The Triple Nickles: A 75-Year Legacy

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By Jennifer Queen, Resource Fellow, Recreation and Tourism

It has been said thatBlack history is simply the missing pages of world history. Nothing could betruer. The Triple Nickles African American paratrooper unitleft their mark, not only in Black history but, ultimately, in the history ofthe Army, the Forest Service and our great country.

On Feb. 29, the TripleNickles will be awarded the Buffalo Soldiers Medal of Valor.The medal was created in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2014 by John Taylor Jr., aveteran and Buffalo Soldiers camp director. It was created to honor AfricanAmericans, living and deceased. The medal is presented and housed annually inWashington, D.C., at the African American Civil War Museum.

The 555th ParachuteInfantry Battalion wasa pioneering paratrooper unit of the United States Army. Instated in 1943during World War II, the unit was given the unprecedented and undeniablydangerous job of jumping into forests that were set on fire by the nation’senemy at war. The unit was nicknamed the Triple Nickles because of itsnumerical designation and because 17 of the original 20-member “colored testplatoon” came from the 92nd Infantry Division, or Buffalo Division. Hence,the nickname Buffalo Nickles, symbolized by three buffalo nickels joined in atriangle. The unit’s 75-year legacy intersects with USDA Forest Service historyin a very special way.

At a time when theArmy traditionally relegated Black service members to menial jobs, the TripleNickles succeeded in becoming the nation’s first Black parachute infantry testplatoon, company and battalion.

Major James C.Queen—my grandfather—dedicated his life to fighting forest fires as a 555paratrooper during the war. While serving, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, FortBenning and other bases, where he underwent extensive training despite the manyforms of discrimination that often hindered Black soldiers from advancingthrough the ranks. Despite the roadblocks, in 1994 Queen went on to become thefirst African American inductee into the Ranger Hall of Fame forhis leadership during the Korean War.

A Washington, D.C.,native, and the son of a secretary and a factory worker, Queen entered the armyat the age of 18 with only a high school education. Nicknamed “BigJim” for his towering 6’5″ height, he enrolled in the ReserveOfficers’ Training Corps, where he earned the rank of junior colonel forWashington, D.C., by the time he graduated high school.

After retiring fromthe army in 1964, Queen went on to become assistant principal of H.D. WoodsonHigh School in Washington, D.C., and later began writing the history of thefirst Black airborne company to fight in Korea—the 2nd ranger infantry.

“War Departmentstudies indicated that they didn’t believe Black troops could becomeparatroopers, Queen said. “Just like they didn’t believe Black soldierscould become airmen…they just didn’t think we could do it.”

My grandfather lived alife colored with dignity, perseverance, love and determination in service tofamily and country. His body now rests next to my grandmother, Phyllis Queen,in Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried with full military honors.Major Queen, like innumerable other paratroopers of color, proudly served hiscountry and carried out tremendously dangerous work without the full respect,resources and support given to other troops. Many of their contributions toAmerican infrastructure are still yet to be fully told.

The Triple Nickles wasa skilled mix of former university students, top-notch professional athletesand veteran non-commissioned officers. Unlike other divisions of the army, theTriple Nickles did not deploy overseas during World War II. Instead, in 1945,the unit was secretly assigned to a series of firefighting missions in thePacific Northwest Region. This special assignment, called Operation Firefly,saw the Triple Nickles transferred to Pendleton, Oregon. While there, the unitwas trained by the Forest Service to become the first military smokejumpers inU.S. history.

That spring, theTriple Nickles parachuted into U.S. forests to battle wildfires that were setablaze by incendiary balloons the Japanese were delivering across the PacificOcean. The Triple Nickles went on to operate in all the northwestern states.When the battalion was finally deactivated in 1947, their impact wasundeniable.

That impact isrecognized in the Forest Service Headquarters in Washington, D.C., with aconference room in their name located in the building’s promenade. Photos anddescriptions of the men from the first iteration of the company adorn thewalls. One paratrooper, the late Richard Williams, whose photo also hangs inthe conference room, will be honored this year with a post office named afterhim in Columbus, Georgia. The commemoration is scheduled for March 18.


Smokejumpers: 80 Yearsof Wildland Firefighting

The US Army’s First,Last and only all Black Rangers by Edward L. Posey

The Ranger Hall ofFame— 

To learn more aboutthe history of the Triple Nickles:

More about thelegendary capture of hill 581When Men Don’t Panic

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