- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

Samuel J. Harris knew he wasn’t dead. But on June 7, his morning newspaper suggested otherwise.

The 88-year-old Washington resident read in an Associated Press story that the last known survivor of an all-black World War II U.S. Army unit had received the Legion of Honor from the French government. But he, too, had served in the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion and was, therefore, confused.

Mr. Harris’ 57-year-old daughter, Sharon R. Harris, e-mailed the White House Commission on Remembrance, an organization that coordinates services at U.S. war memorials, to try to correct the mistake. She traded messages with Carmella LaSpada, executive director of the commission.

Eventually, a reporter for The Washington Times put Miss Harris on the telephone with Ms. LaSpada, who explained that the French Embassy had requested her help in finding U.S. World War II veterans to honor during the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

She said she approached the veterans’ organizations associated with some of the larger units, but she wasn’t even aware of the 320th - a unit whose mission was to float balloons over combat zones to prevent landings or fire from low-flying enemy aircraft - until she saw the battalion referenced in a television news feature.

She said she wanted the unit - the only all-black Army unit to participate in the D-Day invasion - represented during D-Day events at Normandy, but she was only able to locate one surviving member: William Dabney.

So Mr. Dabney, of Roanoke, was flown to France and awarded the Legion of Honor.

When the story appeared in newspapers, including this one, Mr. Harris spoke up.

“I said, ‘What are they talking about? This is not right. They’re not telling the truth,’ ” he said.

Now Ms. LaSpada has arranged for Mr. Harris to be presented with the Legion of Honor by French Ambassador Pierre Vimont on the Washington Monument grounds on Sept. 19, during the fourth annual Time of Remembrance ceremony.

“He knows about it; he plans to do it; and he’s very happy to do it,” Emmanuel Lenain, a spokesman for the French Embassy, said of the French ambassador’s participation in the event.

Mr. Lenain said 38 American veterans of World War II, including Mr. Dabney, were presented with the Legion of Honor, France’s most prestigious military award, during this year’s anniversary and about 700 have been given the award since 2004.

“Because they deserve it,” he said. “What they did is outstanding. We’ll never forget what they did for our country. They fought. They risked their life for our country. We’ll always remember. We thought it’s necessary to give them our highest decoration.”

After learning he was not the only surviving member of his battalion, Mr. Dabney - who accepted the Legion of Honor on behalf of the entire 320th - said he was honored.

“I feel great about it to know someone else is out there,” he said. “I thought I was the only one.”

He said accepting the honor in Normandy last month “made me feel very proud that we were finally recognized after 70 years.”

“I never thought we would get recognition in my lifetime,” Mr. Dabney said.

He said he looks forward to meeting Mr. Harris in September and any other veterans of the 320th who come forward.

Mr. Harris, though, has mixed feelings about the recognition - and about his time in the service. He said having the oversight corrected was more important to him than any award.

“We’ll, I’m not gonna jump up and shout about it. But it’s all right. I’ll participate,” he said. “If they want to give me something to make up for what they’ve done to me in the past, their apology for mistreating me, I’ll accept it - if it’s sincere.”

Mr. Harris, who was drafted into the Army in 1941, said he has no fond memories of his military service.

“I went because I had to go. I was very unhappy the whole time I was in there,” he said. “I don’t have anything related to what happened. I didn’t want any memories. No uniform. Anything. Medals I was supposed to get I never collected. You know, wasn’t interested in that.”

His account of the Normandy invasion is stark and unromantic.

“It was awful,” he said. “We left the big boat to enter the smaller boat to get on the beach. It must have been about a mile out from the beach.

“When we got to the beach we had orders to turn around because it was too hot on the beach. You could see all the bullets jumping up in the water beside the boat,” he said. “When I heard I got to turn around and go back, I fainted. When I got back to the big boat, I was too weak to climb back up the ropes to get back in the boat. So I had to stay in the small boat till I could get myself together.”

It was the next day when he finally made it ashore.

He recalled a time in 1945, shortly after he returned to the United States from France. He had a stopover in Atlanta and looked for somewhere to eat.

“I was hungry, and I made a mistake of going to the front door of the restaurant. [The owners] told me I had to get around to the back if I wanted to get any service. I was ticked off about that. My life is in jeopardy and I can’t even go in the front door of a restaurant and get service. I was in uniform. … They knew I was a soldier. Didn’t make any difference to them,” Mr. Harris said.

Shortly after that event, Mr. Harris was classified “disabled” and discharged from the service because of the debilitating headaches he suffered.

After that, he followed through with his pre-war plans. He had left his hometown of Straven, Ala., in 1936 for the District in hopes of attending Howard University but was drafted at 22 while working as a waiter before he could apply to the school.

He applied after the war, was accepted and completed both his undergraduate and law degrees in five years using funds from the GI Bill to cover his tuition.

He graduated with his law degree in 1951 and took a job with a firm in Detroit. He married, had three daughters and returned to the District in 1963, when he says he was hired as the first black attorney for the Department of Agriculture - a claim the department did not dispute but also said it could not verify.

During the 1970s he worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and traveled with a tour group to China, Egypt, Africa, Japan and the Bahamas. He left the EEOC in 1978 to work in private practice.

He now lives near Walter Reed Army Medical Center with his daughter.

Miss Harris expressed no shock after learning that her father had been overlooked.

“The error is understandable because it’s been done all along. There’s always been a discrepancy when it comes to black folks. But it’s good they’re going to be honored. It’s about time,” she said.

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