“When I got my (paratrooper) wings, MPs stopped me and said ‘You are out of uniform Soldier.’ The paratrooper uniform was distinct with a special insignia on the cap, the pants bloused into jump boots (instead of regular dress shoes). I think a lot of it was the Army didn’t put out that it had black paratroopers,” said Sgt. Jordan J. Corbett, a member of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), in a 2010 interview with Bill Rufty of The Ledger.
Though paratroopers in every way, men of the 555th PIR faced fierce discrimination in 1944 as they trained at jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia and conducted drills at Camp Mackall and Fort Bragg in anticipation of World War II combat missions.
“We as colored Soldiers in Fort Benning could not go into the main Post Exchange. We looked in (and) could see the German and Italian prisoners of war sitting down at the same table with white Soldiers,” said 2nd Lt. Walter Morris.
On March 4, 1944, the first officers of the all African American unit graduated parachute school where, due to the camaraderie of the airborne community, they faced a measure of equality from the all-white cadre.
In a review before Brig. Gen. Ridgely Gaither, 1st Lt. Jasper Ross, 2nd Lts. Bradley Biggs, Clifford Allen, Edward Baker, Warren Cornelius and Edin Wills, along with the enlisted African-American paratroops who graduated before them, would form the cadre in charge of receiving and training the men of the “Triple Nickles.”
The African-American paratroopers had to use separate facilities for “Colored” people and had to use extreme caution whenever they went off-post; police would incarcerate them at the slightest provocation instead of fining them.
Racism was also present on-post; the paratroopers could use the theater in the airborne area at Fort Bragg, but they were not welcome in the noncommissioned or officer’s clubs said a March 1990 study published by the U.S. Army War College.
However, the all-volunteer 555th PIR faced problems trying to grow to its authorized strength of 29 officers, one warrant officer and 600 enlisted.
With many of the recruits not meeting the demanding expectations or vigorous physical requirements of the four-week long parachute school, the battalion never reached more than 66 percent of its authorized strength.
It was this reason why the “Triple Nickles” would receive orders for a top-secret mission on America’s West Coast.
Author’s Note: This article is the second in a multi-part series honoring the brave paratroopers of the 555th PIR.