Clarence Beavers, the last surviving member of a groundbreaking group of black paratroopers deployed during World War II against what were described as the world’s first intercontinental-range airborne weapons — giant bomb-laden balloons launched from Japan and aimed at North America — died on Dec. 4 at his home in Huntington, New York. He was 96.
His daughter Charlotta Beavers said the cause was heart failure.
Beavers was one of 17 soldiers who formed what became the Army’s first all-black paratroop unit, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.
The unit, which began training in 1944, was never as famous as the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black Army Air Forces group from Alabama, but it was pioneering nonetheless.
The paratroopers were nicknamed the Triple Nickels (the 555th conjured up the 5-cent coin), but they also became known as the Smoke Jumpers after being dispatched to the American Northwest preventively to be on hand to extinguish forest fires should the balloon bombs ignite fires.
The unit’s mission, under the name Operation Firefly, was hidden from the public during the war to prevent panic over the balloons’ ability to reach the United States.
The so-called Fu-Go balloons, 33 feet in diameter and buoyed by hydrogen, floated on the jet stream and could travel the 5,000 miles from the Japanese mainland to the Pacific Northwest in three or four days.
Of the estimated 9,000 that were launched, about 1,000 reached the West Coast, where they potentially threatened crops and the country’s strategic lumber supply.
One airborne bomb damaged a generator at the Hanford Engineer Works reactor in Washington state, where plutonium was being processed for the first atomic bombs.
An antipersonnel fragmentation bomb exploded on the ground in southern Oregon, killing a pregnant woman and five children in what were believed to be the only fatalities resulting from the low-tech attacks.
But because 1945 was unusually rainy in the Northwest, the threat of wildfires kindled by the balloons’ incendiary bombs was minimized.
Instead, the paratroopers were specially trained by the U.S. Forest Service to jump from C-47 transport planes and be deployed to fight fires ignited by lightning and other causes. The training helped modernize how fires in remote forests could be contained and extinguished.
Clarence Hylan Beavers was born in Harlem on June 12, 1921, the 15th of 16 children. (His middle name was given in honor of John F. Hylan, who was New York’s mayor at the time and also his godfather.) His maternal grandparents had been escaped slaves, and his maternal grandfather served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
His father, Tipp Garfield Beavers Sr., was a commercial artist who worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The elder Beavers had moved the family north from Alabama after being arrested there for opposing segregation and sentenced to a chain gang.
Clarence’s mother was the former Mary E. Martin.
After graduating from George Washington High School in Manhattan, Beavers enlisted in the National Guard. Drafted by the Army, he was assigned to a maintenance unit.
Blacks in the Army were typically relegated to menial roles, but in late 1943 an order barring them from serving as front-line paratroopers was rescinded.
Beavers was the first to volunteer for parachute training and was assigned to an all-black barracks at Fort Benning in Georgia, a segregated state.
“Riding to parachute school,” he recalled on the 555th Parachute Infantry Association website, “the driver of the Jeep sent to pick me up kept looking at me as we passed each streetlight. Under the fear of him having an accident, I told him I was a Negro and requested that he keep his eyes on the road and his mind on driving.”
But without an all-black unit to take him, his parachute training was delayed, until Beavers appealed to the Department of the Army.
Finally, in late 1943, an all-black unit was constituted as an experiment. Of 20 original volunteers, 17 completed training and formed a prototype platoon that became the core of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. Beavers was the only surviving member of those 17.
“Both officers and enlisted men were making bets that we wouldn’t jump — we’d be too afraid,” Walter J. Morris, another trainee, was quoted as saying in the book “Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickels, America’s First Black Paratroopers” (2013), by Tanya Lee Stone.
Beavers had a similar recollection.
“Those that wanted to see us make it put forth their full effort; equally, those who didn’t want to see us make it did everything they could to see that we didn’t,” he was quoted on the association’s website. “While other trainees came through the front door and went to the counter for their food, we had to come in by the side door.”
But, he said, “we were hopeful that if we did a damn good job, things for the African-Americans would improve after the war had ended.”
By late 1944, with the war ebbing and the unit’s ranks still limited in numbers, the paratroopers were assigned to Pendleton Field, Oregon, and Chico, California, as part of Operation Firefly. They saw a racial motivation behind the orders.
“Major commanders in Europe were leery of having highly trained colored paratroopers coming into contact with racist white elements of the time,” according to the association’s history.
The decision to keep them stateside was a setback for the paratroopers.
“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,” Beavers’ wife, the former Edolene Davis, told the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “This was a way for them to serve.”
In addition to his wife and his daughter Charlotta, Beavers is survived by four other daughters, Dawn Hargrove, Patricia Merritt, Charis Beavers and Charlayne Beavers; a son, Clarence II; 18 grandchildren; 22 great-grandchildren; and 10 great-great-grandchildren.
During the summer and fall of 1945, the Army parachutists made 1,200 individual jumps to fight more than a dozen fires. They suffered only one fatality: a medic who fell from a tree.
After the war, Beavers was discharged as a staff sergeant, and the battalion was incorporated into the 82nd Airborne Division. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman banned racial discrimination in the military under an executive order that led to full desegregation of the armed forces.
Beavers later worked on computer systems for the Veterans Administration and for the Defense Department in Germany and Washington. After he retired in 1978, and before moving to Long Island, he lived in upstate New York, where he served as a volunteer firefighter.