By Rachel Walman
This past Sunday, families gathered for a Veterans Day-themed Reading into History family book club meeting to discuss the book Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone. This amazing book chronicles the tumultuous journey of a group of African American soldiers who helped knock down racial barriers in the U.S. Army by becoming the first all-black battalion to earn their silver wings. Their story is one of triumph, and it sheds light on the deeply-entrenched racism that black soldiers faced in the segregated U.S. Military during World War II. Triple Nickles recalled humiliating incidents, including having to sit behind prisoners of war on buses, enduring separate and inferior housing, in addition to feeling a constant pressure to prove to their white brethren that black soldiers “measured up.” Though highly skilled, the African American paratroopers were denied combat roles because of their skin color. Instead, they were sent to fight forest fires and dismantle Japanese bombs stateside in the Pacific Northwest.
During our meeting, the group was fortunate enough to have three special guests: author Tanya Lee Stone (via skype), as well as Private Kenneth Smith, HQ Company, 505th Parachute Infantry Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, who is also a member of the 555th Parachute Infantry National Association and Tony Bostick, an honorary Triple Nickle and Vietnam War veteran (in person). When Smith enlisted in 1947 after the end of World War II, he became part of the 82nd Division into which the Triple Nickles were incorporated in December of that year. The 82nd became the first integrated division in the U.S. Army a full seven months before Truman signed Executive Order 9981 calling for racial integration in the armed services. Though neither of our veteran guests fought in WWII, they both knew the soldiers Stone wrote about in Courage Has No Color. Smith was even trained by them! Today, the only surviving member of the original 555th Parachute Infantry is Clarence Beavers.
Our special guests made the book come alive. Tanya Lee Stone discussed her ten-year research and writing process, which included hunting for photos in archives and family albums to create the first comprehensive photographic record of the Triple Nickles’ service. She also highlighted that the platoon’s story does not have a “Hollywood ending,” making it difficult but all the more important to tell. Families also heard from Smith that integrating the Triple Nickles was bittersweet. It required giving up a special identity as part of a pioneering, all-black unit in order to start anew.
Smith also discussed a work he painted commemorating the Triple Nickles’ role in Operation Firefly. Wearing special masks to protect their faces from branches as they parachuted into the Pacific Northwest forests, the platoon jump head first into the burning brush. The platoon fought 28 forest fires in 1945 alone. Smith also brought photographs of the original Triple Nickles and himself dating from the 1940s. Families were amazed to hear that he continues to jump out of planes to this day!
After discussion and a Q & A, families and our veteran guest s visited to the Patricia Klingenstein Library to view artifacts related to African American military service through the centuries. We looked at the poster shown at the top of this post, issued after President Franklin Roosevelt prohibited discrimination in the defense industry with Executive Order 8802 in June 1941. We also looked at a petition signed by 800 New Yorkers in 1862 asking for President Lincoln to allow black soldiers to fight in the Union Army, a copy of a speech given by Frederick Douglass entitled, “Men of Color, To Arms!” which advocated for African Americans to join the North and fight in the Civil War, as well as an account book from the British Army during the American Revolution showing people of African descent who enlisted to fight against the patriots in exchange for their freedom. Approximately 100,000 African Americans escaped, were killed, or fought in the American Revolution, 200,000 fought in the Civil War, and 1.2 million fought in WWII. All veterans deserve to be honored on Veterans Day, and we were thrilled to celebrate the service of black veterans, whose stories have often been left out of the historical record.
If you’d like to join the Reading into History family book club, check out the details for our December 20 meeting, when we’ll talk about another pioneer: Kate Warne. Warne was the first female private investigator in U.S. history. She was a star gumshoe at the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Author Kate Hannigan will join us to discuss her novel The Detective’s Assistant, a fictional take on Warne’s illustrious, history-making career.
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