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.
Yet through their own initiative, these soldiers were eventually granted permission to train, and formed the first African American paratrooper unit in the country. Their story to this point is inspiring, and reinforced with fantastic images of the training grounds and their unit practicing, as well as pictures that reflect their humanity, showing them with their families or revealing the camaraderie and pride growing within the unit. What follows is heartbreaking– after months of training and hoping to be sent to the war front where they would have a chance to prove their worth alongside white battalions, the Triple Nickles were instead stationed in the Pacific Northwest where they were assigned work as “smoke jumpers” who would parachute into fight forest fires. A little-known aspect of the war in the Pacific was the threat of bombing from the Japanese, and the Triple Nickels did help to stop some of the fires started through enemy action.
What makes their story so poignant is not just how hard the Triple Nickles worked or the racism they overcame, but the fact that most people have still never heard of them. Unlike the Tuskagee Airmen, the first African-American pilots to fight in World War II, the Triple Nickles were denied their opportunity to see combat, prove their worth, and receive the recognition they deserve. Yet in spite of this, their work paved the way for future black military battalions and their accomplishments did contribute to the war effort.
Perhaps the thing I found most powerful about this exceptionally-written slice of history was the way it deepened my understanding of racism in the U.S.A. at this time. It is one thing to read about the tragedies and inequalities civilians endured in the time leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. I found it even more humbling and outrageous to see this discrimination and prejudice leveled against men who were offering their lives to serve. If there is anything that requires more courage that jumping out of a plane into a dangerous situation, it is the idea of doing so for a nation that was in some ways expecting failure rather than triumph. Tanya Lee Stone presents their story in a way that feels personal, relatable, and unforgettable, shining a light on acts of heroism and dignity that have too long been shuffled into the margins of history.
-Mia Cabana, currently reading The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu