It is easy to be patriotic when you have benefited from everything your country has to offer. It is easy to love your country when your country has made you wealthy and successful. It is easy to say you want to defend your country and its way of life when you are living the good life.
What if you are a second-class citizen in your own country? Would you love it just as much? What if you were not afforded the rights of other citizens-would you be patriotic? What if you were considered little more than an animal in your country-would you be willing to defend it?
The members of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment asked themselves these questions. The 555th or “Triple Nickel” was a unit of black paratroopers formed during World War II. They were part of America’s segregated military.
The men of the 555th were defending a country where all men were not always equal-they surely were not. The men of the 555th came from a country that in many cases did not allow them to vote. The men of the 555th came from a country that was apathetic to their plight and the plight of its black citizens. The men of the 555th came from a country that needed people like David Horowitz (who marched for civil rights as early as 1948) to make it aware that blacks were not full citizens in the United States of America.
Yet, despite their second-class status, the African-Americans of the 555th still loved their country and, like the more famous Tuskegee Airmen, they served their country. What patriotism they must have had to be able to do what they did.
The Triple Nickel was activated at Camp Mackall, North Carolina on November 25th, 1944. The enlisted men and officers of the 555th were all black. They were highly educated men. Some were professional athletes, and some had military experience. These were courageous and patriotic men volunteering to serve in a dangerous unit.
Despite their patriotism and courage the members of the 555th still had to use separate drinking fountains, they still were relegated to segregated railroad cars, and they were still not permitted to dine in restaurants where German POW’s could dine.
The men of the 555th were not unfamiliar with the racial prejudice of America. They knew that, for example, in Philadelphia, white bus drivers went on strike rather than work with blacks. However, not only did these men encounter racism outside the military they encountered it inside as well. They learned that the post officers' club was closed to them.
Yet, they were still patriotic.
The Triple Nickel was assigned to an unusual mission in 1945. In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Japanese secret weapons known as a “fire balloons” or “fugos” were igniting fires. The Japanese knew about the jet stream and used it to send hydrogen filled balloons equipped with timed incendiary devices to detonate in the forests of the Oregon, Montana, Washington and the other states of the Pacific Northwest (one balloon actually landed in Michigan). The Japanese hoped to ruin American morale, deter resources to extinguish the fires, and destroy natural resources.
The balloons did cause six fatalities. An Oregon family, on a picnic, discovered one and unintentionally detonated it. While these were the only casualties from the fire balloons, there was another concern. It was believed that they might be used to release biological or chemical materials in the United States (the Japanese did have plans to use anthrax in an operation in San Diego). Consequently, the existence of the fire balloons was kept secret from the American public to prevent a panic.
In May 1945, the 555th arrived in Pendleton, Oregon to begin training for Operation Firefly. They were to be used as smokejumpers in forests around Montana, Oregon, and Washington. The U.S. Forest Service had been using smokejumpers since 1939 and in the process of refining the techniques by smokejumpers.
There were two significant differences between smokejumpers and paratroopers. Paratroopers landed in open terrain, while smokejumpers landed in trees. Paratroopers usually were not near infernos with currents that would interfere with parachuting. Smokejumpers were always near infernos.
The Triple Nickels made twelve hundred individual jumps into forest fires. They had one casualty during this assignment. The knowledge gained from their experience was used to compile a manual for smokejumpers.
After completing Operation Firefly, the Triple Nickel was disbanded. Personnel of the 555th were assigned to integrated units after the military ceased its policy of segregation.
This Memorial Day as we recall those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country including 135 new sacrifices let us remember there were those who made that sacrifice for a country they loved that did not necessarily love them.