Clarence Beavers and hundreds of black paratroopers in the segregated military were far from Europe in 1945, part of a secret mission to neutralize Japanese bombs causing forest fires along the northwestern United States and Canada.
The year before, Beavers and 19 of his peers were part of a “test platoon,” 17 of whom passed the military’s first training for black paratroopers. The graduating class grew into a large battalion comprising hundreds of African-Americans who spent nearly a year fighting the fires and bombs.
The U.S. government disclosed few details of the mission to prevent the Japanese from learning about the successful launches.
Beavers, the last survivor of the test platoon that formed the “Triple Nickels” — or the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion — died Dec. 4 of natural causes at home. The longtime Huntington resident was 96.
Blocked from important military opportunities overseas, 20 African-Americans were invited to train in 1944 to partake in the “Operation Firefly” mission with the U.S. Forest Service to confront the attacks.
Beavers had trained and passed tests in the military just like his white peers. But black men were denied important military assignments.
“They were very heartsick after all their training, that they had done everything and passed everything they had to do, that they were not able to go overseas to join the rest of the fighting men,” said Edolene Beavers, 86, his wife of 59 years. “This was a way for them to serve.”
Lincoln Bramwell, chief historian of the U.S. Forest Service, said “they essentially weren’t allowed to fight in the European theater. They were ready to go, and couldn’t find a command that would take them on and let them fight.”
It was not until 1948 that President Harry S. Truman’s executive order integrated the armed forces.
Blacks could not eat in the mess hall and white military leaders placed bets that the “Triple Nickels” would fail the training, said Timothy McCoy, national historian for the 555 Parachute Infantry Battalion Association.
“They didn’t believe that blacks could jump out of airplanes.” said McCoy, a retired U.S. Army paratrooper who lives in Dallas. The consensus among their white counterparts, he said, was that blacks “were too afraid to jump out of planes.”
Clarence Hylan Beavers was born June 12, 1921, in Harlem, the 15th of 16 children. His father, Tipp Garfield Beavers Sr., had moved the family north from Talladega, Alabama, after becoming the target of the Ku Klux Klan.
The elder Beavers, a commercial artist working with Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, led protests against the KKK and was placed on a chain gang in front of his home for 30 days for his activism.
Clarence Beavers worked many jobs as a child and teenager during the Depression, including as a grocery and candy store clerk. He enlisted with the New York State National Guard’s 369th Infantry Regiment after graduating from George Washington High School in 1939. In 1941, he was inducted into the Army and sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to train as a sergeant.
McCoy said Beavers was the lone survivor of the 17 men who passed the paratroooper training as part of the test platoon in 1944. Only two “Triple Nickels” from the battalion are still alive, he said.
Beavers’ daughter, Patricia Merritt, of Washington, D.C., said her father seldom spoke of his days in the service. She did not learn of the forest fire mission until she was an adult. His philosophy, she recalled, was likely “that’s what he was there to do, and no matter what obstacles he had to go through, he was going to continue doing his job.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Beavers is survived by four other daughters, Dawn Hargrove of Orlando, Florida, Charris and Charlotta Beavers of Huntington, and Charlayne Beavers of Lawrenceville, New Jersey; son, Clarence Beavers II, also of Huntington; and three grandnephews whom he raised, Delwyn Davis of the Bronx, and Dion and Dwayne Davis of Brooklyn.
Beavers also leaves 18 grandchildren; 22 great-grandchildren; and 10 great-great grandchildren.
A 10 a.m. service will be held Monday at Jacobsen Funeral Home in Huntington Station. Burial will follow at Calverton National Cemetery.
At the U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., a room is named “The Triple Nickels” room. The classroom space is lined with photographs, including one of Beavers among the original test platoon.
McCoy said he owes his career to the legacy of that test platoon. “If they wouldn’t have done that, there wouldn’t have been any black paratroopers — ever,” McCoy said.