CLARENCE BEAVERS, LAST OF A BLACK PARATROOP UNIT
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 rainy in the Northwest, the threat of wildfires kindled by the balloons’ incendiary bombs was minimized.
Instead, the paratroopers were specially trained by the United States 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 Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The elder Mr. 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, Mr. 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typically relegated to menial roles, but in late 1943 an order barring them from serving as front-line paratroopers was rescinded.
Mr. 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 Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers” (2013), by Tanya Lee Stone.
Mr. 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, Ore., and Chico, Calif., 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,” Mr. Beavers’s 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
ROY REED, TIMES REPORTER WHO COVERED THE CIVIL RIGHTS ERA
On June 6, 1966, James Meredith tried to make history for the second time. Having integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962, he announced a plan to walk from Memphis deep into his neighboring home state. Before getting very far, however, he was shot in the back by a white man.
More than 1,000 miles away in New York City, the national editor of The New York Times, Claude Sitton, was scanning the photos being transmitted by news agencies and the images on his television while looking for his reporter who was covering Mr. Meredith.
“Where’s Roy Reed?” he demanded.
To Mr. Reed’s chagrin, he had been several hundred yards down the road in a grocery store with other reporters, having a cold Coca-Cola. He scrambled to the scene, however, and filed the day’s story, then further redeemed himself by scoring the first interview with Mr. Meredith in his hospital room.
Mr. Reed, a self-professed “hick-talking Arkansawyer” who worked for The Times from 1965 until 1978, spending much of that time crisscrossing the American South, died on Sunday night at a hospital in Fayetteville, Ark., said his son, John. He was 87. He had been unconscious since having a severe stroke at his home in Hogeye, near Fayetteville, on Saturday morning.
Aside from the soda incident, a story he told on himself with perverse pride, Mr. Reed seemed to have an uncanny knack for being in the right place. He was there on Feb. 5, 1965, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was released from jail in Selma, Ala., after spending several days behind bars for trying to lead a voting-rights protest march. Mr. Reed not only wrote the front-page article; he also ended up inadvertently in the photograph that ran with it.
He was at the Pettus Bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when troopers, as he wrote, “tore through a column of Negro demonstrators with tear gas, nightsticks and whips.” Choking from his own exposure to tear gas, Mr. Reed filed a vivid story that said “the wedge moved with such force that it seemed almost to pass over the waiting column instead of through it.” As the protesters went down under the swinging billy clubs, he wrote, “a cheer went up from the white spectators lining the south side of the highway.”
Remembering the scene years later, he wrote, “I hope never again to see such hatred in the eyes of men, women and, yes, children.
A month after Bloody Sunday, he was dining in Montgomery with other reporters at the city’s Elite Restaurant. John Doar, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, was at a nearby table when he was called away to the restaurant’s phone. Mr. Doar came back “grim-faced,” Mr. Reed later recalled, and moved from table to table to tell the reporters what he had just learned: A white woman affiliated with the civil rights movement, Viola Liuzzo, had been murdered by a carload of Ku Klux Klansmen. The restaurant cleared as reporters ran to file their stories.
Each of these incidents, and the reporting by Mr. Reed and many others, helped tip the balance in the nation’s racial conflict and propel civil rights legislation through Congress.
Mr. Sitton, himself an acclaimed reporter on the civil rights movement who died in 2015, recalled Mr. Reed as “a great reporter with a wonderful grasp of what’s needed to make a story come alive.”
“He’d put you right on the scene,” Mr. Sitton said in an interview for this obituary in 2013.
In “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote that Mr. Reed “could write magically, choosing words that caught your eye.” Mr. Sitton hired him, they wrote, because he “knew Reed to be unfailingly accurate, deeply reflective, uncommonly polite, and, like the Times reporters who had preceded him in the South, he spoke Southern.”
Mr. Reed, in a memoir, “Beware of Limbo Dancers: A Correspondent’s Adventures with The New York Times,” wrote that “Speaking Southern was not just a matter of drawl or twang; it meant a different way of framing thoughts.” It meant that he understood the territory, even as he was appalled by the racism and violence that undergirded the suppression of voting rights.
Roy Earl Reed was born on Feb. 14, 1930, in Hot Springs, Ark., and grew up in Piney, in the state’s western Hill Country. His parents were Roy Edward Reed, a grocer, and Ella Meredith Reed. A younger sister, Hattie, died in 1964. In his memoir, he said that working in the store as a boy and talking to a black customer, Leroy Samuels, about the injustice of segregation helped awaken him from “generations of family prejudice lying not quite dormant in my young mind.”
In 1952, he married the former Norma Pendleton, who survives him. Besides his son, John, he is also survived by a daughter, Cynthia Buck, and five grandchildren.
Mr. Reed studied journalism at the University of Missouri, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and worked at The Globe in Joplin, Mo., from 1954 to 1956. From there, he made his way to The Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, taking time off to continue his journalism studies with a Nieman fellowship at Harvard as a member of its class of 1964.
The Times hired him six months after he returned to The Gazette. He did his first Southern reporting for the newspaper from a base in Atlanta, then moved to the Washington bureau in 1966, covering national politics and the White House.
As a White House correspondent Mr. Reed sometimes took trips with Lady Bird Johnson, often as the only male reporter in a group of 20 or 25. “All of them, including Mrs. Johnson, treated me like one of the girls,” he said.
He returned to the South in 1969 to work from New Orleans, and ended his Times career as a correspondent based in London. He said that he had loved the life of adventure and travel until he didn’t, waking up one morning and not knowing where he was. “I got out of bed and found the hotel stationery and learned that I was in a hotel in Ireland,” he wrote.
After leaving the newspaper, he taught journalism at the University of Arkansas and wrote several books, including “Looking for Hogeye,” essays about the South, published in 1986, and “Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal,” about Orval Faubus, the former Arkansas governor, in 1997.
His memoir “Beware of Limbo Dancers” was published in 2012. The title, he wrote, came from a message neatly written on the inside of a door in a bathroom stall in the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street.
“This was a style of wit that I had never before encountered,” he wrote. “I suddenly knew that I was a stranger in town — not unwelcome, just a stranger.’’
As a retired reporter he also wrote many advance obituaries about Southern figures for The Times, some of which have not yet been published.
When Mr. Reed first left the South, in 1966, his Times colleagues gave him a trophy of sorts: a wooden stand displaying a soda bottle and a brass plaque bearing the words, “WHERE’S ROY REED?”
In his memoir, Mr. Reed wrote that he could see the mortifying object on a bookshelf as he worked at his desk in Arkansas, and he confessed, “It was a while before I could see the humor in it.”
An earlier version of this obituary misspelled the name of a fellowship that Mr. Reed received. It is the Nieman fellowship, not Neiman.