Award-winning author Tanya Lee Stone is clear about why she's written her newest children's nonfiction book, "Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America's First Black Paratroopers" (Candlewick Press, $24.99, ages 10 up).
"I want to help the Triple Nickles become as well-known as the Tuskegee Airmen," Ms. Stone said in a recent interview after talking about her new book at a Washington, D.C., bookstore.
The Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots in the U.S. military, are now an integral part of the history of World War II. Far fewer people, however, have heard of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion -- nicknamed the "Triple Nickles" -- and the unit's pioneering efforts to open up paratrooper jobs to African-Americans during World War II.
In her meticulously researched well-written book, Ms. Stone tells the story of how the 555th was established in 1943 -- a unit with black soldiers and black officers, the first black U.S. paratroopers.
The unit's nickname was a nod to the Buffalo Soldiers, as the black regiments in the U.S. Civil War and later were called. The "Triple Nickles" name also connects to the buffalo image that was stamped on American nickels for many years.
It took the author 10 years, working off and on, to write "Courage Has No Color." She movingly portrays the inspiring courage, determination and persistence displayed by African-American servicemen in the face of overwhelming racial prejudice in the U.S. military. It's a story she strongly believes should be much better known.
"These men are almost not with us anymore," Ms. Stone said, noting that many of them are now in their 90s.
"Courage Has No Color" was a compelling project for Ms. Stone, whose 2009 book "Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream" received the Sibert Medal, given annually by the American Library Association to the best-written nonfiction book for kids.
Winning the Sibert cemented Ms. Stone's reputation as one of the best writers of nonfiction books for kids, someone who combines painstaking research with an appealing writing style.
In "Courage Has No Color," her research is evident by the historical, cultural and personal perspectives she gives to the story of the Triple Nickles. But it is her writing that will engage young readers as they get to know some of the African-Americans who overcame the odds to win the right to become paratroopers.
The Triple Nickles got their start in fall 1943 when a black serviceman, Walter Morris, now 92, decided to boost his unit's morale by having the men mimic the training of the white paratroopers at Fort Benning, Ga. His unit was formally charged with the nighttime patrol of the grounds where the white paratroopers trained; the work was repetitive and dull and sapped the men's motivation.
Once they began following the paratrooper-training regimen, however, as Mr. Morris told another interviewer (recounted by Ms. Stone), his men "began to act like soldiers." The success attracted the attention of Army higher-ups and helped persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to order the Army to create an all-black paratrooper unit.
As Ms. Stone shows in her book, Roosevelt was facing re-election in 1944 and hoped to capture more minority votes, plus he was facing pressure from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who spoke out against racial prejudice in the military.
So the 555th was formed and began training in January 1944 at Fort Benning. Readers will be fascinated by Ms. Stone's account of the 555th's rigorous training, and they'll be furious over the racial prejudice the black paratroopers had to endure.
In fact, the prejudice was so strong that, despite their outstanding performance in training exercises, the members of the 555th never made it overseas during World War II.
Instead, the unit was assigned to what was called "a highly classified" mission in Pendleton, Ore. The 555th ended up working on "one of the best-kept secrets of World War II": that the Japanese had brought the war to continental American soil by sending huge bomb-laden balloons that drifted in and exploded.
As Ms. Stone notes, the only Americans to die in the United States as a direct action of the enemy were six picnickers who were killed when one of the Japanese bomb balloons exploded near them on May 5, 1945.
The U.S. government, however, kept mum about the deaths and the information about the Japanese bomb balloons, figuring that it would create panic among the American public. The 555th, meanwhile, was assigned to work with the U.S. Forest Service to ensure that any fires caused by the exploding balloons, or any other cause, were quickly controlled.
After World War II, the 555th became part of the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C. -- the first black unit to be integrated into an airborne division and a white division. While it was a white Army officer, Maj. Gen. James Gavin, who requested the integration, Ms. Stone notes that "Gavin couldn't have done it without the record that the Triple Nickles brought with them."
Since then, and in the face of still challenging racial prejudice, the U.S. military has been integrated. Yet, Ms. Stone notes, things aren't perfect. For example, while African-Americans comprise 17 percent of the U.S. armed forces, there have been only 10 black four-star generals.
"Improvements still need to be made," she writes. "Prejudice is a flaw of human nature, but awareness and education are powerful weapons against it. ... There will be setbacks, but the hope is that there will always also be forward movement. The story of the Triple Nickles is a shining example of that hope."
As Mr. Morris told one interviewer (as cited by Ms. Stone): The Triple Nickles "proved that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability."
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.