to learn a trade and eventually landed a job as a machine operator for the Buncher Company. He and Ethel were married 45 years ago and made their home in East Liberty before moving to Wilkinsburg, where they have lived for the last 17 years.
Parham has remained active in the community and still volunteers with the American Legion and the Veterans Administration, visiting hospitalized veterans.
The decades have passed without Parham receiving much if any recognition. Not that he has sought any. For him doing the job was reward enough.
“It’s great to know that I was part of the liberation,” said Parham. “It makes me feel great.”
In recent years, though, more tangible awards have started to come to Parham, who is believed to be the last surviving member of the 320th.
In 2013, the French government named him a “Chevalier,” awarding him the Legion of Honor, its highest military decoration. In June, Parham was recognized by U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle on the House floor, and the recent tribute to Parham in Wilkinsburg included a police, fire and patriot guard escort to the Wilkinsburg Borough building.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Ethel Parham, as she sat on the couch with her husband. “He had a really bad experience while he was in the service. I admire his courage and sacrifice and he’s my hero.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].