Dorothy's List: 'Courage Has No Color'

Dec 1, 2014

Courage Has No Color, by Vermont author Tanya Lee Stone, is the true story of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, which was created during World War II. The battalion was known as the Triple Nickels. The men who made up the Triple Nickels were the first African Americans to serve in the United States military as paratroopers.

At the Cabot School, librarian Holly Kruse and her students helped create an online reading club for DCF books called the DCF Quest Club. Participating students read books nominated for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award, such as Courage Has No Color, and create projects about the books. Club members earn points and badges for finishing books and projects.

Cabot students also had questions they wanted to ask the author of Courage Has No Color. Dorothy's List put their questions to Tanya Lee Stone:

Evan Fuller: Why do you write about history and not other things? I’m not saying that I don’t like history but…

Cabot School sixth grader Evan Fuller.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Tanya Lee Stone: Well, when I was your age, I probably would have said the same thing about history. And the biggest reason for that is there were not a lot of books that were telling historical stories in storytelling ways. So the history was presented to me in fairly dry approaches and it didn’t engage me as a reader. I wasn’t excited about it. And as I got older and found books that did do that I thought, “Oh, history isn’t boring.” Histories are stories about people who are ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. And that’s all history is. And so when you start to look at history from that point of view and you realize that these are just amazing stories about incredible people who have done cool things, then it’s never boring. And that’s why I love to write about history because that allows me to learn about history in exciting ways that are new to me, the writer. And then I get to share them with you guys.

Lucia McCallum: The first two pages of your book is from the perspective of a paratrooper about to jump. Do you think that every paratrooper would feel the same way?

Tanya Lee Stone: Since you used the word “every” paratrooper, no, I can’t know that every paratrooper would feel that same way. So, as a nonfiction author, I have to make sure that I’m not going to gloss over that word that you used. However, I will tell you that I talked to many, many paratroopers in order to write those first two pages. And all of the experiences that they told me themselves were words and phrases that I used in order to be able to write that scene. So that scene is representative of how many paratroopers do feel.

Billie O’Connor: If you were in the same position do you think you would be brave enough, either to stand up for the right to serve your country, or even to be able to jump out of a plane?

Tanya Lee Stone: That’s a great question and the answer is: I hope so. I can’t know for sure, because I’ve never been put in that position. But I really hope so. And I really admire their bravery.

Billie O’Connor:  Why the Triple Nickels? There were so many other all-African American platoons during WWII. Why did you choose the Triple Nickels specifically?

Tanya Lee Stone: So that’s a really interesting question and I’ll tell you why. Because there weren’t so many other all-African American platoons during World War II. There were really only a handful, and they were all experimental. They were all put together in order to be able to provide some evidence that African Americans were equally good soldiers as white soldiers. And the few that did exist, other than the Triple Nickels, have been written about. So you’ve heard about the Tuskegee Airmen. But you didn’t hear about them until somebody wrote a book about them. And you might have heard of the 769th Tank Battalion. But no one had ever written about the Triple Nickels, so it was an untold story. So if somebody didn’t write about it, it would have remained an untold story. And then we wouldn’t know their incredible tale of what they did. So that’s why I chose them. I am really drawn to missing pieces of history and I’m trying to do my part to fill in some of those missing pieces of our history.

Cabot School sixth grader Maxine Taylor holds one of her DCF Quest Club projects.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Maxine Taylor: What do you think World War II would have been like without African Americans?

Tanya Lee Stone: Wow, that is really hard to imagine. It’s really hard to imagine any period of our history without any group of people who are part of our society. One way that World War II would have been different, unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, is that the whole support system for the white soldiers who were allowed to go into combat because, remember, most African American soldiers were not allowed to go into combat — the whole support system underlying the military in all the branches were the African American soldiers. So they were doing the incredibly important but sometimes thankless jobs of guard duty, and kitchen work, and driving trucks, and loading and unloading cargo, and things like that. And so, without their help that would have been a huge missing piece of support.

Isabel Maine-Torres: If you could have met one person during this time, who would it be and what would you have asked?

Tanya Lee Stone: Another excellent question. So, I’m going to answer that by first saying who I was able to meet. Because there were several people in this story who were still alive when I was writing it and who I was able to spend time with. So Walter Morris is the main hero in the story. I was lucky enough to be able to get to spend time with and get to know him over the last 10 years as well as a few of the other soldiers. But I think the one person who I have always wanted to go back in history to be able to meet and talk to is Eleanor Roosevelt. And I think the one question I would ask her is how much she actually influenced her husband. Because she was responsible for a lot of the things related to this story and other things that happened during World War II, and before World War II and after World War II, that had to do with equality and racism and discrimination. For example, she was the reason that Franklin Delano Roosevelt put together something called The Black Cabinet, so that he could be better informed as to what African Americans in the United States wanted from their government. So I think the answer would be Eleanor Roosevelt. And I would ask her how much she really influenced her husband, the president.

Lucia McCallum: The book was obviously about African American soldiers, but were you aiming for an even larger point against racism and discrimination?

Tanya Lee Stone: I love the way you phrased that question, because the word “aiming” means you’re thinking about the author’s intention, which is really smart. In order to tell the story about these African American soldiers, I also needed to make a larger point against racism and discrimination. For one reason, to ground you in the historical context of what was going on in America at that time. And the other reason is related to the first reason, is that so you would have a better understanding of why their story is so important. Why does it matter so much? Because if it was set at a different time, it would have a different feeling to it. So, really the answer to your question is yes, I was aiming for an even larger point against racism and discrimination because that is the backdrop against which this story is set.

Cabot School sixth grader Victoria Mayo.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Victoria Mayo: Do you think discrimination still exists in the military?

Tanya Lee Stone: I think discrimination still exists everywhere.

While examples of discrimination are still easy to find, Tanya Lee Stone remains focused on helping kids learn from injustices of the past.

Next month on Dorothy's List, Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan. Dorothy's List is supported by the VPR Journalism Fund.