Black WWII veteran Henry Parham dies at 99

He was believed to be the last surviving member of an all-Black combat unit that served on D-Day

The alleged last surviving member of a Black combat unit that served on D-Day has passed on.

Henry Parham died of bladder cancer Sunday, July 4 at Pittsburgh VA Medical Center, per his obituary. He was 99-years-old.

Henry Parham, a veteran of the only all-Black combat unit to land on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, was named a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 2013. “I managed to survive with God’s strength and help,” he said.

Parham was born November 21, 1921 in Greensville County, Virginia and was the son of a farmer, according to Virginia birth records and census records.

Drafted into the U.S. Army at age 21, Parham served in a segregated all-Black combat unit called the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion. The group, containing roughly 700 men, were the only Black soldiers to land on Omaha Beach during the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, a.k.a. “D-Day,” per the Veterans Breakfast Club.

The unit maintained and raised helium-filled “barrage balloons,” which were deployed above the beach “to force German bombers to fly at higher altitudes, where it was harder for them to attack Allied troops below,” per Parham’s obituary.

“We landed in water up to our necks,” Mr. Parham said during a 2012 interview with the Veterans Breakfast Club. “Once we got there, we were walking over dead Germans and Americans on the beach, it was so heavily mined. While we were walking from the boat to the beach, bullets were falling all around us.”

Parham and his unit spent 68 days on the beach while the invasion took place, digging foxholes during the day and launching their balloon defense system at night.

“I was fortunate that I didn’t get hit. There was no place to hide,” Parham told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a 2013 story about the French government awarding him the Legion of Honor medal, their highest order of merit.

He was up to his neck in water as bullets rained down at Omaha Beach. 

With his Black brothers, he floated balloons to protect the infantry from the German air assault. He stayed there for 68 days to protect subsequent waves.

Henry Parham died on July 4th.

Rest easy, brother. pic.twitter.com/vf2yU2khBG

— Canadian Forces in 🇺🇸 (@CAFinUS) July 13, 2021

Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Doyle recognized Parham’s service in June 2019 during a commemoration of D-Day’s 75th anniversary, where he said Parham is “believed to be the last surviving African American combat veteran from D-Day.”

This claim has not been verified, and Parham himself went unacknowledged at 2009’s D-Day anniversary ceremony during Barack Obama’s presidency, where fellow 320th member William G. Dabney was invited and declared to be the only living veteran of the battalion that had been located.

After the war ended in 1945, Parham returned to his hometown in Virginia. He told the Veterans Breakfast Club that he was not surprised at the time to see Black veterans still facing rampant oppression despite their service.

“I wasn’t disappointed because I grew up under those conditions,” he said.

He then moved to Pittsburgh in 1949, where he spent 34 years as a heavy equipment operator and married Ethel Perry in the 1960s. After retiring at age 65, he joined Mrs. Parham volunteering at local veteran’s hospitals.

“He lived a good life. He was well taken care of, and we traveled and had a beautiful life,” Mrs. Parham said of her late husband. “I thank God that he lived long enough to get these accolades. He deserved it.”

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