320th spotlight: Allen Jay Coles, Jr.

Many thanks to Allen Coles 3rd of Columbia, South Carolina, for his email telling me about his late father, who was a member of the battalion chronicled in my book, FORGOTTEN. Sgt. Allen Jay Coles, Jr., waited decades to tell his children that he had landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. A native of Brooklyn, he was one of the first to be drafted into service. He joked that it was the only lottery he ever "won." He was good friends with Wilson Monk, another 320th vet I was lucky to meet and who became like a second father to me. Allen sent me a photo of his parents the Monks at Café Zanzibar in New York, all of them looking young and gorgeous. Both men married their sweethearts while on furlough in December 1944, before they were shipped to the Pacific. Theirs was the only African-American unit during World War II to serve in both Europe and Asia. You can read more about Allen Coles here and Wilson Monk here.

Sgt. Allen Jay Coles, Jr., landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. 

Sgt. Allen Jay Coles, Jr., landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. 

Today is the 73rd anniversary of D-Day

Today is the 73rd anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, the beginning of the end of World War II. Few of the men of I interviewed for my book "Forgotten" are still with us, but Henry Parham of Pittsburgh, 96, of Pittsburgh, is one of them. On May 7, 2013, the French Embassy in Washington, DC, awarded him the Legion of Honor for his service on that very long day. His war story begins in Dec. 1942, when the draft letter came in the mail. “They got me,” he said. Parham's reluctance to serve wasn’t rooted in the extreme difficulties of serving in a racist Jim Crow army where he knew he would be treated as less than a man. He didn't lack patriotism. His reasons were more practical. He had left a sleepy corner of rural Virginia where mostly everyone he knew worked as a sharecropper. He wanted something better, and was happy to land a steady job as a porter at a bus station in Richmond, Va., where he was earning a sum that provided, for the first time in his 21 years, a dose of security. Yet he boarded a train bound for a new Army training camp in Tennessee, and trained to fly giant balloons. That secret mission would take him across the sea to a 5-mile-long patch of sand called Omaha Beach. There, Parham would be tested as never before. You can read more about him and the men of D-Day's only African-American combat unit in my book and here