The story of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion is unknown to most. They were the first African American paratroopers in U.S history, the first military smokejumpers, and the next unit in a long line of African American soldiers to gain more ground for their underappreciated comrades.
Throughout U.S military history, the sacrifice and valor of African American soldiers is often unheralded. Only in retrospect can we truly examine and appreciate their feats of strength in the face of indomitable odds against racism and segregation. Despite the war on racism still raging after the Civil War, African Americans enlisted to fight American wars in WW1, WW2, Korean War, Vietnam, and every war thereafter. In the face of many enemies, these soldiers were no ordinary soldiers.
The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment for the Union Army was the first African American unit to fight for the U.S in the Civil War. They were paid 3$ less per month to do the same job as their white comrades in arms. It was during WW1 — one of the bloodiest in world history — that countries began to measure victory by inches, not battlegrounds. At the Third Battle of Ypres, more than 140,000 British troops lost their lives to gain 5 miles of bloody ground. That means a soldier died every 2.25 inches gained.
Tragically, that ground would eventually be lost. It jars anyone to hear that statistic, but it’s also jarring to try and put a number to the inches gained and lost and regained by African Americans throughout U.S history, not in wars against other countries, but in a war against their own. By the end of the Civil War, the U.S. War Department finally agreed to commission black officers after they had refused to do it at the beginning of the war. These soldiers gained more inches of ground than they were given. They set a new machine in motion.
“DON’T TREAD ON ME, GOD DAMN, LET’S GO.”
During WW1, it was the legendary Harlem Hellfighters, the Black Rattlers, who spent more time in combat than any other unit. Their motto proved true: “Don’t Tread On Me, God Damn, Let’s Go.” Tragically, their heroic efforts were filed away into oblivion after they returned home to a segregated America. Not all wars were over. On the battlefield, they were treated as equals by the French, British, Canadians, and yes, the Americans. In matters of life and death, the color of a man’s skin means nothing to the man who trusts him with his life.
The US Government has finally come around to properly honoring the men who fought for the Harlem Hellfighters. It took 97 years for Henry Johnson, a remarkable man, to receive the Medal of Honor. In 2021, the Hellfighters were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Government. In the end, they have become one of the most decorated units in WW1 history. They gained a few more inches of ground.
WW2 saw the rise of African American soldiers. They served in every branch of the military—Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. However, as the number of enlistees skyrocketed, segregation continued. African American soldiers gave their lives to defeat the Third Reich, the outspoken racists of genocidal proportions. And yet, the fight against the insidious nature of racism back home was still awaiting its greatest general in Martin Luther King Jr. He was a man who would lead his army to take an entire country by storm, an entire battleground, instead of just a few inches.
Thousands of African American soldiers were organized and trained for special operations in the European and Pacific theaters during WW2, but none was more obscure than the top secret mission assigned to the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the Triple Nickles. The unit was made up of university students, professional athletes and non-commissioned veterans. Until recently, most WW2 buffs had to go digging to find any record of them. Thanks to the work of the National Archives and Records Administration, their photos and stories have been preserved.
The first African American Airborne unit in American history began training at Camp Pendleton, Oregon in 1945. Years before, the U.S. Army Air Force had worked alongside the U.S. Forest Service to improve the maneuverability and accuracy of jumpers. Tactics and training were exchanged and the safety for both paratroopers and smokejumpers was elevated. Operation Fire Fly would bring it all together. The mission was to demobilize Japanese balloon bombs and suppress wildland forest fires on home soil. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US set up encampments along the Pacific Coast in Washington, Oregon, and California. The threat of Japanese invasion was real, and the U.S military took care to extinguish any threats made by land, sea, or air.
The Empire of Japan sought means to reach American soil, and they succeeded by floating incendiary bombs attached to balloons by way of jet streams over the Pacific Ocean. Their goal was to set fire to the Pacific Northwest. Heavily undermanned during the war, the U.S. Forest Service asked for help and the U.S military responded with the Triple Nickles. They were trained by smokejumpers from Region 1 in Missoula, Montana. In 1945, they completed more than 1200 individual jumps during 12 different fires across the Pacific Northwest, suffering one casualty.
A few years later, the Triple Nickles would be serving in the Korean War. The service of these men paved the way for their African American comrades to eventually serve in the prestigious 82nd Airborne Division. They were elite, not as segregated soldiers, but soldiers—ones who deserved dignity and honor. Again, the Triple Nickles had gained a few more inches of ground, as did every African American soldier before and after them.
As we look back on the history of African Americans, we see many atrocities, casualties, and forgotten histories of heroes who died for the inch of earth they stood on. We stand beside all those who served this country with dignity, even when their dignity was not returned to them back home. Still today, there is much more ground to be gained, and even in retrospect, there is still more ground to be taken back from oblivion. There are more soldiers, more fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters who deserve more gratitude. May we never forget.
Jacob Mannan, February 17, 2022
Black History Month, The Library of Congress, https://blackhistorymonth.gov/
Will Thomas, Archival Assistant, Tennessee State Library of Archives, https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/tsla/exhibits/veterans/ww1.htm
National Park Service, Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/articles/1stkansas.htm
Triple Nickles, Triple Nickles History, http://triplenickle.com/history.htm
EWU Digital Commons, NARA 555, Libraries, Eastern Washington University, https://dc.ewu.edu/nara_555/