Idris Elba Helps Uncover The Wwii Soldiers Of Color Who Never Got Their Due

This image released by National Geographic shows actor Francesco Di Rauso, portraying combat medic Waverly Woodson Jr., who served with the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion on D-Day, in a scene from "Erased: WW2's Heroes of Color."  (National Geographic via AP)
This image released by National Geographic shows actor Francesco Di Rauso, portraying combat medic Waverly Woodson Jr., who served with the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion on D-Day, in a scene from "Erased: WW2's Heroes of Color." (National Geographic via AP)
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NEW YORK (AP) — One of Idris Elba’s grandfathers fought in World War II, but he doesn't know what he endured. No pictures or stories survive. “That part of my family’s history has been erased somewhat,” says Elba.

That helped fuel the actor's push to narrate and executive produce the four-part National Geographic docuseries “Erased: WW2's Heroes of Color," which premieres Monday, days ahead of the 80th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allies landed on the coast of France, on June 6. Episodes will also later be available on Disney+ and Hulu.

More than 8 million people of color served with the Allies, and the series digs deep to focus on how some fared at D-Day, Dunkirk, Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Bulge.

It tells the story of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only all-Black combat unit to fight on the D-Day beaches, and Force K6, a little-known Indian regiment of mule handlers from the British army trying to evacuate at Dunkirk.

The series uses archival footage, descendant interviews, soldier journals and actor portrayals — a mix that Elba says he found visceral and moving.

“It really did actually impact me just in the narration booth, watching the imagery, looking at the faces, wondering about my own personal connect. Could my grandfather be one of the people in one of the pieces? That was what I thought about. So, it did definitely resonate with me.”

The series also highlights stories like that of Doris Miller, a mess attendant aboard the USS West Virginia who after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor raced to an unattended anti-aircraft gun and fired at the planes until forced to abandon ship.

He had never been trained to use the gun because Black sailors serving in the segregated steward’s branch of the Navy were not given the gunnery training received by white sailors. Miller's bravery earned him the Navy Cross.

“It just feels like a privilege and an honor to be able to shed some light on their stories,” says director Shianne Brown, who helmed the D-Day episode.

Her episode highlighted Waverly Woodson, Jr., a medic who was wounded by shrapnel during the landing but nevertheless spent the next 30 hours treating the wounded and the dying on Omaha Beach. He would note: "There’s no such thing as a color barrier in action.”

Brown says that observation proved so powerful. “If your leg has just been blown off, you need a medic to help you. At that moment, you’re not going to say to Waverly, ‘No, I don’t want you to treat me.’”

Woodson is being posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The announcement was made Monday by Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Woodson died in 2005.

The series points out that many soldiers of color who fought the Nazis in Europe went home — the Indians back to British colonization and Black Americans to bitter racism — and began agitating for change because of what they'd witnessed and earned. Civil rights icon Medgar Evers, after all, was at D-Day.

“A lot of these men and women never felt like they were human before going to Europe and then being treated like a normal human being by the white population,” says Brown. “I can’t even imagine how that would have felt for them. You’ve been fighting against Hitler and the Nazis and against fascism and hate, and you go home and you experience racial terror.”

The filmmakers found very little footage of non-white soldiers in the archives and so were moved when they finally came across images of a Black unit marching in central England before D-Day or Black soldiers cheering the fall of the Nazis. “It was just very odd to see a Black man in Nazi Germany,” says Elba.

Elba urged the directors and editors to try to put the audience into the action, like the films “Saving Private Ryan” or “Dunkirk.” That meant filming recreations of bombings in villages in France, wading into the ocean with heavy gear and soldiers enduring beach strafing.

“I was really encouraging of the filmmakers to really go for it,” he says. “Giving you a little glimpse of, from a fictional perspective, what it might have looked like and how heroic these soldiers were.”

At the same time, the filmmakers wanted to show how horrible and frightening combat can be, the randomness of casualties and the agonizing wait before deployment.

“We don’t want to glorify what’s going on, but we actually wanted to paint the heroism in a way that was relatable to the way we’ve seen films of this nature,” Elba says.


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