War brought great upheaval to this country as thousands of men and women left their homes to fight and Nazi bombs rained down on those who remained. But for one Gwent community it meant the arrival of black American soldiers who would find a welcome they were denied in their homeland.

THEY were unsung American heroes of D-Day. While the exploits of the Band of Brothers and more are well-known, a unit of black soldiers who went ashore on the morning of June 6 to guard the invasion beaches from enemy aircraft is not. One of them would be nominated for the Medal of Honour and they served bravely, often under enemy fire.

American journalist Linda Hervieux became interested in the extraordinary story of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion after a member of the unit received the Legion d’Honneur in France in 2009.

After this, the journalist began trying to find survivors and tracked their journey from the United States to Britain and then on to France.

Through her research she found that the unit arrived in villages around Pontypool, including Abersychan in February 1944, before departing in May in the build-up to D-Day.

These men were heavily involved in the Normandy landings, raising their barrage balloons in a protective curtain over Omaha and Utah beaches, while their medics saved scores of lives.

Her years of research and memories gathered from people she interviewed has been released in a book, 'Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes' which is now available in the UK.

When the GIs stepped off the gangplank of their troopship onto a cold dockside on the Clyde in February 1944, they would have been familiar with the 38-page booklet issued to soldiers: ‘A Short Guide to Great Britain’. It warned them not to complain about warm beer or cold potatoes and that the natives might “look dowdy and badly dressed”.

What it did not tell them was how their reception would contrast sharply with the way they were treated at home.

At this time in the USA, black people could not travel in the same railway carriages, drink from the same water fountains or eat at the same cafes as white people. These and hundreds of other restrictions ground the fact home to any black person that they were not equal – that their country saw them as inferior.

South Wales Argus: DEFENDERS: Men of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion with a balloon on a Normandy beach

DEFENDERS: Men of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion with a balloon on Omaha landing beach in Normandy

Ollie Stewart, a correspondent for the newspaper 'Afro-American' at the time, described the reaction to black soldiers during those early days in Britain: “The English people show our lads every possible courtesy and some of them, accustomed to ill will, harsh words, and artificial barriers, seem slightly bewildered. They never had a chance to leave their Southern homes before, and therefore never realized there was a part of the world which was willing to forget a man’s colour and welcome him as a brother.”

Linda says their reception in Gwent was particularly warm. “They were especially welcoming. The GIs lived right in villages like Abersychan, they were billeted in churches and had intimate contact with people there. They made many friends, with one in particular being practically adopted by one couple.

It was nothing short of miraculous for Arthur Guest of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. “It was a spark of a light,” he said. “You can see a different way of living.”

More than this, they were treated, as Linda says “as full citizens for the first time.”

Sam Mattison, a Sergeant, did something that could have had serious repercussions at home. He called out to an attractive young girl who passed on her bike. “Hello, pretty lady” he called out. That lady, called Jean, would later invite him to her home to meet her family. “You didn’t go to a white person’s house” he recalled, still astounded years later.

Linda tells me how their experience contrasted with that in some English towns where the local authorities complied with the wishes of the American army to maintain segregation between black and white soldiers. More than this, she tells of something perhaps more powerful: “The Welsh seemed to have a great support for the underdog.”

Here, the black GIs - the “tan Yanks” as they were affectionately known, were seen as Americans first.

South Wales Argus:

People from the Pontypool area who helped Linda (L-R) Cheryl Morgan, her brother Robert Prior, David Prior, (they are grandchildren and David is nephew of Jessie Prior) local historian Ken Clark, Peter Garwood - a Welsh barrage balloon expert, Linda Hervieux, Torfaen Mayor Veronica Crick, Dot Jones, who remembers the black GIs 

That understanding was often most apparent in a place where they shared so much. The church. In particular, the valleys of South Wales were strongholds of Non-conformist churches and hymn-singing. This was how Master Sergeant Wilson Monk met Godfrey Prior.

Before joining the army, Wilson worked as a waiter in New Jersey restaurants, the kind of places where he would never be served even if he did have the money to pay for a meal. For him, the army gave him a chance to get a job with decent pay.

Godfrey or ‘Goff’ played the organ at the Trinity Methodist Church. The village milkman and a baritone, he also led the choir. He was surprised to be asked by Wilson one day for permission to attend a service there. Goff didn’t realise that black people certainly would not have been welcome in a white church in America.

Wilson later was welcomed into the Priors’ home on Old Lane in Abersychan. It was here that he would spend most of his Sundays in early 1944 before being sent to France.

South Wales Argus:

WELCOME: Jessie Prior of Abersychan became a second mother to Wilson Monk and began a correspondence with his mother that would endure after the war with their house, Park View on Old Lane, Abersychan. Photo of Jessie: Courtesy of the Prior family.

Goff’s wife Jessie would later write to Wilson’s mother Rosita in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Here letters conveyed the care and the love with which Wilson was taken in while so far from home. Jessies’s kind words must have answered the anguish that any mother would have if her son was sent to fight on the other side of the world.

“Mrs. Monk, you have a son to treasure, and feel very proud of. We love him very dearly, and will do anything in the world for him, all we regret is we cannot have him home more, but duties won’t allow, he does come as often as possible. We have told him he can look upon our home as his home while in our country, and I will try to fill your place, if only in a small way.

“But don’t worry too much about him, while he is here, we shall take very every care of him, if ever he is ill, or in any way wanting us, we shall be there, we look upon him now as our own. Mother to mother, Very sincerely with loving thoughts, Jessie Prior xxxxxx"

The men of the 320th would never come back to Pontypool. But although they were forgotten by the historians of D-Day, their short stay in Gwent saw them leave a lasting impression and Linda Hervieux's book should mean they are forgotten no more.

More information on the book and the author can be found here: amberley-books.com and lindahervieux.com

More history features from 'The Long View' by Martin Wade: