Skip to comments.The Courageous Patriotism of Triple Nickel - The story of a valiant segregated unit in WWII.
Posted on 05/26/2003 3:16:26 AM PDT by rdb3
It is easy to be patriotic when you have benefited from everything your country has to offer. It is easy to love your country when your country has made you wealthy and successful. It is easy to say you want to defend your country and its way of life when you are living the good life.
What if you are a second-class citizen in your own country? Would you love it just as much? What if you were not afforded the rights of other citizens-would you be patriotic? What if you were considered little more than an animal in your country-would you be willing to defend it?
The members of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion asked themselves these questions. The 555th or Triple Nickel was a unit of black paratroopers formed during World War II. They were part of Americas segregated military.
The men of the 555th were defending a country where all men were not always equal-they surely were not. The men of the 555th came from a country that in many cases did not allow them to vote. The men of the 555th came from a country that was apathetic to their plight and the plight of its black citizens. The men of the 555th came from a country that needed people like David Horowitz (who marched for civil rights as early as 1948) to make it aware that blacks were not full citizens in the United States of America.
Yet, despite their second-class status, the African-Americans of the 555th still loved their country and, like the more famous Tuskegee Airmen, they served their country. What patriotism they must have had to be able to do what they did.
The Triple Nickel was activated at Camp Mackall, North Carolina on November 25th, 1944. The enlisted men and officers of the 555th were all black. They were highly educated men. Some were professional athletes, and some had military experience. These were courageous and patriotic men volunteering to serve in a dangerous unit.
Despite their patriotism and courage the members of the 555th still had to use separate drinking fountains, they still were relegated to segregated railroad cars, and they were still not permitted to dine in restaurants where German POWs could dine.
The men of the 555th were not unfamiliar with the racial prejudice of America. They knew that, for example, in Philadelphia, white bus drivers went on strike rather than work with blacks. However, not only did these men encounter racism outside the military they encountered it inside as well. They learned that the post officers' club was closed to them.
Yet, they were still patriotic.
The Triple Nickel was assigned to an unusual mission in 1945. In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Japanese secret weapons known as a fire balloons or fugos were igniting fires. The Japanese knew about the jet stream and used it to send hydrogen filled balloons equipped with timed incendiary devices to detonate in the forests of the Oregon, Montana, Washington and the other states of the Pacific Northwest (one balloon actually landed in Michigan). The Japanese hoped to ruin American morale, deter resources to extinguish the fires, and destroy natural resources.
The balloons did cause six fatalities. An Oregon family, on a picnic, discovered one and unintentionally detonated it. While these were the only casualties from the fire balloons, there was another concern. It was believed that they might be used to release biological or chemical materials in the United States (the Japanese did have plans to use anthrax in an operation in San Diego). Consequently, the existence of the fire balloons was kept secret from the American public to prevent a panic.
In May 1945, the 555th arrived in Pendleton, Oregon to begin training for Operation Firefly. They were to be used as some-jumpers in forests around Montana, Oregon, and Washington. The U.S. Forest Service had been using smokejumpers since 1939 and in the process of refining the techniques by smokejumpers.
There were two significant differences between smokejumpers and paratroopers. Paratroopers landed in open terrain, while smokejumpers landed in trees. Paratroopers usually were not near infernos with currents that would interfere with parachuting. Smokejumpers were always near infernos.
The Triple Nickels made twelve hundred individual jumps into forest fires. They had one casualty during this assignment. The knowledge gained from their experience was used to compile a manual for smokejumpers.
After completing Operation Firefly, the Triple Nickel was disbanded. Personnel of the 555th were assigned to integrated units after the military ceased its policy of segregation.
This Memorial Day as we recall those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country including 135 new sacrifices let us remember there were those who made that sacrifice for a country they loved that did not necessarily love them.
I thank them and acknowledge the memory of them.
And today was a good day.
His grandfather was one of the first to enlist in Company A of the famous 54th Massachusetts. He was also the last survivor of that same unit. George's grandfather was with the unit all through the war, having run away from school the day he enlisted. He was wounded twice during the Civil War...once at the attack on Battery Wagner (July 18, 1863), and again at the Battle of Honey Hill (November 30, 1864).
Here are some excerpts from that interview (done in October 1990) pertaining to the 555th:
"When I went into the Airborne, we were segregated from the 82nd Airborne. We had our own special unit there - 555 - we call it the "Triple Nickel." As a matter of fact, they just dedicated a bridge in Virginia to that organization - that outfit, and we were overtrained, just preened all the time. Our guys got so good at jumping from airplanes, we could exit from an airplane and put a chalk mark on the plane - that's not easy to do. We jumped out - we could exit from an airplane in about 10 seconds; other troops would take 15-20 seconds. We were good - you could look up and see these guys come out as close to each other as possible. It was nothing inherent, it was just that repetition, repetition. What happened with us is that we volunteered to go overseas. And that's the dumbest thing in American History, to get people to volunteer to be killed. But, we volunteered to go in on D-Day. The "Triple Nickel" got all set to go - I had left the unit and joined the 372nd and what was the 92nd. And they got all ready to go and got all packed - said goodbye to their families - were put in planes and flown to Oregon to fight a forest fire.
General Gavin, the Commanding General of the 82nd...he was a really good guy, great, great General, youngest General, age 34. He wanted to correct that and even went to Washington and asked them to integrate us into the 82nd. I think he made 3 or 4 trips and finally it was accomplished, but not before he had a battle with the white troops. Black troops were segregated right up until the 24th was in Hawaii. They really gave the United States the first victory in the Korean War. So, Truman integrated from that point on. I think I was one of the first group of company commanders to command integrated groups in Korea.
I didn't mind it too much in World War II. It was a big thril for me. I was 18 when I got commissioned. Of course it was everything I thought it was going to be, a lot of shooting - house to house, things like that. In Europe, you could hole up in a house, get comfortable for a few minutes. Korea was altogether different. We were on Heartbreak Ridge."
Here are a couple of excerpts from that same interview pertaining to his grandfather:
"I remember that on Memorial Day, there'd be a ceremony at the monument and the National Guard would participate in that. My grandfather always took me along. They used to dress me up in a sailor suit of all things. We would march up Beacon Street and when we'd get to the reviewing stand, he'd always tell me to "stick out your chest." Then, I remember getting passed around to these G.A.R. women and they'd grab me and squeeze the life out of me...I used to hate that. They'd kiss me and I'd hate that. Every year they would do that, all the G.A.R. veterans and he turned out to be the very last one. He was at the unveiling of the monument (Shaw Memorial in Boston).
Then, he went to Gettysburg. That was the 75th Anniversary. President Roosevelt selected my grandfather to go and they lined up in the field - rebels on one side and Union on the other. He said he was lined up in front of what he thought was an officer and then he found out that somebody else was supposed to go to the officer. He was supposed to go to this soldier and he said the soldier had a real mean look on his face...he had a look like he was looking way out in space. And so, my grandfather said, "I'm wondering if he's going to offer his hand...it doesn't matter to me one way or another, if he does or doesn't." They both decided to extend the hand at the same time. I guess this poor old rebel guy was thinking the same thing. The rebel said to him: "75 years ago, I was shooting at you, and you were shooting at me, and thank God we both missed."
It's been at least a couple of years since I corresponded with George. The last time I believe was when someone was trying to get approval to develop Morris Island, S.C. (where Battery Wagner once stood). Sometime in the mid-90's, he began the "Glory Brigade," that would actually become a reenactment unit of the 54th Massachusetts.
George, if you're out there, I want you to know how grateful I am that you took the time to share the memories of your grandfather's service with me. It was a great pleasure having met you and your family, being welcomed into your home, and allowed to dig into your childhood memories. I only wish that I had spent more time getting you to tell me about your service years. I'm sure you had alot of stories to tell and I hope that someone will put it all down in writing one day. It would be a best seller. Thanks for being such a good and gracious man and may God Bless you and yours.
Doing bad things to bad people.
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My nomination for understatement of the day award. FWIW. Thanks for the thread. I've been on a a few others today and its nice to go to bed thinking of thanking those who went before in my behalf. It is what this day of reflection was intended for.
free the southland,sw
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