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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Courage Has No Color

What is courage? What is strength? Perhaps it is being ready to fight for your nation even when your nation isn't ready to fight for you.

It is 1943. Americans are overseas fighting World War II to help keep the world safe from Hitler's tyranny, safe from injustice, safe from discrimination. Yet right here at home, people with white skin have rights that people with black skin do not. 

~ from Courage Has No Color

We've all heard some variation of the saying that "respect isn't given; respect is earned." That adage rings resoundingly true in Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles. This engrossing story of America's first black paratroopers knits together interviews, images, and countless source references to create a you-are-there chronicle of one battalion's struggle to win equality and opportunity, a struggle that black soldiers would wage as tenaciously on the homefront as any struggle fought on a foreign battlefield.

When Tanya Lee Stone states in a wonderful example of chiasmus, "Perhaps it is being ready to fight for your nation even when your nation isn't ready to fight for you," she encapsulates the frustration felt by black servicemen who wanted to serve their country in positions other than "building roads, driving trucks, sweeping up, unloading cargo, cooking, doing laundry, serving meals, or guarding facilities."

When the opportunity to contribute meaningfully finally came, many black servicemen jumped at the chance. Clarence Beavers, one of the original Triple Nickles, voices the sentiment of many when he states, "I had a grandfather who ran away from his master as a slave and joined the Union Army and fought as a soldier... And here I am coming down almost a hundred years later and I cannot even fight in a war that's about to eat up our whole world."

The apparent misspelling of the word "Nickles" above is explained on the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion's Official Site:

The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was nicknamed the "Triple Nickles" because of its numerical designation and the selection of 17 of the original 20-member "colored test platoon" from the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division. Hence, the origin of the term Buffalo Nickles; the spelling derives from old English. Three buffalo nickels joined in a triangle or pyramid is the identifying symbol.

Author Tanya Stone's writing reads like pure storytelling, from the engrossing second-person point of view that opens the book (read that entire preview chapter here) to later third person exposition, such as this excerpt which describes one black unit's forays into battle, and its effect upon white troops:

On March 13, 1945, a company from the 99th Infantry Division was in serious trouble. The Germans surrounded them. Casualties were high. The number of living dropped every hour. The wounded - including their commander - lay bleeding, unable to be evacuated. Ceaseless gunfire had trapped them all. Then, in the distance, the company heard men coming. Cautiously they looked and listened for signs that the approaching men were American and not the enemy. But even when they saw the telltale American uniforms, the faces they saw confused them for a moment. Only two were white. The reaction that came next stuck in the mind of one of the black soldiers walking toward them, Harold Robinson: "They were all Southern boys, but they sure were glad to see us." Although the trapped white soldiers couldn't risk giving away their exact location by shouting, they couldn't contain themselves completely. They cheered and waved anyway, as quietly as they could.

Did such encounters between races change perspectives on integration of the armed forces? It seems so, as the author reports:

Before the Battle of the Bulge, only 33 percent of white soldiers had a positive response to including blacks in their companies. Afterward, a whopping 77 percent felt favorably about the idea.

Unfortunately, the 555th would never see the combat action they so desperately desired, but would instead fulfill a crucial role in combating a little known attack on America's West Coast by Japanese balloon bombs. The American press was asked to keep all the incidents quiet, in an attempt to fool the Japanese into thinking that the balloons weren't reaching America. The dangerous jumps made into remote wooded areas to battle fires earned the 555th another nickname: Smokejumpers. The video below shows the smokejumpers in training exercises.

In addition to her faithful chronicle of the 555th, Tanya Lee Stone includes fascinating background pieces on racial tensions in the civilian sector, stereotypes in movies and advertising, ignored photographs of black units in action, and finally, integration in action.

Courage Has No Color brings long-overdue recognition to a victory which was at least as important as any other of World War II:

The 555th had a double burden to shoulder. They had to prove to the world that they had the bravery and skill it took to succeed, and they had to do it while reacting to the prejudice they ran into around every corner..."We fought segregation and discrimination and intolerance. They tried to burn us out...It made us stronger. It made us angry. It made us persevere."

At the Candlewick companion site for Courage Has No Color, you can view an inside spread, download a teacher's guide in pdf format (complete with CCSS alignments), listen to an audio book sample and more.

Additional Recommended Reading:

In response to my War Stories post, some readers (okay, two readers) asked for recommendations for nonfiction texts on World War II that would be appropriate for middle graders. So happy to comply! Providing students with historical trade books is an excellent way to encourage independent exploration into nonfiction reading, a much-discussed area of focus in our new Standards.

My first recommendation for middle schoolers and up, World War II by Sean Callery, comes from the Scholastic Discover More series of books which provide a multimedia "bonus" digital book to accompany each nonfiction title.

These digital books aren't simply online versions of the print book in hand; instead, each supplemental digital text contains audio, video, and in-depth topics that compliment the print book. The introductory video below illustrates the concept.

Scholastic Discover More World War II includes a bonus digital book detailing WWII Heroes and Heroines. By visiting the Scholastic Discover More site, you can download and sample complete chapters of this or any other book in series.

The sample World War II chapters include Child Heroes and Animals Heroes. Four chapters available through the book's code include Secrets and Spies, On the Front Line, Heroes at Home, and Everyday Heroes and Heroines. In all, the digital book contains 67 additional pages of text, images, and video, perfect for sharing on laptops, devices, or even a projection screen.

Both texts include a fantastic assortment of nonfiction text features including headings, subheadings, photos, diagrams, timelines, maps, captions, pull quotes, sidebars, tables, infographics, glossary, index, and more. Fast facts, anecdotes, and oversized data bits help to make this book exciting to browse. Chapters are constructed in a Q and A format, priming readers with thought-provoking questions.

For readers seeking to learn more about those who played important roles in World War II, I'd recommend World War II: Ten Greatest Heroes from Scholastic's America at War series (available through Scholastic).

This simpler 32 page book features full spread profiles of Doolittle, Patton, and Nimitz, in addition to those of lesser known heroes such as British commando Major Tony Macpherson (who armed and trained French resistance fighters) and Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci (who rescued 500 U.S. and Filipino POWs, the sole survivors of a Japanese death marches which had killed over 53,000 of their their fellow prisoners).

Easy to understand text accompanied by photographs, maps, and biographical data combine to make this a winner with your younger history buffs.

For general background materials and teaching units appropriate for the two books above, see the World War II and Holocaust Resources at the Scholastic site.


Alyson Beecher said...

Thanks for linking up your review on Nonfiction Wednesday over at Kid Lit Frenzy.

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