555. It isn’t just a series of repetitive numbers — it is an important legacy that has an impact even on today’s paratroopers.
The 555th Parachute Infantry Unit was the first all-African-American parachute infantry test platoon, company and battalion in the United States Army, said Timothy McCoy, national historian, 555th Parachute Infantry Association.
Activated in December 1943, the unit was nicknamed the “Triple Nickles” because of the three fives in its name and the selection of the majority of its members from the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division (Buffalo Nickles).
The original test platoon included 20 Soldiers who fought their way through discrimination at Fort Benning, Georgia during airborne school, McCoy said. Of the original 20, 16 graduated with their airborne wings. A couple weeks later, Carstell Stewart, who was set to graduate with the original class but was called home on emergency leave, graduated as well.
Shortly after, a group of six officers graduated from airborne school and the company moved to Camp Mackall, North Carolina.
Word spread throughout the Army’s ranks and eventually hundreds of African-American Soldiers volunteered for the 555th, said to McCoy. As a result, the company was reorganized as a battalion in 1944.
During World War II, the Triple Nickles served the nation as smoke jumpers in Pendleton Field, Oregon and Chico, California, said McCoy.
“After Japanese bombs came into Oregon, the forest service requested paratroopers and 300 (Triple Nickle) Soldiers went to Pendleton (Field), Oregon and part went to California,” he said. “They didn’t detonate a lot of balloon bombs mainly because most of the fires they put out were caused by lightning strikes.”
McCoy said 555th was also one of the first units to perform a mass tactical jump out of gliders. However, their heritage doesn’t end there.
In December 1947, Gen. James Gavin petitioned the War Department for permission to bring the Triple Nickles into the 82nd Airborne Division, said Joe Murchison, president, 555th PIA. The War Department granted Gavin’s request and the 555th was officially inactivated on Dec. 15, 1947.
All members of the unit became paratroopers in the 3rd Battalion, 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. As a result, Gavin integrated the 82nd Abn. Div. about six months before President Harry Truman ordered all United States military service divisions to integrate, according to McCoy.
“We were the first blacks in the 82nd (Airborne Division) in the regular Army as paratroopers,” Murchison said.
In 1950, the Army split the Soldiers of the 3rd Bn, 505th AIR into thirds, said Murchison. One group went to Fort Benning and became the first all-African-American Ranger unit, the 2nd Ranger Infantry Company (Airborne); one group was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and integrated the 11th Airborne Division; and one group stayed at Fort Bragg as the 3rd Bn., 505th AIR.
Over the years, the original members of the 555th participated in important missions with their new units, including during the Korean War.
Murchison said that he is proud of these accomplishments. He said he is especially proud his unit proved to the world that African-American Soldiers do have the courage and ability to jump out of an airplane in flight and then carry out a ground mission. McCoy agreed.
“Every black paratrooper owes a debt to the Triple Nickle because they proved that it could happen,” McCoy said. “Their legacy is still alive. It’s a proud legacy and it needs to be widely disseminated.”