(Army News Service, June 6, 2014) -- Staff Sgt. Arthur Guest (left -
then & now) played a unique but crucial role in securing the
beachhead from enemy aircraft during the D-Day invasion at Normandy,
France, June 6, 1944, and in the days and months that followed.
To do that, he and the two Soldiers he commanded launched a
While helium balloons today are popular at birthday
parties, Guest's balloon was no small party balloon.
purpose of the balloon, he said, was to stop German aircraft from
swooping in low and strafing the men and supplies on the beach, as
they prepared to move inland.
While a balloon might seem
fairly innocuous, if an aircraft ever hit the cable holding it up,
it would shear the wing off, he said.
One of his men also
manned an antiaircraft gun for good measure, he said, and it was
used, especially at night when enemy aircraft flew just above the
balloons, which hovered at about 2,000 feet.
like his all up and down the coast, this made enemy aircraft attacks
significantly less effective, as they had to drop their payloads
from a much higher altitudes, and could not get the accuracy they
would have, had they been able to come in low.
One of the
most dangerous moments of the war, the 93-year-old veteran recalled,
was during the landings at Omaha Beach, when they had to wade ashore
with their heavy packs and hold their rifles over their heads,
hoping they wouldn't drown.
The heavily-laden, flat-bottom
landing craft couldn't make it all the way to the beach since they
bottomed out, he explained.
Fortunately, he said, they landed
a few hours after the initial landings. By that time, the Soldiers
had pushed the German defenders back far enough to where the
landings were relatively unopposed.
Before they got the
balloon filled with helium, they had to secure the cable to the
ground with stakes so it wouldn't take off. For good measure, they
added explosive charges to the balloon so that it would blow up an
aircraft even if the cable didn't shear a wing. A winch was used to
lower and raise the balloon during stormy weather.
the entire balloon system was pretty "peculiar."
his two-man team remained on the beach until November 1944, when he
said President Eisenhower ordered them home and declared the mission
If Guest's balloon system was pretty peculiar, so
was his unit.
The 320th Very Low Altitude Barrage Balloon
Battalion was made up entirely of African-American Soldiers, except
for the commander.
It distinguished itself as the first
all-African American unit to take part in the invasion of France.
The military at the time was still segregated, as was Guest's
hometown of Charleston, S.C., where he grew up.
living under those conditions, Guest said that on Dec. 7, 1941, when
he heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had been attacked,
he felt it was an attack on all Americans, irrespective of race or
"I remember real well when they did that dirty
trick," he said of the attack. At the time, Guest was a laborer in
the Charleston Navy Yard, and he knew immediately on that Sunday
that his world had changed forever.
In 1942, Guest was
drafted within days of the attack and shipped to Camp Tyson, Tenn.,
where he learned the balloon trade. He arrived in January and
recalled it being bitterly cold.
Once his training was
completed, he and others of the 320th were shipped to England, where
they remained from November 1943 to June 1944, right before the
The Army kept them busy cleaning weapons and doing
physical training. There was very little time for liberty, but the
few times there were, Guest said the English treated him and his
fellow Soldiers "hospitably."
But the busy work was getting
on their nerves and the men were actually looking forward to D-Day,
As to the landings and the aftermath, Guest said
there was no room for fear. He had a job to do and men to look after
and there was no place for those kinds of feelings.
Guest returned to the States in November 1944, did the fear finally
"You wonder how you went through it," he said. It
was like waking up after a nightmare and realizing, "Lord, it really
Although Guest kept his emotions under control
during the war, there was one he could not; his love for Marthena,
"I kept her picture close to my heart at all
times and while in the foxholes," he said.
Upon his return
stateside, Guest said the 320th did jungle training, in preparation
for the invasion of mainland Japan, which fortunately never
happened, he said.
The year 1945 was a good year, he said.
The war was over and that's the year he married Marthena.
not all was good. Despite getting treated hospitably by the English,
he said that wasn't the case in the South.
He recalled once
leaving Fort Gordon, Ga., to catch a bus. People of color, he said,
could not go through the main door of the terminal. They had to go
through a back door called the "pigeonhole."
While de facto
segregation ended in the South in the 11200s, Guest said that same
mentality is "still hanging around."
He said he prays for the
day when all of God's children will live in harmony.
the war, Guest became a minister at the Church of Christ and retired
just recently, but still prays and meditates daily.
there will never be a world war again and that man will learn to
live together as God intended," he said. God made all of us in his
image "and we need to accept that."
Guest said he's blessed
to have survived the war intact and married his sweetheart, who is
still with him after 69 years of marriage.
They have one
daughter and four grandchildren.
Brittani White, one of the
grandchildren, said she calls her grandparents just about every day
and is thankful for their health.
She said Guest tries to get
exercise weeding the yard and walking, although a hip pain has
curtailed some of the walking. She said Guest is still pretty "spry"
and his mind is sharp as well.
Guest said he's maintained
contact over the years and decades with his balloon gunner, who
lives 75 miles away in Orangeburg, S.C. He thinks he may have passed
away recently, though.
So many World War II veterans have
passed away and whenever their story can be told, he said it is a
By U.S. Army David Vergun
Army News Service
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