Obituary: Henry Parham, Last of A Black Unit that Fought at D-Day, Dies at 99Breaking News
tags: veterans, obituaries, African American history, D-Day, World War 2
Before 2009, the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, Henry Parham got little recognition for his role as a African-American soldier in a segregated Army during one of the most important — and bloodiest — battles of World War II.
When writers and historians figured out that the Wilkinsburg man was likely the last surviving African American combat veteran of D-Day, as his wife, Ethel Parham, puts it, “All hell broke loose.”
“We were just plain, simple people; we weren't looking for awards and all that stuff. Then all of a sudden, people got interested when they heard his story,” said Mrs. Parham, his very sprightly wife of 47 years. “Every Tom, Dick and Harry called here and wanted an interview, interview, interview. Before that, nobody really bothered. But after the 65th anniversary, people’s eyes were really opened.”
A veteran of the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only all-Black unit to land on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Mr. Parham died Sunday of bladder cancer. He was 99.
His loss marks the end of an era.
The son of a sharecropper in Emporia, Greensville County, Va., Mr. Parham was raised primarily by an aunt while his mother worked out of the home and his father spent his days in the fields, growing everything from corn and cotton to peanuts and soybeans.
Mr. Parham’s education was typical of that era in the Jim Crow South, his wife said.
“In Virginia in 1921, if you were Black, you went to a one-room schoolhouse, where the teacher taught all ages, all day long,” Mrs. Parham said. “The highest education they had in Emporia, Va., was 7th grade for Black folks.”
At 17, Mr. Parham moved to Richmond, Va., where he found work as a porter for National Trailways bus lines.
He was drafted into a segregated U.S. Army at 21 and trained at Camp Tyson, Tenn., with the 320th, before shipping out to England in 1943 for additional training in anticipation of the Allied invasion of Northern France.
D-Day was his first combat experience.