American Airpower Museum volunteer Nick Casseus, of Amityville, talks about America's...

American Airpower Museum volunteer Nick Casseus, of Amityville, talks about America's first Black paratroopers, who trained to combat forest fires in the Pacific Northwest started by incendiary balloon bombs launched by the Japanese, at an event Saturday. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military pilots who fought during World War II, may be well known today, their story told in movies like “Red Tails” in 2012.

A lesser known story of America's first Black paratroopers is at the heart of a new exhibit unveiled Saturday at the American Airpower Museum at Republic Airport in East Farmingdale.

The paratroopers — known as the "Triple Nickles" —  formed the all-Black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

Nick Casseus, of Amityville, a museum volunteer and living historian, detailed a brief history of the paratroopers and the battalion during a morning ceremony at the museum. He described how the soldiers “crossed the threshold of prejudice and discrimination” and endured rigorous training to achieve their goals.

Jeff Clyman, the museum’s president and founder, said the story of paratroopers is “not greatly known as a part of World War II history.”

The exhibit, which coincides with Black History Month, aims to shed new light on the significance of the 555th's accomplishments in breaking barriers and as a dedication to the crucial, little known stateside mission called Operation Firefly.

The ceremony also included a discussion of the Tuskegee Airmen. The museum features a permanent exhibit honoring the Tuskegee Airmen's 332nd Fighter Group.

Reynard Burns, public relations officer for the Claude B. Govan Tri-State Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., described how they flew the P-51 Mustang fighters to defend B-17 bombers.

Casseus and Larry Starr, the museum manager, outfitted a mannequin with the apparel of a smokejumper, as the “Triple Nickle” soldiers were known for their work jumping into wildfires.

Casseus said the soldiers had been training to go overseas during World War II but were called for a “greater purpose” stateside.

The Japanese had been launching balloon bombs, carried thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean by the jet stream. They were designed with a timer to drop and detonate along the U.S. West Coast, Clyman said.

Some of the balloons sparked wildfires in northern California and Oregon, Casseus said.

A C-47 troop transport carries these parachutists of the 555th...

A C-47 troop transport carries these parachutists of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion to a remote fire in Wallowa forest, Oregon, sometime after 1945.  Credit: National Archives

The “Triple Nickles” were assigned to parachute into these areas, equipped with shovels and pickaxes, to fight the fires, Casseus said.

"Not a lot of hoses around," he said. "They were taking dirt, a lot of stuff and throwing it at these fires."

The smokejumper mannequin displays the type of outfit and equipment one of the soldiers wore when jumping out of a C-47 into dense forest.

They wore a football-style helmet with faceguard. To protect against heat, they wore sheepskin lined jacket and trousers. A white rope, which Casseus described as a “let-down” rope, hangs off the right hip of the mannequin.

The soldiers typically landed in trees and used the rope to reach the ground, he said.

The "Triple Nickles" fought 36 wildfires, not all caused by balloons, and soldiers made 1,200 jumps, Casseus said.

Clarence Beavers, a longtime Huntington resident, was one of 17 Black soldiers to pass the first training to become a paratrooper. When he died in 2017, at age 96, he was the last member of the original “Triple Nickles.”

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