A Black World War II veteran who helped share the story of the only all-Black battalion that fought on D-Day died at the age of 99. Henry Parham was among the 2,000 Black soldiers who fought in the famous battle on June 6, 1944.
Parham was recognized on the US House floor in June 2019 during a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania said of Parham at the time, “He is believed to be the last surviving African American combat veteran from D-Day,” according to The New York Times.
Though that distinction was not officially determined, Parham did much to make the story of the 320th Battalion known. The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, a unit of about 700 men, launched barrage balloons designed to take down German planes who flew low during missions. The balloons would reach heights above 2,000 feet and were erected on the beaches between D-Day and August 1944.
Parham once described the scene of D-Day with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We landed in water up to our necks,” he told the newspaper. “Once we got there we were walking over dead Germans and Americans on the beach. Bullets were falling all around us,” he recalled.
In a separate interview with The Tribune-Review of Pittsburgh, Parham said his unit was stationed on the beaches of Normandy and were often the targets of German snipers, forcing them to constantly duck for cover for over two months.
“Staying in your trench was the hardest thing,” he said. “It was two months of ducking and dodging and hiding. I was fortunate that I didn’t get him. I managed to survive with God’s strength and help.”
Henry Parham was born in Emporia, Virginia in 1921 to a sharecropper. He moved to Richmond at 17 and worked as a porter for Trailways buses before getting drafted at 21. He trained with the 320th in Tennessee and deployed to England in 1943 before D-Day.
Among his honors is becoming a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 2013 for his service on French land.
Parham died July 4 in a veterans hospital in Pittsburgh. His death was confirmed by his wife, Ethel Parham.
He told CNN in 2019, “I prayed to the Good Lord to save me. I did my duty. I did what I was supposed to do as an American.”