Idris Elba Explores the Lost Stories of World War II Service Members of Color in Nat Geo's 'Erased'

Desare' Allen holds a portrait of her great uncle Doris Miller at Flosetta Miller's home in Arlington, Texas. "Erased: WW2's Heroes of Color" tells the stories of three Black heroes who miraculously survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. One of these men, mess attendant Doris Miller, defied racial stereotypes when he shot down enemy planes during the attack. (National Geographic/Nelson Adeosun)

In the timeline of a conflict as long and sprawling as World War II, even the most courageous stories of valor were bound to go unreported or forgotten. For U.S. service members of color who proudly served with the Allied forces in Europe and the Pacific, however, their roles were downplayed at best; at worst, news of their heroics were actively suppressed.

An officer from modern-day Pakistan, a veteran of World War I, warned his superiors about the disaster looming over the British Expeditionary Force, only to be ignored and forced to fight his way to the beaches of Dunkirk. Black sailors who enlisted as mess attendants but saved lives and manned ship guns at Pearl Harbor only received praise after public pressure. An all-Black tank battalion, pivotal in turning back the Battle of the Bulge and breaching the German Siegfried Line, would not see a Presidential Unit Citation until 1979.

These stories are part of a new four-part docuseries from National Geographic and producer Idris Elba ("The Wire," "The Office"). Called "Erased: WW2's Heroes of Color," the series sheds light on the immense contributions of more than 8 million individuals who fought heroically for the Allied forces and whose stories have largely gone untold.

"History is important to get right," Elba, whose grandfather served in World War II, told "History is the foundation of tomorrow, and if we get that wrong, we fall apart. I'm personally inspired by my family's discovery about my granddad who fought in the Second World War. His history's been sort of erased, and it makes me a supporter of getting these stories told."

The series looks into official records (where they still exist) along with personal diaries, rare interviews with now-deceased veterans of color, and interviews with their children, grandchildren and other relatives who keep their World War II stories alive. Interwoven into these historical accounts are a blend of historical dramatizations and reenactments, as well as curated archival footage and personal photos from both on and off the battlefield.

Soldiers from the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion train to inflate their balloons in preparation for D-Day. (U.S. Army)

In the third chapter of "Erased," BAFTA Award-nominated director Shianne Brown ("Take Your Knee Off My Neck") recounts the story of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. The 320th was an all-Black unit that landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944, to raise the barrage balloons that protected the ships on the beaches. But despite their heroism, they were almost completely written out of the history of D-Day altogether.

"I feel very passionate about amplifying hidden voices and being able to shine a light on stories that haven't been told," Brown told "Voices of people who've been oppressed, who have had their stories sidelined and written out of history. The D-Day battle is so iconic and so important to how World War II ended. To be able to tell the story of the 320th -- which hasn't been told in popular culture -- I thought it would be an important story to take on."

Each of the service members featured in the series faced overt racism, from both their white counterparts and from American civilians. Once the shooting started, their gallantry in combat gave them a reputation for courage and daring. When they returned home, however, they were expected to return to segregated life in the United States of the mid-20th century.

Vinnie Dabney holds a picture of his father, William Dabney. Dabney served as a corporal with the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion on D-Day. (National Geographic/Shianne Brown)

Many veterans of color, unhappy with this postwar treatment, would go on to be instrumental in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. The war back home was just beginning, but the seeds were planted on the battlefields of World War II.

"To liberate these stories of Black and Brown soldiers is important, especially now in a modern time where we see the race debate and the climate of race around the world amplified," Elba said, "[Filmmaking] is an incredible tool to help understand history. Hopefully it inspires historians to look deeper into a very, very important chapter of the world's history."

The docuseries debuted June 3, 2024, with the first two episodes, "Pearl Harbor" and "D-Day," available the next day on Disney+ and Hulu. Episodes 3 and 4, "Dunkirk" and "Battle of the Bulge," will premiere on National Geographic on June 10, 2024.

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