RIP Clarence Beavers, last of the all-black paratrooper “Triple Nickles”

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RIP Clarence Beavers, last of the all-black paratrooper “Triple Nickles”

Today’s sad news is brought to us by Stars and Stripes:

Clarence Beavers, the last surviving member of America's first black parachute unit, a World War II "test platoon" that went on to battle fires caused by Japanese bombs and paved the way for black paratroopers in the postwar integrated military, died Dec. 4 at his home in Huntington, New York. He was 96.  […]

Beavers, who served in the Army, never came under enemy fire. But for one summer at the close of the war, he repeatedly leapt toward smoke and flames, jumping from a C-47 transport plane to steer his parachute toward remote stretches of the Pacific Northwest.

His unit, which formed the original core of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion or Triple Nickles, was never as well known as the Tuskegee Airmen or Buffalo Soldiers. Yet the 17-member group played a seminal role in the integration of the military and the development of smoke jumping, a novel firefighting method in which remote forest fires - sparked by Japanese bombs carried by balloons - were fought by men who protected themselves with modified football helmets and willfully landed in trees.

There’s a great piece written by Beavers that you can find on a website devoted to the Triple Nickles, where he talks about his life in the service and the endemic racism he faced in the service:

I took them back to an evening in March 1943.  That evening the train would reach Columbus, Georgia. Columbus is a small town near The Parachute School, at Fort Benning.  It had been a long ride from Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.  Sitting in the first passenger car of a train heading south, watching  the homes along the railroad tracks, I soon noticed that the houses were like those in Virginia. Mostly rundown and people living  in them were mostly African-Americans. And there were signs placed up saying, “For Whites Only” and others saying "For  Colored." We were hopeful that if we did a damn good job, things for the African Americans would improve after the war had  ended. Riding to Parachute School, the driver of the jeep sent to pick me up kept looking at me as we passed each street light.  Under the fear of him having an accident, I told him I was a Negro and requested that he keep his eyes on the road and his  mind on driving. Upon reporting to the Officer of the Day, I was to be quartered at an African American billet for the night.

The American Legion Magazine had a pretty good history of the Smokejumpers that was in our February 2015 magazine:

And after the test platoon soldiers earned their wings, the gates opened to other volunteers. By January 1945, the unit – designated the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion – had nearly 400 battle-ready officers and men. Its soldiers referred to themselves as the “Triple Nickles.” 

But the European war was winding down, and soon the 555th was downsized to a reinforced company of eight officers and 160 men. 

In late April, the Triple Nickles received mysterious orders transferring them to an air base in Pendleton, Ore. Barracks betting favored the idea that this was the first step toward the 555th heading to the Pacific, where the war with Japan still raged. They were ready for the Japanese, but not for the next surprise.

The Japanese had begun lofting incendiary-laden balloons into the jet stream, where they were carried to the North American continent. The government feared that those balloon bombs, coupled with normal summer lightning, would ignite major fires in Northwest forests.

The Forest Service had been parachuting men to forest fires since 1940, but by 1945 most regular smokejumpers were in the military services. A small cadre of conscientious objectors had volunteered to replace them. The Triple Nickles would augment the group as air-delivered firefighters in a joint military/Forest Service project dubbed “Operation Firefly.”

The Japanese balloon campaign began in June 1944. Of some 9,300 launched, it’s estimated that 1,000 balloons made it to North America, landing from Alaska to Mexico and as far east as Michigan. 

According to another obituary in the Washington Post (which is unfortunately behind a pay-wall), Beavers went on to a career in computer systems with the Veterans Administration and US Defense Department, and served as a volunteer firefighter in retirement.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any particularly good video of the Smokejumpers except for some stock footage of them in training that doesn’t have any audio:

The 82nd Airborne did, however, do an excellent podcast discussing them as part of their centennial celebration:

Rest in Peace Sgt. Beavers, now you can rejoin the rest of the brave men of the Triple Nickles.

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For all those in went in Harms Way, my thanks and prayers and hopes that you all are reunited in a better place. RIP

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.