MODESTO, Calif. - White soldiers literally bet against them, wagering that the newly trained black paratroopers would refuse to jump out of airplanes.
The all-black, all-volunteer 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion proved them wrong, growing into a fighting force that kept its uniforms more starched and spit-shined than those of their white counterparts for fear of soiling the battalion's hard-won dignity.
Next weekend, surviving members will gather in Redding to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first smokejumpers. It is also the 55th anniversary of the summer of 1945, when the battalion was sent on a secret mission called Operation Firefly to fight a little-known Japanese bombing barrage of the Pacific Northwest.
The 555th took as its nickname "the Triple Nickles," choosing the odd spelling as one more sign its members were unique. Its symbol was three buffalo-head nickels soldiered together, signifying the "buffalo soldiers" - blacks who served in the U.S. Cavalry after the Civil War.
Members of the 555th soon learned that though they were ready to go into combat overseas, the military wasn't ready to send them there.
Instead of fighting German or Japanese soldiers side-by-side with white Americans, the black paratroopers found themselves battling bears, rattlesnakes and forest fires on U.S. soil. The racism they experienced in training continued in the field.
Members recall getting kicked out of whites-only post exchange stores and theaters, rousted by white military police and restricted to certain off-base stores.
"Here I am with the uniform on, I'm protecting the country, and here I am being treated like less than dirt. It makes you feel bad," said Richard Green, who joined the Triple Nickles shortly after they returned from fighting fires.
The battalion overcompensated by barring its paratroopers from public drinking, cursing, smoking - even "dating ugly women," recalled Green - because "it would upset the dignity of the Triple Nickles."
Study supported inequality
The military's segregation reflected the split society, said retired Army Col. William DeShields, president and founder of the Black Military History Institute of America at Ft. Meade, Md.
The idea that blacks were inferior soldiers was formalized in a 1920s study by the Army's War College that concluded blacks were incapable of training and fighting at the same level as whites, DeShields said.
"In every war they've been fighting two battles: the enemy abroad and discrimination at home," DeShields said of black troops.
By World War II, civil-rights leaders were pushing for a heightened role for blacks with the creation of a series of experimental units such as the 555th.
At about the same time, 1st Sgt. Walter Morris was searching for a way to motivate his dispirited all-black service unit, assigned to guard the white paratroopers at Fort Bragg, N.C. He started his men on the same regimen of calisthenics as the paratroopers.
"They were servants prior to that. Now they were imitating paratroopers," said Morris, now 79, of Palm Coast, Fla., one of six surviving original members. "It showed in their uniforms, in their attitudes, in how they addressed you."
The parachute school's commander, in charge of forming a new 20-member black test unit called "the colored test platoon" took notice and made Morris its first sergeant. That unit grew into the Triple Nickles.
"We had our own separate table where we ate, we had separate barracks where we slept, we had enlisted men and officers betting - actually betting - that we could not stand the rigid four-week training course and that we would not jump out of airplanes," Morris said.
Once the initial test platoon proved its mettle, the floodgates opened to other volunteers. The War Department put the battalion on a troop train bound for the West Coast.
"When we were on our way to Camp Pendleton, Ore., we assumed we were going to join General MacArthur in the Pacific theater," Morris said.
That was until the train stopped and Morris ducked into a rural store to buy cigarettes.
"There was this group of loggers sitting around this big potbellied stove and they said, `Oh, you're here - we've been waiting for you a long time. We read in the paper that you were coming out here to be smokejumpers,' " Morris said.
After two weeks' training, the battalion was ready for what the War Department feared would be a final threat from the Japanese.
The previous winter, the Japanese launched the first of an estimated 9,300 large-diameter paper balloons carrying loads of incendiary bombs. The balloons rode the high air currents as far as Michigan, with many landing in Alaska, Canada and as far south as Mexico.
None of the approximately 90 balloons known to have reached the continental United States is thought to have caused a forest fire. The only known deaths came in May 1945. An Oregon woman and five children on a Sunday school picnic were killed as they unwittingly tried to disassemble a bomb.
As the wet winter turned to summer, however, the military feared the bombs would ignite the tinder-dry forests of the Pacific Northwest. It feared even the threat of such fires would panic residents, so it kept the balloon barrage - and the Triple Nickles' mission - a secret.
The secrecy worked so well the Japanese apparently decided the barrage wasn't working and stopped launching the balloons in April 1945, before the black battalion arrived in Oregon.
The Triple Nickles were kept busy all summer fighting 36 naturally occurring fires, tallying more than 1,200 individual jumps from its bases at Camp Pendleton and Chico, Calif.
"Right now, thinking about it, I get scared," said Vincent Lynch, 75, retired and living in Oakland. "We did it, and I'm proud. We saved the forest."
Like many Triple Nickles, Lynch joined to get out of the service units to which most black soldiers were assigned.
"I didn't want to drive no damn truck, pick up white soldiers," Lynch said. "I was 19. I wanted to do something exciting."
Green, 72, of Modesto, went on to become the nation's first black pathfinder, preceding paratroopers into target areas to set up drop zones.
He recalls the stares he received when the Triple Nickles were attached to the all-white 82nd Airborne Division after the war.
For the men of the Triple Nickles, the first step toward grudging acceptance came in January 1946 as they marched with the 82nd Airborne Division in a victory parade down New York City's Fifth Avenue.
The men credit the 82nd's white commander, Gen. James Gavin, for taking their unit under his wing immediately after the war ended. Two years later, almost a year before President Truman ordered an end to military segregation, the unit was disbanded and its members dispersed into all-white units.
Black Triple Nickles officers became some of the first blacks to give orders to whites.
"We didn't win any wars, but we did contribute," Morris said. "What we proved was that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability."