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Black paratroopers' enemy: forest fires

by Webmaster |

They prepared for a shooting war in Europe and the Pacific, but ended up waging a secret war against fires and bombs in the forests of the western United States.

They were the 555th Paratrooper Infantry Battalion, America's first black paratroopers, also known as the Triple Nickle.

"Twenty of us were in the first cadre, but only 17 made it through the course to get our wings," said Clarence Beavers of Huntington, one of five survivors of that group from February 1944, and the only one remaining in New York.

It wasn't an easy road for the group, especially for Beavers, 82, who was the first black man accepted for the paratroopers. At the time there was no black unit and the military was segregated.

Beavers eventually became one of the nation's original black paratroopers, learning such skills as hand-to-hand combat and parachute jumping, he said. But instead of going overseas after training, his group was dispatched to face another danger. They became smokejumpers.

The Triple Nickle fought a war almost none had heard of - Operation Firefly - a battle against fires caused by Japanese balloons. The group worked with the U.S. Forest Service in the northwest United States and Canada.

"In the fall of 1944, the Japanese began sending over balloon bombs on jet streams that extended clear across the Northern Hemisphere. They were hoping to divert American and Canadian troops from the war to the expected forest fires there," said U.S. Forest Service historian Gerald Williams in Washington, D.C. "It was only in early 1945 that the threat became fairly real, and this country decided to send some regular Army troops, and it was the all-black Triple Nickle."

Beavers had to learn a new set of survival and fighting skills, including defusing bombs and another method of parachuting for smoke-jumping. "They dressed us in pilots' jackets and [pilots'] pants, gave us football helmets, fencing masks and 50 feet of rope for getting down from trees," said Beavers, who served at an Army Air Force base in Pendleton, Ore. "There weren't that many fires while we were there, but we made more than 1,000 jumps out there."

The road to Beavers' initial parachute training began in early 1944. While in a Light Ordnance Maintenance Platoon in Indiantown Gap, Pa., Sgt. Beavers - a three-year veteran and former national guardsman- volunteered for and was accepted into parachute school at Fort Benning, outside Columbus, Ga., in March. But he didn't start training until January.

"They said there was no place for me after training because there was no colored paratroop unit," Beavers said, "so I stayed on post with a service unit until they created the 555th cadre in December."

A segregated service

Beavers noted that the U.S. Army was still very segregated during his training. "The 20 of us lived in a hut that was quite small, but the resulting closeness helped keep us warm," he said. "In the mess hall, they didn't let us go to the counter but instead brought us what we asked for and told us to leave the trays on the table. They were insulting us, but we were so tired after training that we were happy to be waited on."

Beavers' unit would go on after the war to become the 3rd Battalion of the 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment. "And members of that battalion would later become the cadres for more black paratrooper groups, such as the 80th Airborne Anti-aircraft Battalion, the 503rd Airborne Artillery Battalion, and the 2nd Airborne Ranger Company," Beavers said.

On the homefront

Beavers, though, would not see any of those changes while in the Army. The 24-year-old sergeant from Harlem was honorably discharged on Nov. 3, 1945. He was made an honorary member of the 505th Airborne Regiment by special order of the Secretary of the Army in 1998. And just last year, the Army, in cooperation with the group's association, established a memorial to the original cadre of 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion at the Airborne and Special Forces Museum in Fayetteville, N.C.

After his discharge, Beavers worked in computers for the Veterans Administration for 13 years. Then he did a similar job for the Department of Defense for the next 20 years, 14 of them in Germany. He returned to the states to the District of Columbia in 1972 and worked there until he retired in 1978.

He and his wife, Edolene (Lena) Davis, of New Cassel, whom Beavers married in 1958, then bought a farm upstate in Claremont after he retired, where they remained until 1985. The couple returned to Long Island that year and built their house in Huntington, and have lived there 18 years.

They have six children and 15 grandchildren.

One grandchild, Luciano Romano, 15, a 10th-grader at John Glenn High School in Elwood, said he has heard stories about his grandfather's Army days, "Some of it was exciting, but my grandfather also kept reminding us how hard he had to work to overcome people trying to stop him from succeeding."

A secret mission

Beavers said news of the Japanese balloons were kept from the public for as long as possible "because we wanted to convince the Japanese that no balloons reached the U.S."

One group of the Triple Nickle fought fires from Pendleton, while the others did so from an Army Air Force base at Chico, Calif. "At first we were bitter," said Beavers. "We thought: 'they've taken away our rifles and given us picks and shovels.' But as we learned about the dangers involved and the lives we could save, we began to take real pride in our work."

From July 20 to Aug. 28, the Pendleton group answered 19 fire calls; the Chico group, 17, from July 14 to Oct. 10. Those responses were from both natural causes as well as the balloons of the Japanese, who surrendered Aug. 15, 1945.

The Forest Service's Williams said only about 150 of an estimated 6,000 balloons sent reached North America, with none causing any huge forest fires. "The biggest incident was a Sunday school teacher and five kids being killed by an unexploded bomb in one of the balloons that landed in Bly, Ore., in April 1945," Williams said.

These and other incidents have resonated with Beavers, whose recently deceased brother, Leo, served at the same time in North Africa and Italy as a signal corpsman. As a testament to him, the Nassau, Suffolk and Queens chapter of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion Association named their group after him three years ago.

"Despite the hardships, I'm still extremely proud to be Airborne," Beavers said.