Lowell native Linda Hervieux was living in France, working as a freelance journalist, when she met William Dabney at a 2009 event commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day. An African-American World War II veteran, Dabney had been invited by the French government to receive the Legion of Honor for his service, which had included storming Omaha Beach.
Her interest piqued, Hervieux wanted to write more about Dabney, whom she’d been told was the last surviving member of the all-black 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. “It wasn’t true,” she found. Of the 800-some names Hervieux tracked down through military payroll records, there were 12 remaining who were alive and still able to talk about their experiences.
“The baby of the battalion was Bill Dabney,” she said. “He was 89. These men were in their nineties.” She faced failing memories and the natural reticence of veterans to tell their most painful stories. But some were ready to talk. When she called Wilson Monk, Hervieux said, “the first thing he said to me was, ‘I’ve been waiting for someone to call me for 50 years.’ ”
Of the dozen Hervieux was able to interview for the book, six remain. “Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War” is Hervieux’s attempt to write them back into history. “It’s the story of our country, all the way back to the Revolution,” she said. “Throughout American history we see a whitewashing of the African-American experience.”
Among the honored guests at the commemoration at which she met Dabney, Hervieux said, was filmmaker Steven Spielberg. “If you see ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ you see the balloons that these men flew, but you don’t see the men; you don’t see that they were African American.”
Hervieux will read 11 a.m. Monday at Middlesex Community College, 50 Kearney Square, Lowell, and 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Tewksbury Public Library, 300 Chandler St., Tewksbury.