In keeping with the prevailing custom in a large part of the United States, the U.S. Army of World War II strictly segregated blacks from whites. Moreover, because many senior Regular Army officers doubted that blacks could -- or would -- fight, most black GIs were relegated to demeaning "service" (laundry, kitchen, labor, truck) companies. Not until the second year of the Korean War (August 1951) were blacks officially and fully integrated into Regular Army combat units.Some "token" black combat units with white officers were fielded in World War II. A few were outstanding, but most were programmed to fail -- with low expectations and incentive -- and did. In the summer of 1943, the story goes, President Roosevelt visited the Army's white Airborne Center at Fort Benning, Ga. "Where are your Negro paratroopers?" he supposedly asked. Shortly thereafter, the Army activated the token, all-black, all-volunteer 555th (Triple Nickles) Parachute Battalion, which, unlike most black combat units, would have black officers. It attracted high-caliber, well-educated blacks who were seeking to escape degrading duty in service companies or the disgruntled 92nd and 93rd divisions. The volunteers included 2nd Lt. Bradley Biggs, a former pro football player who rose to become the battalion's operations officer and has now recounted the Triple Nickles' history.

The Triple Nickles were imbued with "black pride" from day one, Biggs writes. To a man they were determined to be the best outfit, not only in the Army, but within the all-volunteer, elitist airborne establishment. "It wasn't easy," Biggs says. "A proud black lieutenant, sergeant, or private, with polished boots and paratrooper wings, still had to use the 'colored' toilets and drinking fountains in the railroad stations . . . Black officers continued to find post officers' clubs closed to them. But they endured."

The outfit grew slowly from "experimental" platoon to company and, finally, to a bobtailed airborne battalion of about 400 men. It was alerted for duty in the European theater, but because it could not muster the regulation airborne battalion strength of 600 men, it was ordered to "skeletonize" to a parachute company. In the squeeze, only 168 outstanding men survived, making the 555th, Biggs wrote, "perhaps one of the most elite hand-picked companies in the army." But by the time the company completed the requisite ground training, the war in Europe was over. To the great disappointment of Biggs and his fellow soldiers, the Triple Nickles did not have an opportunity to show their stuff in combat.

But late in the war, the outfit was called upon to carry out a "highly classified" and exceedingly dangerous mission -- to fight forest fires in the Pacific Northwest supposedly ignited by Japanese balloons carrying incendiary bombs. As it turned out, the Japanese had actually ceased launching balloons in late April 1945, about the time the scaled-down Triple Nickles arrived in Oregon to neutralize them. Unaware of this, the black parachutists responded to numerous forest fires (perhaps touched off by lightning, careless campers or arsonists), eagerly and courageously jumping into tiny clearings in dense, mountainous forests.

*After the war, the Triple Nickles grew to a double-sized parachute battalion of 1,300 men. It was invited to join the Fifth Avenue victory parade of Maj. Gen. James M. Gavin's famous 82nd Airborne Division, beginning a happy association. Gavin, one of the few generals who favored early integration of the Army, later made the Triple Nickles a regular battalion of the 82nd at Fort Bragg. In December 1947 Gavin took the radical step of disbanding the outfit and reassigning its men individually to the division's theretofore all-white combat units.

In this taut, brief, modest and remarkably dispassionate unit history cum memoir, Biggs implies that the outstanding example set by the Triple Nickles played a significant role in breaking down the rampant prejudice against blacks in the Army. Perhaps he is right, but there were also more important factors at work, including pressure from President Truman and a gradual change in the attitude toward blacks in American society. In any event, the story of the Triple Nickles is an interesting footnote to World War II and the social history of blacks in the United States.