First US all-Black airborne unit based in North Carolina paved the way for military desegregation

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Wednesday, February 7, 2024
NC-based 'Triple Nickles' paved the way for military desegregation
"This isn't just Black history. These are kind of missing or faded-out pages of American history."

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- During Black History Month, ABC11 takes a closer look at the first all-Black airborne unit in U.S. history.

The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion often referred to as the 'Triple Nickles' served during a time of segregation during World War II. They were stationed in North Carolina.

The unit began when the support roles of Black soldiers expanded in 1944 after President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the formation of an all-Black Paratrooper Unit during World War II.

It was a small group of 23 officers and enlisted men who trained at the Army's elite airborne school in Fort Benning, Georgia. The Triple Nickles was then activated at Camp Mackall in North Carolina.

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But the unit's significance goes far beyond the battlefield.

"This isn't just Black history. These are kind of missing or faded-out pages of American history," Jennifer Queen, a parachutist with the Triple Nickles, said.

Jennifer is also the granddaughter of Major James Carlton Queen. She is working on a book about the Triple Nickles legacy and its significant contribution to desegregation in the military.

Despite intense training in Georgia, the Triple Nickles never went overseas.

"Unfortunately, because of the prejudice of the time, the Army did not want to send these soldiers into combat," Jim Bartlinski, Museum Director of the Airborne and Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, said.

The Triple Nickles were then deployed to fight a new threat on America's west coast in 1944.

"They were tasked with a (secret) mission called Operation Firefly," Bartlinski said. "They jumped into forest fires in America's northwest, some started by natural causes, but others started by Japanese balloon bombs that traveled on the jet stream over to the mainland of the United States and they had explosives on them."

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The battalion became smokejumpers, tasked to recover and destroy the Japanese balloon bombs.

They also became the first military unit to parachute into wildfires. Their work helped innovate tactics, techniques and procedures for parachuting into forest fires.

After World War II, the Triple Nickles returned to what is now called Fort Liberty in North Carolina.

Still facing racism, their bravery and resilience earned the respect of the 82nd Airborne Division Commander who transferred the 555th to the 3rd Battalion, 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment paving the way for desegregation in the military.

This was a year before President Harry Truman's executive order mandating it in 1948.

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"These were people were fighting for a country that didn't necessarily fight for them," Reggie Queen, the son of Major Queen, said

He said his father loved his time in the military and always focused on the mission of community service despite the hardship.

"These people opened the door for all of us," Reggie added.

Major Queen and several other members of the 555th later formed the core of the Second Ranger Infantry--one of the first Black airborne companies to fight in Korea.

Major Queen was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame. He also received a Silver and Bronze Star, as well as a Purple Heart Medal.

Major Queen and his wife are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.