Clarence Hylan Beavers, the last surviving member of a pioneering “test platoon” during World War II who helped end segregation in the military, died Dec. 4 at 96 at his home in Huntington, New York.
Beavers, who originally enlisted at 17 in the New York National Guard’s famous Harlem Hellfighters after working a series of odd jobs during the Great Depression, was later drafted after America’s entry into the war in 1941. He was eventually assigned to a maintenance unit before volunteering for a groundbreaking new program designed to test the feasibility of blacks as airborne soldiers: elite combat troops trained to parachute directly into battle whose courage and tenacious fighting spirit were second to none. Consisting of a group of 17 volunteer soldiers, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, known as the Triple Nickles, formed the core of America’s first black paratroop unit.
“It was hard,” Beavers told me in 2012 about the rigorous training and the racism the test platoon endured while vying to become the Army’s first black paratroopers. “Many white folks at the time, including some who were training us, were betting we wouldn’t make it, but we proved them wrong.”
Beavers, who was born in Harlem, New York, on June 12, 1921, was the 15th of 16 children to parents who fled the South before he was born in order to escape racism. His maternal grandfather was an escaped slave who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. His brother, Leo Beavers, also served in the Army during World War II.
Because of segregation, black soldiers were initially prohibited from serving in combat and often relegated to support units performing menial jobs. Yet, midway through the war, the military reversed itself and made plans to form an all-black, experimental infantry airborne unit. It was while serving as a maintenance supply sergeant that Beavers first learned of the Army’s plan when he came across a recruitment poster and became the Triple Nickles’ first volunteer.
“I was excited about the idea of becoming a paratrooper. It was a chance to prove I could do more than just work in a support role,” Beavers said.
However, black paratroopers at the time were so rare that when he reported for training at the Army’s Parachute School in Fort Benning, Georgia, his commanding officer and the white soldiers stationed there were shocked to see him. It would be nearly a year before there were enough soldiers to form a unit and begin training in December 1943.
As Beavers recalled, conditions were hardly equal between the two groups.
“They made us go through a side door at the mess hall at mealtime, and we had to sit at a separate table and wait for our food to be brought to us. We weren’t allowed to mix with the white soldiers even though we were all there for the same training.” And while white trainees lived in comfortable, well-heated, spacious barracks, Beavers added, “They crammed us all into a drafty little hut.”
Of the original 20 who volunteered, 17 successfully completed their training. Beavers told a Long Island newspaper in 2004 that the Nickles expected to be sent to combat in Europe afterward, but when the war suddenly ended there the unit was shipped to the West Coast on a classified mission.
Although he never did come under direct enemy fire during his service with the 555th, Beavers became a smoke jumper, parachuting into remote, forested areas of the Pacific Northwest to fight wildfires as part of a highly secret mission known as Operation Firefly. The mission’s primary goal, which was kept secret from the public for fear of causing panic, was for the Nickles to work with the U.S. Forest Service to suppress any forest fires caused by large, incendiary balloon bombs launched from Japan against North America, and to recover and destroy any of the bombs they found. Of the estimated 10,000 balloon bombs that were dispatched from Asia, about 1,000 eventually reached the U.S. and Canada. In one instance one of the devices almost caused a major catastrophe when it damaged the Hanford Engineer Works reactor in Washington state, effectively shutting down power to the plant where plutonium was being processed for atomic weapons as part of the infamous Manhattan Project. In Oregon, one balloon bomb caused the only known WWII enemy-inflicted fatalities on mainland North America when it exploded at ground level, killing a minister’s pregnant wife and five children who were picnicking in the forest.
In all, the Triple Nickles — spelled in old English and so nicknamed because of the unit’s numerical designation and because the test platoon’s original volunteers were primarily selected from the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division, derived from the 5-cent coin — participated in more than 36 fire missions involving more than 1,200 individual jumps from C-47 military transport planes. Their only protection from the heavily timbered areas they routinely parachuted into were converted football helmets. Over the course of the five-month-long mission the unit suffered hundreds of casualties, with one fatality when a young paratrooper fell to his death after landing in some trees. Beavers himself suffered a serious back injury during one jump that would end his tenure as a paratrooper and lead to his eventual discharge in 1945. He went on to work for the Veterans Administration and later the Defense Department, eventually retiring in 1978.
After a 1948 executive order from President Harry S. Truman to integrate the military, the 555th was deactivated and became part of the 82nd Airborne Division.
The Nickles received little recognition until 2010, when Beavers and two since-deceased members of the original test platoon were finally acknowledged for their service in a special ceremony at the Pentagon.
“Even though he never did get the chance to fight overseas, Clarence was proud of his time with the Nickles,” said Beavers’ wife of 59 years, Edolene. “He figured through his service, by doing his part, eventually things would change for the better for all black people.”