History and biography are among my favorite types of nonfiction to read. There is something extra powerful about a story that reads like fiction, is filled with the same themes that make the best fiction unforgettable, but rests on a foundation of truth and having actually happened. Even the most exciting fiction asks the reader to eventually think “what if this was real?” while nonfiction brings me to constantly reflect on how amazing humans are, and what can be accomplished in the face of incredible odds.
So in some ways I was predisposed to enjoy the YALSA nonfiction nomination Courage Has No Color, The True Story of The Triple Nickles: Americas’ First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone from the title alone. I should probably also admit here to a paralyzing fear of heights, so the idea of jumping out of a plane voluntarily is pretty unimaginable to me. Choosing to face prejudice, train independently, and jump out of a plane in the context of military combat is even more incredible, but that is just what the brave members of the “Triple Nickels,” U.S. army’s 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, did.
During World War II, the U.S. military service remained deeply segregated. As the book introduced me to the men who would go on to become the Triple Nickles, it was humbling to me how many enlisted in the army when the war began through a deep desire to serve a country that would not fully accept them and afford them the same privileges as their white counterparts– a feeling reinforced as I learned that for most black men enlisting in the service at that time, the only jobs available were service jobs, such as oiling machinery, working in mess halls, or in the case of the founding members of the Triple Nickles, working as night guards at the paratrooper training grounds of Fort Benning, GA. Walter Morris noted that morale among his men was low, and formed a plan to start training in secret with the same drills that paratroopers practiced by day while on their night watch. This sets the tone of the whole incredible story: men who chose to become the best they could be at a job that was both dangerous and thrilling, in spite of receiving little or no support.