African-American history

Allen Jay Coles, Jr.

Allen Jay Coles, Jr., was a sergeant in the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. 

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK 

Allen Jay Coles, Jr.  waited decades to tell his children that he was part of the D-Day invasion. That was a common story among the humble veterans of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, many of whom did not believe that their service to their country, on one of the most momentous days of the 20th Century, was worthy of attention. Sgt. Coles was part of a group of specialized soldiers who landed amid the hellfire of Omaha Beach, charged with anchoring barrage balloons armed with bombs to protect American troops from dive-bombing German aircraft. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., he was one of the first men to be drafted into service. He joked that it was the only lottery he ever won.

After the war, Coles returned to Brooklyn, and to his bride Marion, whom he had married while on furlough the previous December, before the 320th was shipped to the Pacific. They were the only African-American Army unit to serve in two wartime theaters. Back at home, Coles met his 2-month-old son, Allen Coles 3rd.  A daughter, Gail, came later. Coles went back to his pre-war job at the Bronx Veterans Hospital, where he worked as an orthopedic technician making plaster casts for servicemen wounded in Korea and Vietnam. In 30 years, he never once called in sick. "You were the angel of happiness to numerous co-workers at the old Bronx VA," one of them wrote to him when he retired in 1973. Then, he and Marion moved to the sunshine in Palm Bay, Florida, where he was able to focus on myriad hobbies such as golf, gardening, and repairing just about anything. Coles died on Sept. 19, 2010, four days shy of his 93rd birthday. "Ask those who knew him and they would say he was uncomplicated, agreeable, fun-loving, quick with a chuckle or a humorous remark, and always happy," Allen Coles 3rd wrote in a eulogy to his father.     

Allen Jay Coles, Jr., married his sweetheart Marion while on furlough in December 1944, after the Normandy campaign. 

Allen Jay Coles, Jr., married his sweetheart Marion while on furlough in December 1944, after the Normandy campaign. 

Marion and Allen J. Coles, Jr., with his buddy from the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion,  Wilson Caldwell Monk and wife Mertina  at Cafe Zanzibar in New York City. Coles and Monk could not wait to get home from the war to marry their sweethearts. 

Marion and Allen J. Coles, Jr., with his buddy from the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, Wilson Caldwell Monk and wife Mertina at Cafe Zanzibar in New York City. Coles and Monk could not wait to get home from the war to marry their sweethearts. 

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Oscar Davis Coaston

Oscar Davis Coaston 

Oscar Davis Coaston 

Cincinnati, Ohio

Oscar Davis Coaston was a member of Battery A of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion that stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day. Born in northwest Mississippi, Coaston’s family joined the Great Migration north, settling for a while in Tennessee before moving to Cincinnati, Ohio. Before the war, Coaston worked for the Works Project Administration until he was drafted into the Army in 1942. “As a black man in Cincinnati,” says his son, Earl Coaston, “he didn’t feel that whatever was being reported in the newspapers had any opportunity for him or portended any positive change in the life that he was leading. So he ignored the wider world.”

Like many veterans, Coaston spoke little of his time in the war. Earl Coaston, who contacted this website after the publication of FORGOTTEN, believes there were two reasons for his father’s silence. “Certainly the terror and horror of the war played a part, but for him to give that part of himself to a country that did not believe that he deserved the respect due any human being, let alone a war veteran with two Bronze Stars, ate at him for the rest of his life.” After the war, Coaston married Sallie Smith, and they had three children. Earl Coaston says his father ”lived totally dedicated to his family. He was proudest about the education of his children.” After Coaston’s death in 1969 at age 49, Earl got an MBA, daughter Audrey earned a Ph.D., and son Byron an MA.

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Charlie Coleman, Sr.

Charlie Coleman, Sr. 

Charlie Coleman, Sr. 

HANOVER, PENNSYLVANIA 

Charlie Coleman, Sr. landed on Utah Beach on D-Day with Battery C of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. After the war Coleman spent the next 43 years as a trainer and caretaker at Hanover Shoe Farms in Hanover, Penn., where his charges included several Triple Crown winners. Coleman died on Jan. 30, 2003. “He is my hero,” says his son, Charlie Coleman, Jr., who heard about FORGOTTEN and wrote to this website to report that his father fought with the men of the 320th. Coleman earned several medals for his service, though he never received them, says his son. It’s a familiar story among African-American veterans. Several 320th vets reclaimed their medals long after the war. Here is a link to the National Archives site that is a first step for veterans hoping to reclaim their lost medals, or their family members hoping to do it for them. 

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