To be a paratrooper requires important skills and qualifications. One must undertake challenging and complex training and must be very physically fit. It also comes with bravery as one will be jumping out of airplanes into unfamiliar zones.
During the second world war, the Triple Nickles, or the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, proved everyone wrong when they exhibited all the above. Their military superiors thought that African Americans could not perform well at jobs that required specialized training. The Triple Nickles, a company of African-American paratroopers, beat the odds and opened the doors for integration in the military, making Black history and history in the army.
At the time, African Americans that had been accepted into the military when the second world war started were not given combat positions. They were just support personnel who did the cleaning, cooking, laundry and carpentry work. Others worked as clerks and guards or road builders. Black men who became officers could only be in charge of other Blacks in the military. They had separate housing, meals, and places for recreation.
Some of these African Americans in the army worked as support personnel at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the Army’s new parachute school was located. They watched the white men train to be paratroopers and it broke their hearts that they couldn’t join them or be made to do similar jobs.
Walter Morris, a first sergeant at Fort Benning who was a clerk, saw how dejected his fellow soldiers were. He thought carefully about their situation and realized that if the white soldiers finished their training in the evening around 4 p.m. and the support staff finished all their work, he could gather some of them to also undertake the training the white soldiers go through.
A report by America Comes Alive says that “Morris gathered the men and began guiding them through the same rigorous calisthenics he had observed being performed by the white soldiers. Some of the equipment was not accessible without specialized trainers, but for jumping preparation, there was a 5-foot tower the men could use. This exercise provided the feeling of jumping off something high, and it also let them practice learning to land with their weight well-distributed. Evenly distributed weight is key to reducing injuries.”
As the men trained one evening, the base’s commanding general saw them and summoned Morris to headquarters the next day. There, he told Morris that he was pleased with what he was doing, adding that there were plans to introduce a test platoon of African-American paratroopers of which Morris would be their first sergeant.
On February 18, 1944, sixteen soldiers became America’s first Black paratroopers. The name “Triple Nickles” was shorthand for their official title, the 555th Parachute Infantry Company. The company would become a skilled mix of former university students, veteran non-commissioned officers and professional athletes. Even though they had qualified as paratroopers, they could still not eat, live or participate in recreational activities with white soldiers.
And whereas other divisions of the army were deployed overseas during the second world war, the Triple Nickles did not. They were never sent to Europe to fight, instead, in 1945, they were secretly assigned to firefighting missions in the Pacific Northwest Region. Operation Firefly was what their special assignment came to be known. It saw the Triple Nickles transferred to Pendleton, Oregon. Some were also sent to Chico, California. They were trained by the Forest Service to become the first military smokejumpers in U.S. history.
The unit was used to jumping into the clear, but now as smokejumpers, they had to aim for the trees and then slide down the trees to enable them to land near a blaze.
According to the Forest Service, that spring, the Triple Nickles parachuted into U.S. forests to fight wildfires that were set ablaze by incendiary balloons the Japanese were delivering across the Pacific Ocean. The unit would go on to operate in all the northwestern states.
Their mission concluded in October 1945 and by 1947, the battalion was deactivated. When President H. Truman signed Executive order 9981, enabling equality of treatment and opportunity in the Armed Forces for people of all races, national origins and religions, the Triple Nickles had already attained that feat, thanks to hard work and determination and the pioneering work of Morris.