- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

ROANOKE

As a soldier during World War II, William Dabney was used to the military’s segregated quarters. A black man, he had no contact with his white counterparts.

Until D-Day.

Black and white soldiers stormed Omaha Beach together on June 6, 1944, Mr. 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, Mr. Dabney’s all-black unit, the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, has received little recognition for its service that day.

Mr. 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 was expected to be in Normandy on Saturday for ceremonies commemorating D-Day’s 65th anniversary, attended by President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr. 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 - Mr. Dabney - was still alive.

“They were very accommodating,” Miss LaSpada said Friday. “I said ‘He has to go.’ ”

Mr. Dabney, in his mid-80s, enlisted in the Army after his buddies were drafted.

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

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

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.”

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