It’s like manna from the gods: just as some crazy dude prepares to drop 24 miles in a spacesuit and a parachute, the mailman delivers me a crazy great book about groundbreaking black paratroopers in WWII. The author gets us into this story in a hurry by providing a reader’s step-by-step experience of suiting up and jumping out of a plane. Then she moves on to a historic story which – to me – is one more of those stories about the historic stupidity of this country.
“Said he was fighting on arrival, fighting for survival Said he was a buffalo soldier, win the war for America” -- Bob Marley and “King Sporty” Williams Clarence Beaver: “We wanted to be a full partner within the war. We did not want to go through the war saying ‘I washed the dishes’…I had a grandfather who ran away from his master as a slave and joined the Union Army and fought as a soldier in the Union Army. And here I am coming down almost a hundred years later and I cannot even fight in a war that’s about to eat up the whole world. ’”
As we learn in COURAGE HAS NO COLOR, at the onset of America’s participation in WWII, black soldiers were kept segregated and the overwhelming majority of them were limited to non-combat service duties. This did not make much sense – the idea that America was fighting fascism with a racist military. But thanks to FLOTUS (as we see it abbreviated these days) Eleanor Roosevelt getting involved, change was in the air.
Meanwhile, while heading up a segregated unit on a segregated base, First Sergeant Walter Morris was looking to “wipe out the idea that black men weren’t good enough or smart enough to jump out of airplanes. He wanted his soldiers to know that they were as up to the task as anyone else.” And so Walter Morris began watching the white paratrooper students on the base going through their training routines and then had his black soldiers mimicking that training after the whites were done for the day.
This initiative on Morris’s part, to keep up the morale of his fellow black soldiers, turned out to be a brilliant strategy. His timing was perfect. A general learned what he was up to and immediately appointed him to the just-about-to-be-formed all-black 555th Parachute Infantry Company.
Author Tanya Lee Stone augments her thorough research of the Triple Nickles through conversations with some of the original members including Walter Morris and Clarence Beaver. We see all of the positive change that happens …and (sadly) all of the positive change that doesn’t happen: “At his own post, while training to be a paratrooper, Morris experienced the sting of seeing German and Italian prisoners of war buying cigarettes and candy at the post exchange. ‘Those men,’ he later recalled, ‘prisoners who killed American soldiers…[could] buy cigarettes or whatever they wanted to, but we…couldn’t go into the post exchange.’
He also remembered watching the prisoners ‘sitting down at the same table with the white soldiers, drinking Cokes, and smoking and having a good time…We’re in uniform, but we ’re not good enough to sit at the table with the prisoners of war!’” Despite facing such racist attitudes, they all get through their training, get all psyched up to go fight Hitler, and get deployed…to Oregon!
In tale after tale, detail after detail, we learn about those ignorant attitudes that permeated the United States military and caused these men and other blacks in the military to be treated in such an offensive manner by military and civilian populations. And while I do not believe that this embarrassing look at America is the real point of her story – it is, instead, a positive look at forward movement -- I cannot get past the desire to round up a bunch of the so-called leaders responsible for this ridiculous state of affairs and throw them all out of an airplane – without a parachute. Fortunately, the stellar performance of the Triple Nickles and other black units in WWII helped foster the Civil Rights Movement. Fortunately, things did continue to change for the better. And fortunately we get to read about these very cool guys whose positive attitude and demeanor played a role in that change.
Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA
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Book Pairing: Pair this book with Mare’s War by Tanita Davis (Contributed by Tricia Stohr-Hunt)