Fort Benning: The History of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Triple Nickles
This month, we have highlighted the legacies of the Rangers, the Airborne, and the Infantry and their important role in the history of Fort Benning. Today, we will celebrate the legendary Buffalo Soldiers and Triple Nickles and their significance in the story of Fort Benning. African American men have fought in every American war, yet the Buffalo Soldiers, two cavalry and four infantry regiments, have a unique place in history and memory. These groups of African American service members were renowned for their fighting abilities and remarkable courage. This email includes the beginnings of the Buffalo Soldiers following the Civil War, how they got their name, their battles on horseback, and the secret missions of the Triple Nickles. Historic preservation only flourishes because of your passion for the history of this town, its stories, and its people. If you have any questions or concerns, never hesitate to contact the HCF Office – 706-322-0756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. SOURCES: Buffalo Soldiers: The History Behind the African American Regiments, American Quarter Horse Association. Buffalo Soldiers: Legend and Legacy, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian. The Triple Nickles: A 75-Year Legacy, Jennifer Queen, USDA Forest Service, 2020. “ATTEN-SHUN!” Historic Marker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Outdoor Learning Trail. Please visit the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Outdoor Learning Trail, running from Macon Road at Rigdon to Bay Ave at the river, to see this marker "ATTEN-SHUN!" Text and images courtesy of Dr. Amanda Rees formerly of CSU's History & Geography Department and Ronzell Buckner, President of Turn Around Columbus. This marker is owned and maintained by Lambda Iota Chapter - Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Social Action & Scholarship Foundation.
In 1866, an Act of Congress created six all Black peacetime regiments, later consolidated into four –– the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry –– who became known as "The Buffalo Soldiers." There are differing theories regarding the origin of this nickname. One is that the Plains Indians who fought the Buffalo Soldiers thought that their dark, curly hair resembled the fur of the buffalo. Another is that their bravery and ferocity in battle reminded the Native Americans of the way buffalo fought. Whatever the reason, the soldiers considered the name high praise, as buffalo were deeply respected by the Native peoples of the Great Plains. And eventually, the image of a buffalo became part of the 10th Cavalry's regimental crest. Initially, the Buffalo Soldier regiments were commanded by whites, and African American troops often faced extreme racial prejudice from the Army establishment. Many officers, including George Custer, refused to command Black regiments. In addition, African Americans could only serve west of the Mississippi River, because many whites didn't want to see armed Black soldiers in or near their communities. And in areas where Buffalo Soldiers were stationed, they sometimes suffered deadly violence at the hands of civilians.
The Buffalo Soldiers' main duty following the Civil War was to support the nation's westward expansion by protecting settlers, building roads and other infrastructure, and guarding the U.S. mail. They served at a variety of posts in the Southwest and Great Plains, taking part in most of the military campaigns during the decades-long Indian Wars –– during which they compiled a distinguished record, with 18 Buffalo Soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor. This exceptional performance helped to overcome resistance to the idea of Black Army officers, paving the way for the first African American graduate from West Point Military Academy, Henry O. Flipper. Henry Ossian Flipper (pictured below) was born into slavery in Georgia on March 21, 1856. During Reconstruction, he attended Atlanta University, and was then appointed to West Point by U.S. Representative James C. Freeman. Four other African American cadets were already attending the academy but faced enormous difficulties due to hostility from the other cadets. Flipper overcame these obstacles, and in 1877 he became the first of the group to graduate. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, and assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, becoming the first Black officer to command soldiers in the regular U.S. Army. But while Flipper served with distinction, he faced intense resentment from some white officers and was targeted by a smear campaign that culminated in a court martial and his dismissal from the Army in 1882. In 1999, President Bill Clinton posthumously pardoned Flipper.
Buffalo Soldiers also played significant roles in many other military actions. They took part in defusing the little-known 1892 Johnson County War in Wyoming, which pitted small farmers against wealthy ranchers and a band of hired gunmen. While renowned for their fighting abilities, the Buffalo Soldiers were also recognized for their exceptional horsemanship. Black non-commissioned officers of the 9th Cavalry began training West Point cadets in riding skills and tactics from 1907 until 1947. From the back of a horse, they fought with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War, enforced the neutrality laws along the Mexican border, saw four tours of duty in the Philippine Islands, and battled Pancho Villa during the Mexican Punitive Expedition under John J. Pershing.
The Buffalo Soldiers would also serve as some of the first national park rangers when the U.S. Army served as the official administrator of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks (1891-1913). They protected the parks from illegal grazing, poachers, timber thieves, and wildfires. They also oversaw the construction of park infrastructure, including the first trail to the top of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S., and the first wagon road into Sequoia National Park's renowned Giant Forest. While most of their officers were white, Charles Young, the third African American graduate of West Point, served as Acting Military Superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks –– the first African American national park superintendent.
24th Infantry Regiment courtesy of Dr. Jacqueline Jordan Irvine. Her father, Eddie Jordan, is pictured (middle row, l to r, 4th).
Discrimination played a significant role in diminishing the Buffalo Soldiers' involvement in upcoming major U.S. conflicts. During World War I, the policies of President Woodrow Wilson (who had already segregated federal offices) led to Black regiments being excluded from the American Expeditionary Force and placed under French command for the duration of the war –– the first time ever that American troops had been put under the command of a foreign power.
Captain Merrel Moody instructs Privates Enichel Kennedy, Oscar Davis, B. D. Kroninger and Will Johnson of Infantry School Stables, on the proper way to clean a saddle. Ft. Benning, Georgia (July 25, 1941)
At the end of World War I, the 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments were re-designated as “school troops” at Fort Benning. Soldiers would work chiefly as cooks and laborers, not line infantry. School troops built the infrastructure of roads, housing, firing ranges, gymnasium and PX, Gowdy Field, and Doughboy Stadium. They would provide 80% of the labor to build Fort Benning, However, in World War II, the 92nd Infantry Division –– known as the "Buffalo Division" –– saw combat during the invasion of Italy, while another division that included the original Buffalo Soldier 25th Infantry Regiment fought in the Pacific theater.
Sergeant John Hill riding on Jumping Dan Ware, the finest jumping horse in the Infantry Stables. Ft. Benning, Georgia (July 25, 1941)
On December 30, 1943, an all-Black company - including officers - was activated and began airborne training at Fort Benning. After several months, the segregated unit was moved to Camp Mackall, North Carolina, where it was reorganized and redesignated as Company A of the newly activated 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. Unlike other African American infantry units led by whites, the 555th was entirely Black with six Black officers also completing jump training. At a time when the Army traditionally relegated Black service members to menial jobs, the Triple Nickles succeeded in becoming the nation's first Black parachute infantry test platoon, company, and battalion. The unit was given the unprecedented and undeniably dangerous job of jumping into forests that were set on fire by the nation’s enemy at war.
The 555th was nicknamed “Triple Nickles” because of its numerical designation and because 17 of its original 24 “colored test platoon” were from the 92nd Infantry (“Buffalo Soldiers”) Division of the U.S. Army. By late 1944, the first platoon of Triple Nickles was fully trained, combat-ready, and alerted for European duty. The men were anxious to fight Hitler’s Nazis in Europe or the Japanese in the Pacific. Instead, racial military politics and changing war conditions kept the paratrooper’s home and away from the war they had been trained to fight.
The Triple Nickles included a skilled mix of former university students, top-notch professional athletes, and veteran non-commissioned officers. In 1945, the unit was secretly assigned to a series of firefighting missions in the Pacific Northwest Region. This special assignment, called Operation Firefly, saw the Triple Nickles transferred to Pendleton, Oregon. While there, the unit was trained by the Forest Service to become the first military smokejumpers in U.S. history. That spring, the Triple Nickles parachuted into U.S. forests to battle wildfires that were set ablaze by incendiary balloons the Japanese were delivering across the Pacific Ocean. The Triple Nickles went on to operate in all the northwestern states. When the battalion was finally deactivated in 1947, their impact was undeniable.
The Triple Nickles, a company of 165 men, was activated from 1944 until the end of World War II and on until 1947, breaking the color barrier in the military. Not since the Buffalo Soldiers had Blacks had such prominent wartime posts. By the end of World War II, there were more than 400 Black paratroopers. Unlike the Tuskegee Airmen, the well-known Black fighter pilots, many people are unaware of the Triple Nickles because the battalion was assigned to a secret mission. The battalion's success could not be denied, and Gen. James Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, recommended that the Triple Nickles be integrated and become the 3rd Battalion of the 505th Infantry Regiment. This paved the way for Black soldiers to become part of the 82nd Airborne Division, one of the most prestigious departments of the Army.
Major James C. Queen (pictured above) dedicated his life to fighting forest fires as a 555 paratrooper during the war. While serving, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, and other bases, where he underwent extensive training despite the many forms of discrimination that often-hindered Black soldiers from advancing through the ranks. Despite the roadblocks, in 1994 Queen went on to become the first African American inductee into the Ranger Hall of Fame for his leadership during the Korean War.
Just as the military reflected contemporary social relations, it also worked to change them. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order to abolish racial discrimination in the armed forces. But it took the Korean War to bring any real integration, where the 24th Infantry again led the way.
The last segregated U.S. Army regiments were disbanded in 1951 during the Korean War, and their soldiers were integrated into other units. On September 6, 2005, Mark Matthews, the oldest living Buffalo Soldier, died at the age of 111.
Mark Matthews was a veteran of World War II. He was born in Alabama and grew up in Ohio. Matthews joined the 10th Cavalry Regiment when he was only 15 years old.
Next Week: Next Thursday, we will begin exploring the history of the theater and music in Columbus' early history. Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!