Jumping into history: The Army’s first African American paratroopers

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Live
Army paratroopers of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion stand at ease during inspection. The men were issued "let-down" ropes and football helmets with face masks to assist during forest landings while detailed to the U.S. Forest Service, where they served as "smoke jumpers" at the end of World War II. (U.S. Army photo)

Army paratroopers of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion stand at ease during inspection. The men were issued “let-down” ropes and football helmets with face masks to assist during forest landings while detailed to the U.S. Forest Service, where they served as “smoke jumpers” at the end of World War II. (U.S. Army photo)

 

In the early 1940s, black Soldiers were not permitted to use the post exchange at Fort Benning, Ga. Italian and German prisoners of war were allowed inside, but not black American troops.

“That was upsetting to a great many Soldiers serving at the time, and really illustrates the level of discrimination in the military,” said Maj. Michael Fowles, an acquisitions officer at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Walter Morris, Fowles’ grandfather, was a classification clerk in the service company at Fort Benning’s parachute school. He was proud of his service in the military and believed that he and his company were capable of so much more than their janitorial duties around the post, and set out to prove it. Morris went above and beyond his duties as the acting first sergeant to improve the morale of his troops, but no one expected him to make history.

Earning their wings

“We normally did the menial things,” Joseph Murchison, president of the Triple Nickle Association, said, “like cooking and cleaning and that sort of thing.”

Morris’ service company was responsible for cleaning up the physical training areas of the white paratroopers who were training for parachute duty, Murchison explained, along with any other cleanup tasks around the post.

“Walter Morris, on his own, saw that he had a group of people who had very low morale, who didn’t care very much about their appearance or anything like that,” Murchison said. So, he took it upon himself to improve the situation.

When the company had finished their regular duties and the white paratroopers had finished their training, Morris would take his Soldiers out to run the same course.

Day after day, Morris led the way through the parachute-training course, which had 34-foot towers, mock aircraft and pull-up bars. They ran, did pushups — anything the white paratroopers did, Morris’ company did. After a while, the men in the company gained a renewed sense of self.

“(He) made them more proud of themselves, and they started wearing their uniforms and cleaning them better,” Murchison said.

Of course, Black troops training on the paratroopers’ course drew some notice. One day while Morris’ company was on the course, the commanding general drove past and saw them drilling. He summoned Morris to his office the next morning.

“Of course, if you heard the story from Walter, he’d tell you that going up to see the general he was scared to death, he didn’t know what he’d done. He said he rode his bike over to the general’s office the following morning and explained to the general what was going on, what he was doing, and the general told him ‘I’m going to tell you something you don’t know, Walter Morris,’” Murchison said.

The general was impressed with Morris’ initiative and explained that there would be an African-American paratrooper test platoon, Fowles said. Morris was asked to be the first sergeant of that platoon.

“He goes to see the general and expects to be admonished and instead, he leaves there with a promotion on his mind, the potential to be a paratrooper,” Fowles continued. “He said he knows he rode his bike to the general’s office but he doesn’t know … how he got back.”

On Dec. 31, 1943, Morris was officially assigned to the 555th Parachute Infantry Company, which was affectionately nicknamed the Triple Nickles. Training started in January of 1944, the platoon populated with Soldiers from Fort Benning itself as well as the 92nd Infantry Division in Fort Huachuca. The black paratroopers trained twice as hard as their white counterparts, needing to be better than everyone else to be considered equal. Murchison speculated that the 555th became one of the best-trained battalions in the Army at the time. On Feb. 8, 1944, the paratroopers graduated, 17 of them receiving their wings.

Morris was the first person in the platoon to jump out of an aircraft, his grandson explained, making him the first official black paratrooper in the Army.

The Triple Nickles

“So many black Soldiers wanted to be paratroopers; there was too many people to simply establish a company, so the 555th quickly became a battalion,” Fowles said. There were not enough officers to handle the rapid growth of the Triple Nickles, so Morris was sent to officer candidate school and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Shortly after, the battalion received its first set of orders.

The 555th expected to be assigned somewhere in Europe, supporting their fellow Soldiers in the fight against Hitler, but the Army thought black paratroopers and white paratroopers would fight with one another if they were deployed in the same area. That turned out to be completely untrue, Murchison said, but the misconceptions of the time led the 555th to be loaned out to the United States Forest Service in April of 1945.

The Triple Nickles were assigned as a 300-man smokejumper, or airborne, firefighting component.

“Smoke jumping is a position that is used on the fire line,” Deidra McGee, Forest Service public affairs officer, explained. People jump out of planes and into rugged terrain to establish a fire line. The 555th was assigned to the Forest Service as part of Operation Firefly, which was a joint military-civilian effort to combat wildfire threats from Japanese incendiary bombs.

“Balloons were landing in Canada, all the way down to Mexico, and as far east as Boise, Idaho,” Murchison said, “and they were responsible for some fires on the West Coast and the Forest Service needed fire fighters. There were no road networks like we have now, and there was no way to get people into place in a hurry, so they asked the Army if they could lend them some paratroopers.”

The 555th participated in fire training conducted by the Forest Service at Camp Pendleton, Ore., learning the best ways to put out fires and how to land among the trees — something paratroopers are told to avoid. They were also given demolition training so they could disable any unexploded bombs.

“They started wearing football helmets and made face masks out of chicken wire in order to protect their faces,” Murchison said.  The men were also given 50-foot long ropes to repel down if they became stuck in trees. The government kept Firefly a secret at the time, Fowles explained, because it didn’t want the American people to know the country had been attacked in any way, and it also wanted to keep the enemy from thinking their line of attack had been successful.

The Japanese sent balloon bombs with incendiary or explosive capabilities across the ocean and into the Pacific Northwest from November 1944 through April of 1945. They were paper balloons, designed to drop four incendiaries, one at a time, as they blew eastward. After all the weapons had been dropped, an explosive charge would go off to destroy the balloon, leaving almost no evidence of its presence. More than 9,000 of these balloons were launched, but only 342 were reported in North America, according to the Forest Service.

All in all, the 555th had 36 fire missions, which included 1,200 individual jumps.

“By the time the Triple Nickles got involved with it, the (smokejumping) program was only about five or six years old, so they were some of the earlier smoke jumpers to be involved … and they were some of the first (black) smokejumpers — pioneers — to be involved in the profession,” McGee said.

The operation came to a close in August of 1945 and the battalion returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., where they continued on as regular paratroopers.

Integration

Murchison, who joined the Triple Nickles early in 1947, was there when Walter Morris and the battalion were officially integrated into the 82nd Airborne Division, months before Harry Truman wrote Executive Order 9981, which integrated the American military.

“The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was deactivated on Dec. 9, 1947 and at the same time, reactivated as the 3rd Battalion of the 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division,” Murchison said.

First Lt. Walter Morris’ service continued long after his career in the Army. He was proactive in his community at home, Fowles said, working through his 90s. He would assemble food baskets for poor communities through his church, assist in holiday donation drives for toys and clothes and help host Thanksgiving dinner for the needy.

“His sense of community was profound,” Fowles said. “His sense of responsibility and his sense of justice — the three of those things have resonated in my life.”

Morris attended Fowles’ high school, college and Army training graduations, right through his graduation from Airborne school, where Morris pinned his own wings on Fowles. The close relationship between grandfather and grandson taught Fowles to always seek responsibility.

“And that’s what (Morris) did. When he arrived at the service company, he was an E-5, he wasn’t the first sergeant,” Fowles said. “But he went to the commander and asked if he could be the acting first sergeant because he saw some changes that could be made and he wanted to take on the responsibility to ensure that change was implemented.

“Fortunately, he was given that opportunity and that’s what I walk away with every day.”

Morris passed away Oct. 13, 2013 at the age of 92, leaving behind a lasting legacy.

“(Walter) was a totally outstanding individual,” Murchison said. “He was my hero and my friend.”

  • Jerome

    Good piece. AATW

  • Mark A. Duce Thomas

    As A Past President of local Triple Nickel chapter, Samuel Council Chapter of the 555th PIA, Ft Bragg, NC, I would like to say after meeting Walter Morris for the first time, I was astonished by the path he and his fellow paratroopers had paved for the entire country as a whole. Once a paratrooper, Always a paratrooper! AIRBORNE! All The Way!!

    • carriemcleroy1

      Thank you for your service, sir. Anyone who has met Mr. Morris and his fellow troopers feels the same. ATW!

  • Gilbert Wells

    I went through Parachute School at Ft Benning, GA in March 1945 along with replacements for the 555. We knew they were on a secret mission but did not know what it was until after WW II. I wound up in Manila as a replacement for the 11th
    Airborne and then went on the Occupation of Japan.

    Enjoyed their
    Monday morning marching songs during training.
    Gilbert Wells

    • carriemcleroy1

      Thank you for sharing with us, Mr. Wells, and for your service.

    • Rick Cruzen

      God Bless you too!! I now live in a Free Philippine island because of your efforts!

      • Seve’ Spruill, Sr.

        My grandfather was one of the first black paratroopers in the 11th, James Lewis, once the 555 got integrated.

  • Deborah L. Parker

    This is a wonderful acknowledgement of those who still remain ‘proud to serve’. My late uncle CSM (RET) Harris L. Parker was national president of 555th PIA ‘Triple Nickel’ back in the 1990s…

    • Deborah L. Parker

      My uncle with President Bill Clinton at the 50th anniversary celebration of the 555th PIA in 1994

  • Rick Cruzen

    Love the story of a True American!! God Bless him and his Family!