Pre war life and enlistment into the Army

The training begins

Training with Barrage Balloons

Interview blocked upon donor’s request

Going overseas and preparing for the invasion

Landing on DDay

The scene on the beach

Interview blocked upon donor’s request

Inland from the beach

Witnessing war

Details of the invasion

The end of the war and attempted deployment to the Pacific

Interview blocked upon donor’s request

Returning home and reflections

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William Dabney was born on 24 June 1924 in Altavista, Virginia. Dabney had five sisters and four brothers but ended up with only three brothers and three sisters after two sisters and a brother died. Dabney’s father was a farmer. They farmed corn and tobacco. Dabney enjoyed farming growing up but eventually grew out of it. On the farm Dabney would help out with tasks as much as he could. The boys on the farm did most of the physical labor. Dabney’s siblings encouraged him to attend school. Dabney was shy at first but once he got used to meeting all of the other kids it was alright. The school would pick the smart kids to perform in the Christmas play. Dabney’s sisters were all older than him. One of his brothers served in the army and navy. Another one of his brothers worked in a shipyard. Dabney left high school and went into the army. He joined the Army because most of his peers had joined. Dabney left high school in the 10th grade to join the army. After the war he attempted to get an engineering degree but came up one semester short. [Annotators Note: The interviewer gets Dabney back on chronological track and reverts the questions back to Dabney’s prewar life.] Dabney volunteered for the service. His serial number was 13121160. Dabney was inducted in December of 1942 at Fort Meade, Maryland. Dabney got in trouble and was not allowed to come home for Christmas. He was back home in Virginia when he found out about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dabney decided to volunteer in 1942 and that is when he dropped out of high school. The attack on Pearl Harbor was all over the radio and the newspaper. Everybody was talking about it. Dabney knew that he wanted to do his part. The attack was certainly a surprise.

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William Dabney took his basic training at Camp Tyson, Tennessee. This was near the Kentucky border and sometimes the guys would go into Kentucky. Dabney went to balloon school at Camp Tyson. Here he learned the intricacies of setting up barrage balloons. Dabney knew that he would have to follow orders in the military. Sometimes the going got tough with all of the drills and physical training but he was determined to keep going forward. Dabney shot M1 rifles and M1 carbines but he never received training with a .45. They drilled the importance of keeping the weapon clean. Dabney was a marksman. Every so often they would go to the firing range to practice. As a boy Dabney used to hunt rabbits. They had a good time learning how to shoot guns and hunt. The food in basic training was not the best food in the world. Dabney recalled that acting up would get a person on KP duty. [Annotators Note: Kitchen Police duty.] Their beds had to be made neatly. The drill instructor would inspect almost every aspect of their life to ensure the recruits were living cleanly. If they were found to be guilty of cleanliness infractions they would have to do extra duty. The part of the camp that Dabney was in was an all black section of the camp. The entire unit was black. They had white soldiers in the camp but they never trained together. They were also trained exclusively by black men. The highest ranking black officer was a 1st lieutenant. They were subject to inspections from white officers. [Annotators Note: the interviewers grab some water for Mr. Dabney.]

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William Dabney notes that there was no mingling between white soldiers and black soldiers. When they got overseas they did not mingle with the white soldiers. There were three battalions of barrage balloon units. The 319th and 321st were the three barrage balloon battalions that Dabney trained alongside. One of the battalions, the 319th, went into the local town and got in a bunch of trouble so they did not get the chance to go overseas. Their basic training consisted of hiking and drill. Dabney remembers that the drilling was tough. Sometimes guys would go into town and mess up. They would be disciplined by being singled out during drill. If somebody messed up, one of the punishments they received was to dig a six by six hole and bury a match at the bottom. Another punishment they received was latrine janitor. The recruit’s ability to be trained was looked at and if you made it you would be sent to a specific school. Dabney was sent to balloon school and learned all of the intricacies of deploying and taking care of the balloons. After training, one person was designated the crew chief. The balloons they trained on in Tennessee were much bigger than the ones they received overseas. The balloons they trained on were much bigger and were not necessary, that is why they received smaller balloons overseas. Inflating the balloon was like inflating a tire. The man inflating the balloon would know when to stop inflating. The balloons were held down by mooring lines. When the balloon was not in the air they would say that the balloon was in bed. When they put the balloons in the air they would be attached to a winch. This winch could control the height of the balloon as well as reel it in. Sometimes the balloon would need more gas. The big balloons were serviced by eight or 10 guys. In training they always had to be mindful of the wind. Dabney recalls an incident when one guy got hooked onto the line when it was windy. Everything was alright with the man but it was scary. There were no mathematical calculations involved in launching and deploying the balloons. The instructors taught it in a way that did not require mathematics. [Annotators Note: From 0:30:11:000 to 0:31:19:000 there is a loud noise as a result of technical difficulties. At 0:31:19:000 the volume returns to normal.]

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William Dabney did not have to take a test to be in the barrage balloon battalion. The instruction was cut and dry and came orally from the officers who were doing the training. Barrage balloons were designed with a bomb on top with the actual balloon apparatus. Their purpose was to protect an area from aerial intrusion. The cables were strong enough that if a plane’s wing clipped the cable, the plane’s wing would surely get sheared off. This would cause the bomb on the balloon to detonate as well. If a plane ran into the wire the balloon would detonate and not cause harm to the men below. Dabney is not sure on the date but he believes he was sent overseas in 1943. They left out of Camp Shanks, New York. They went over on an English ship. Dabney estimates that there were 5000 troops on the ship. Going overseas, they had to be mindful of u boat threat. They made it across the Atlantic alright. Dabney had never been on a boat before he went overseas. He was seasick and did not eat for a couple of days. Dabney remembers holding onto the railing of the ship. He does not recall which port he came into but they set up base in Pine Pool, England [Annotators Note: unsure of spelling]. The training got more intensive. They went through the infiltration course and this involved live firing. Dabney recalls crawling on his belly and bullets flying overhead. There were no accidents. The training he received overseas was for the invasion. They were only at the one camp in Pine Pool before participating in the invasion. The training was survival training and they received no balloon training.

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William Dabney and the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion flew their balloons from the ships. Dabney was responsible for his own balloon during the invasion. He lost his balloon landing on the beach but as the equipment moved in he got a new balloon. Dabney was the crew chief for his balloon. He would supervise the operation of the winch and the inflation of the balloon. Dabney had his balloon deployed on the LST but he lost it while making the landing on the beach. The first barge that contained barrage balloons had about 50 or 60 guys. Dabney remembers having leave time in England. The policemen in England were more polite than police in America. Dabney remembers drinking beer and singing in the pubs. The English civilians treated Dabney and the other black soldiers well. Some of the white soldiers would try to give the black soldiers a bad name. Dabney and his unit were told that they were moving but initially they had no idea where they were going. Dabney and his unit boarded an LST. It was a large ship that carried a lot of troops. Dabney would climb down the rope on the LST onto the landing barge. The landing barge could carry about 50 or 60 soldiers and was armed with .50 caliber machine guns. Once they were dropped off the barge would return to the ship and grab more guys. Dabney estimates that they landed at low tide because the tide came in. The battle was still raging on when Dabney landed. The naval ships were firing at targets inland. The beach was cluttered with debris including bodies and body parts. A six by six truck would come around and soldiers would put the dead bodies in the trucks. Dabney saw guys getting blown up by mines. He was nervous and scared but in a way he was brave. Dabney knew he was there to help himself and the guys around him. Most of his crew was older than him. Dabney was scared because of the unknown. Dabney had his balloon inflated on the LST and was attempting to hook it onto the landing barge. The main purpose of the balloon was to protect from aircraft strafing. The balloon had about a 75 pound pull on it. Dabney weighed enough so that it could not pull him away. Many of the balloons were already inflated when they landed. Dabney landed on the beach towards the end of the day and was not able to see much until the next morning when light came.

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William Dabney and his unit dug into the sand as soon as they landed on the beach. They could not move inland until the minesweepers cleared out the mines. At one point, Dabney and his unit were fearful of the Germans pushing them back into the ocean. Dabney was on the beach when Patton came in with the tank division. Every one of Dabney’s crew made it onto the beach alive. He had his entire crew with him. Dabney had to wait for another balloon to come in after losing his. Dabney and his unit slept in their foxholes the entire first night on the beach. Sometimes Dabney would shower when it rained. They carried enough food for three days. Most of the food was contained in cans. Dabney carried soap, a toothbrush, and a comb. He also had shaving materials. Dabney was a corporal when he landed in Normandy. They were fully resupplied within a couple of days. Dabney’s barrage balloon crew was the oldest balloon crew for the landing. Some of the unit stayed on the ships to protect the ships from aircraft. [Annotators Note: Technical difficulties occur again at 1:01:04-1:01:51. Interview resumes at 1:02:08].

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William Dabney notes that the explosive did not have to be activated before being hauled up with the balloon. They always had to be mindful of the wind because that could dictate whether it was easy or hard to control the balloon. Sometimes they would have to bring the balloons down in order to avoid knocking down a friendly plane. Once friendly planes cleared the area they would put the balloons back up. After they got resupplied their crew had to set up near antiaircraft guns. The balloons were set up to protect the 90 millimeter antiaircraft guns. Dabney dug his foxhole close to 30 feet from the guns. Dabney was able to dig a foxhole that had a trench system dug into it for drainage. As the front moved forward they would follow the guns. Dabney ended up in Holland. He is not sure how his balloon was shot down on D-Day. It could have been enemy fire and it could have been friendly fire. Dabney knew it was gone right away because he could sense the tension on the cable. Dabney set up his balloon to protect the antiaircraft guns two to three days after the invasion. Dabney and his crew got to talk to some of the 90 millimeter gun crews. Dabney never had to fire his M1 rifle. One time Dabney went to grab water from a spring and he came under sniper fire. Fortunately, he had his radio and was able to solve the situation. Getting fired upon while gathering water was the first time Dabney was personally shot at. This incident occurred in Normandy. Another incident happened when someone shot a cow and they brought it in and were able to eat well. Dabney was able to eat some of the fresh meat. Another unit had shot a pig one time and everyone in the unit had to fork up five dollars to pay for the farmer’s pig. They always tried to stay active. Talking about home and playing cards were regular activities.

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William Dabney had a couple of close calls when they were on the beach. A bomb fell and scared a lot of people. It left a crater that could have fit a house. The tank divisions were forcing their way through. Dabney never participated in hand to hand combat. He had to follow orders in relation to where the 90 millimeter guns were placed. St. Lo is the one town that Dabney remembers specifically. The balloons were flown to protect the 90 millimeter guns. The guns were there to support the infantry which was advancing ahead. St. Lo was a big city. Dabney has since been back and he did not recognize some of the smaller cities when he went back. As the antiaircraft guns moved on, Dabney kept moving inland following the guns. Dabney was not a part of Operation Market Garden. Dabney would write home whenever he could. He had a girlfriend and he would look forward to receiving letters. Mail call was always a happy time if you received a letter. A lot of the guys in Dabney’s unit were from Danville, Virginia. One of Dabney’s closest friends was from Louisiana and he was an excellent gambler. He would take Dabney with him whenever he would get into poker games. He won a lot of money and would front Dabney money to bet against him. This caused the bets to go up which benefited the man. His name was Frelo [Annotators Note: unsure of spelling]. He was good at card games and he also shot dice. He would also play craps when he had the opportunity. His friend went to Normandy but he was not in Dabney’s crew. Everything around him was destroyed as they progressed through the towns. When they had to deploy their balloons it worked out most of the time. At one point Dabney was stationed near Paris and when he had the opportunity he would go check the city out. Dabney met some Moroccan soldiers who were black as well. They were friendly and would show some of the American black soldiers which places were good to go to. Dabney never saw his barrage balloon make contact with a plane. Every once in awhile they saw a dogfight take place above their heads. The guys thought it was fun to watch the planes dogfight in the sky.

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William Dabney and his fellow soldiers tried to enjoy themselves whenever they could. They would engage in activities to keep their mind off of various things. The dogfights Dabney witnessed seemed to happen every day. A plane would flyover sometimes to drop bombs to keep everybody awake. The soldiers affectionately called these flights Bedcheck Charlie. The maintenance of the balloons took up most of their time. [Annotators Note: the interviewers are waiting for another museum employee to show up so there is a brief pause in the interview.] Dabney left for the invasion somewhere near Pine Pool, England [Annotators Note: unsure of spelling]. The training before they left was rough. The training was done on the infiltration course. Soldiers had to crawl under wire while live machine guns were firing overhead. They also had to learn how to be hungry and sleep in the dirt. The training made it so that the real thing would be not so much of a hardship. Coming down the ropes to get into the landing craft was difficult because of the conditions. Going into the beach the major concern to Dabney was what was going to happen to him. Dabney always maintained hope that he would make it. His barge carried 65 soldiers but there was only one barrage battalion crew. Dabney commanded the crew of him and three other guys. Dabney landed at Omaha Beach. He landed on Omaha towards the end of the day because it was rather dark outside. When Dabney landed he was separated from his crew for a short while. Other barges had other crews but his barge had just his crew. Dabney can picture the faces of his crew. A couple of the guys were from Virginia and they were older. Dabney did not stay in contact with his crew.

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William Dabney notes that the equipment kept coming in [Annotators Note: across Omaha Beach in the days following the 6 June 1944 invasion of Normandy]. They were pinned on the beach for two or three days. Dabney recalled the 3rd Army landing with Patton. Dabney witnessed an all black tank battalion landing. The first night ashore Dabney slept in the sand. He saw planes shot down during various dogfights that occurred above his head. American and German planes were going down. Dabney remembered thinking it was fun to watch. He landed on D Day with an M-1 rifle. He also had his food and his shovel. Along with what he carried on his person he also had to keep track of his balloon and all of the equipment needed to deploy it. Dabney had to wade through water all the way up to the beach. In order to inflate the balloon they used what was called a cylinder. If the balloon lost pressure they would hook up the cylinder to draw gas into it. Each balloon used about 500 feet of cable. The first time Dabney deployed his balloon was on Omaha Beach. Once the mines were cleared Dabney received orders to go inland. Dabney lost one of his balloons while landing. He is not sure if a plane struck it or another type of enemy fire knocked it down. When Dabney landed his barge was flying his balloon. Dabney learned how to train on the balloons in Camp Tyson, Tennessee. In Tennessee they trained on bigger balloons than what they had for the invasion. The crew chief and the crew’s jobs were assigned at camp. The wind was sometimes the most difficult factor in deploying a balloon. After the war was over in Europe they stayed there before being shipped back to the states. They ended up at Camp Kilmer New Jersey and were given a 30 day leave. Dabney assumed that they were going to be discharged. Dabney ended up in Seattle before being told they were going to be shipped to the Philippines. A problem with the ship caused a delay. Dabney ended up in Hawaii when the war ended. In Hawaii Dabney learned how to swim. They drilled but they also enjoyed themselves because they knew the war was over. The bed situation was rough in Hawaii because they slept in tents in sugar cane fields. Dabney returned to the states and went to Fort Meade, Maryland. He got his ruptured duck and was discharged from Fort Meade. They were asked if they wanted to reenlist and they all said no.

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[Annotators Note: Because of audio problems the interview is picked up mid story.] William Dabney was able to marry his girlfriend shortly after the war. After he got his discharge from the Army they had a program called the 52 20. It allowed a veteran to draw 20 dollars a week for 52 weeks until he got a job. Dabney lived off of his 20 dollars for 52 weeks. After the 52 weeks ran out he applied for the GI bill and was able to get his modern day equivalent of the GED before he took the college exam. Dabney was accepted into college and he ended up missing out on getting his bachelor’s degrees by one semester. Dabney never got a job related to what he studied in college. He worked for 45 years after the war. Dabney liked the work because it was different. His job was segregated and there were times when he was sent out to do work but white clients were upset a black man was doing the work. Dabney tried to keep his head down at work. Many times he was asked to leave the workplace through the rear entrance of the building. It was a big thing in retrospect but looking back Dabney admits that was just the way it was. The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion was an all black outfit. The senior officers were white. Dabney did not see too many of the white officers except for the ones who trained them. Dabney got to go on a trip to France. He saw all of the invasion beaches and got a good tour of France's bocage country. Dabney got to talk to a farmer that was there when the invasion occurred. The man had a story about how the Germans commandeered his horses to help move one of the guns out of the mud. Dabney stayed in France for 10 days and stayed in many different civilian homes and made friends. Some of the people he met still write him to keep up correspondence with him. Dabney has also been honored through various certificates and engagements. He was able to keep in contact with one of the guys who he served with. Dabney has also met other guys from the 319th Barrage Balloon Battalion and the 321st Barrage Balloon Battalion. They play poker sometimes. Dabney notes that going back might be hard because he is not fond of travel as a result of his age. It makes him happy to see a reconstructed Paris and Saint Lo area. Dabney does not do anything special to celebrate or commemorate the invasion of Normandy. He does get mentions in articles. Dabney has three grand children and they call Dabney their hero. Dabney has three sons and one adopted grandchild. Dabney has been married 53 years at the time of the interview. He had to give a speech at the anniversary. Dabney was also the head of a local social club for 20 years. Dabney was born on 24 June 1924. He is still going strong at his age. Dabney and his wife took a cruise to the Bahamas. One of the stewards on the ship had the last name Dabney. Sometimes the shows aboard ship would ask if there were any patrons who had talent. Dabney volunteered to do the electric slide because he is a good dancer. From then on little kids would ask him on the ship if he was going to dance again. Everywhere he turned people were asking him to dance. Dabney had fun with it. Dabney is in fairly good shape and he makes sure that he is active and sees his doctors.
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