African-Americans had served as Soldiers in the armed forces from the time the United States became a country, but they had always been set apart and usually given the most menial tasks.
By World War II, black Soldiers couldn’t even use the post exchange at Fort Benning, Georgia even though German and Italian prisoners of war could. Black Soldiers were grouped in all black units with white officers.
Walter Morris, a classification clerk in the service company at Fort Benning, Georgia’s parachute school, was proud of his service, but knew that he and his fellow African-American Soldiers could do more than janitorial work.
His service company was responsible for cleaning up the training areas of the white paratroopers. His troops had low morale, and he worked hard to improve their spirits.
“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 of the like,” said Joseph Murchison, president of the 555th Parachute Infantry Association and a veteran who served with the
555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.
Morris decided to take matters into his own hands. After the day of training for the white Soldiers was over, he would take his unit out to the training course and have them run through the paratrooper drills and obstacle courses.
He put his Soldiers into the 34-foot towers and mock aircraft on the training grounds to have them practice exiting aircraft. The Soldiers in his unit began to feel a renewed sense of purpose and a feeling of self worth.
They started to wear their uniforms correctly and carried themselves with pride.
Morris’s training could hardly fail to gain attention. He was called into a general’s office, and fully expected to be in trouble for what he had done.
Instead, the general told him of a new unit that the Army was working to set up — an all African-American unit of paratroopers, that included black officers. Morris was asked to be the first sergeant of the new unit.
“He goes to see the general and expects to be admonished, and instead, he leaves with a promotion on his mind, the potential to be a paratrooper. He said he knew he rode his bike to the general’s office but he doesn’t know … how he got back,” said Maj. Michael Fowles, Walter Morris’s grandson.
It is said that Morris was the first member of his platoon out of the plane during their first jump, making him the first official African- American paratrooper, his grandson said.
The 555th PIB became the first ever battalion with black Soldiers serving both as officers and enlisted personnel. The battalion was activated upon recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies in December 1942.
They were nicknamed the Triple Nickles, a reference to their unit number.
Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall decided to create a test company rather than a full battalion, and on Feb. 25, 1943, the 555th Parachute Infantry Company was set-up with all volunteers. The company was officially activated on Dec. 30, 1943 at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Training at Benning was a success and the 555th moved to Camp Mackall, North Carolina a few months later. They had proven themselves and were redesignated as Company A of the newly created 555th PIB.
The 555th didn’t serve overseas; they weren’t able to get up to full strength before the end of World War II. Instead, they were sent to the Pacific coast to help the U.S. Forest Service in an operation that became known as Operation Firefly. It was their job to combat forest fires ignited by Japanese balloons carrying bombs.
More than 9,000 balloons were launched, with a reported 342 landing in North America. These paper balloons were being sent to the west coast with the intention of starting fires, and the Forest Service had their hands full.
The Forest Service had been working on a smoke jumping program since 1939, and the Triple Nickles were thought to be a help in that arena. Throughout the fall of 1945, members of the 555th participated in 36 fire-fighting missions.
They completed 1,200 individual jumps in their efforts to establish control over the fires they were fighting. They were given the nickname “Smoke Jumpers” in addition to the Triple Nickle moniker.
In Aug. 6, 1945,
Pfc. Malvin Brown was killed after falling 140 feet during a smoke jumping operation. He was the only casualty of Operation Firefly.
In October of 1945, the 555th returned to Camp Mackall, and were then transferred to Fort Bragg. For two years, the Soldiers Triple Nickle Soldiers lived at Fort Bragg. In 1947, the 555th PIB was deactivated.
On July 26, 1948, the Army became officially desegregated, but members of the battalion had already begun the process of moving into other units. Murchison was one of the first black paratroopers to serve in the 82nd Airborne Division.
Morris continued to serve in the Army and passed his legacy down to his grandson, pinning Fowles with his own set of Airborne wings when Fowles graduated from Airborne School.
The tradition of honor of the Triple Nickles lives on.
(Editor’s Note: Information for this article was obtained from www.soldiersdodlive.mil, www.triplenickle.com and history.army.mil.)