French thank Pittsburgh D-Day veteran with Legion of Honor

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Henry Parham knows he was lucky.

On D-Day, 69 years ago today, he waded ashore in neck-deep water at Omaha Beach.

He was in the third wave and spared the worst of the horror the first wave of infantry endured.

World War II veteran Henry Parham recounts D-Day

Henry Parham spent more than two months on Omaha Beach with the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only black combat unit to serve at Normandy. (Video by Nate Guidry; 6/6/2013)

Still, he spent more than two months on that beach with the 320th Antiaircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only black combat unit to serve at Normandy.

Now, at 91, the country he helped liberate is saying thank you.

Mr. Parham, of Wilkinsburg, will join 17 other American veterans today at a ceremony at the French embassy in Washington, D.C., where the French government will award them the Legion of Honor, the highest military decoration in France.

"Naturally I'm excited about it," he said recently. "I hardly know what to say anymore."

His wife of 39 years, Ethel, and some family members from Baltimore also were expected to make the trip to Washington.

"It's exciting, it's wonderful and it's long overdue, because so many World War II veterans are not alive to witness this," Ms. Parham said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip."

The Legion of Honor, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, has in the last decade been awarded to thousands of U.S. soldiers who participated in the liberation of France.

To be eligible, American vets must have fought on French territory in one of the four major campaigns there: Normandy, Provence, Ardennes and Northern France.

Mr. Parham, a farm boy from Virginia, was 21 and working for a bus company in Richmond when he was drafted into the segregated Army in 1942. He trained in Tennessee with the 320th and shipped out for England in 1943 for more training in anticipation of the Normandy assault.

D-Day was his first combat experience. In 1998, when the movie "Saving Private Ryan" came out, he attended the film with a Post-Gazette writer to compare the movie to the real thing.

But, he said, he missed the thick of the fighting portrayed in the opening scene of the film and he was glad for that.

"I didn't see the same sort of action [as the first wave] because it was late afternoon," he said in that 1998 story. "The German troops didn't shoot as much because they didn't want to draw our fire."

Still, there was plenty of danger. German shells and machine-gun slugs landed all around him.

"I was fortunate that I didn't get hit," he said last week. "There was no place to hide."

German forces had planted land mines and obstacles in the surf, so troops had to jump out of their boats to wade ashore.

"It was awful -- the water was up to my neck and all my equipment was on my back," Mr. Parham recalled in 1998. "I had to hold my rifle up over my head to keep it out of the water."

One man was so short that another had to carry him to shore so he wouldn't drown.

Mr. Parham said he stepped over the bodies from the previous assaults that day; some 15,000 men had been killed or wounded.

The job of the 320th was to use helium-filled barrage balloons to defend the beach from attack by German planes.

The balloons were tethered to the ground with steel cables and attached to winches that could raise and lower them as needed. The cables were designed to ensnare the wings of enemy bombers, forcing them to fly higher so they couldn't bomb as effectively.

After the men dug foxholes, they lay low by day while the Royal Air Force protected the beaches. At night, the 320th deployed balloons.

After the initial assault, the biggest danger was from mines. Mr. Parham said he saw an officer blown to pieces when he stepped on one. The men stayed put in their area to avoid that fate.

Mr. Parham said he was never really afraid. Training took over. One man in the battalion, he recalls, went "berserk," but for the most part he and his comrades did their jobs.

"You're taught not to be terrified. You did what you were supposed to do," he said last year in a Veterans Breakfast Club interview at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum. "We were on that beach for 68 days."

Mr. Parham's unit then moved on to Sherburne, where it protected Gen. George Patton's Third Army.

After Germany's surrender, the 320th was reassigned and began training in Georgia for duty in the Pacific.

Mr. Parham said he was supposed to go to Okinawa, but his ship broke down and never left Hawaii. Japan later surrendered, and Mr. Parham went home.

He returned to the bus company in Richmond and later took advantage of the GI Bill, moving to Pittsburgh in 1949 to learn how to become a tailor. But in the end he took a job at a bottling company in the East End, then went to work for the Buncher Co. as an equipment operator until his retirement.

He and his wife moved from East Liberty to Wilkinsburg about a decade ago.

Mr. Parham, a longtime member of the American Legion who has marched in many a parade, is gratified that he served his country, even at a time when black soldiers were treated as second-class citizens.

On the beach at Normandy, he said, no one cared what color anyone was.

"We were all protecting each other," he said.

At his table in his apartment one day last week, he and his wife displayed his medals, including one from the French government commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994.

Now he'll have another French merci to add to his collection.

"Naturally, I'm proud," he said.

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Torsten Ove: or 412-263-1510. First Published June 6, 2013 4:00 AM


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