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Balloon Barrage Battalion, [George Washington Kenley]

(born: 1921  -  died: 2005) George Washington Kenley, born September 2, 1921 to  Charlie and Alice Belcher Kenley in Murray, KY, was an enlisted soldier in the Balloon Barrage Battalion [source: World War II Draft Registration Card and World War II Enlistment Record (Ancestry)]. Kenley enlisted in Evansville, IN August 22, 1942, a few months before the balloon battalion was created and developed at Camp Tyson, TN on June 5, 1942 with African American personnel.

Camp Tyson was built in 1941 specifically for the training of the balloon barrage battalion, the only one in the U.S. during World War II. The balloons were to be used to protect against costal attacks. There were 37 officers and 648 enlisted men at Camp Tyson. The trainees were taught to fly, build, and repair the barrage balloons that measured 35 feet in diameter and 85 feet in length.

The construction of the balloons cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per balloon. The balloons were made of two-ply cotton saturated with synthetic rubber; when filled with hydrogen or helium, the balloons could be floated up to 12,000 feet. The U.S. barrage balloons were developed by the Army Air Corps and put into service by the Coast Artillery and the Marine Corps. The balloon battalions were originally developed in Europe during World War I as anti-aircraft defense systems against aerial bombings and used successfully in England, France, Germany, and Italy. During World War II, British instructors and balloons were brought to Camp Tyson to assist with the training of U.S. soldiers.

During World War I, the balloons hovered over important buildings such as steel mills and factories by tethering the balloons in place using  steel cables. The balloons serived as a deterrent to low-flying bomber planes by forcing the pilots to fly at a higher altitude, thus preventing enemy pilots from homing in on their targets, which made for more inaccurate bombing and also made the planes more visable to the ground gunners. The balloons flew as low as 4,000 feet and as high as 10,000 feet. If the enemy plane hit the steel cables anchoring the balloons, the plane would likely be brought down.

During World War II, three men were tasked with anchoring each balloon, though it was recommended that five men do the job. The 320th Antiaircraft Artillery Balloon Barrage Battalion landed on Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The 320th, an all African American unit,  secured the balloons along the coastline to obscure the view of German gunners.

As the war continued, the balloons proved to be effective, but less so than they had been during World War I. It took almost 30 minutes for a good crew to get the balloons in place, fill them with hydrogen or helium, and anchor the steel cables. The U.S. military had to note that World War II was a much different war than World War I, with more superior aircraft, bombs, and antiaircraft defense systems. The Balloon Barrage Battalions were officially disbanded in December 1945. Kenley was discharged on January 17, 1946 and returned home to Murray. He died there April 21, 2005.

Camp Tyson became a camp for German and Italian prisoners of war. The camp was closed after the war.

Sources: U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index (Ancestry); R. Parkinson, "Camp Tyson" in the online version of Tennessee Encyclopedia; The U.S. Army Barrage Balloon Program, by James R. Shock; Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S. Military: an encyclopedia, edited by A. M. Bielakowski; Images of America, Camp Tyson, by S. McFarlin; Democracy's Negroes: a book of facts concerning the activities of Negroes in World War II, by A. Furr; The VLA, Very Low Altitude Barrage Balloon Battalion, a story, an African American Registry website; and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File.

Kentucky County & Region

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Balloon Barrage Battalion, [George Washington Kenley],” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed March 5, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-06-09 15:32:18