Fort Bragg-based paratroopers conducted a static-line jump Friday, February 1, 2019 to maintain their proficiency at airborne operations and follow-on missions.
Paratroopers from Headquarters, Headquarters Company and the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion conducted a combat-equipment static-line airborne operation onto Fort Bragg’s Normandy Drop Zone and rehearsed their roles as part of an Assault Command Post afterwards.
“When I got my (paratrooper) wings, MPs stopped me and said ‘You are out of uniform soldier.’ The paratrooper uniform was distinct with 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, in a 2010 interview with Bill Rufty of The Ledger.
Though paratroopers in every way, men of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment faced fierce discrimination in 1944 as they trained at Fort Benning’s Jump School and conducted drills at Camp Mackall and Fort Bragg in anticipation of WWII combat missions.
“We as colored soldiers in Ft. 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 Mar. 4, 1944, the first officers of the all African American unit graduated parachute school where, due to the comradery of the airborne community, they faced a measure of equality from the all-white cadre. In a review before Brig. Gen. Gaither, 1st Lt. Jasper Ross, 2nd Lt. Bradley Biggs, 2nd Lt. Clifford Allen, 2nd Lt. Edward Baker, 2nd Lt. Warren Cornelius and 2nd Lt. 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 on Fort Bragg, but they were not welcome in the non-commissioned or officer’s clubs said a Mar. 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 sixty-six 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.
“We were the only black outfit in the parade in New York,” he said, “but they cut off the movie cameras before they got to us. We only have still photos,” said Jordon J. Corbett when interviewed by Suzie Schottelkotte of The Ledger.
Corbett was a member of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment, an outfit of all African-American parachutists who, after distinguished service during World War II, marched alongside the 82nd Airborne Division in the New York City Victory Parade on January 12, 1946.
General James Gavin, then-commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, ensured the “Triple Nickles” as they were known, marched in the parade. He would also play a key role in their reassignment to the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment; making the 82nd Airborne Division the first racially integrated unit in the Army on December 15, 1947.
On December 19, 1943, Headquarters, Army Ground Forces authorized what would become the 555th PIR according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Based on a December 1942 recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies, both the officers and enlisted were to compose the African-American unit. Troop selection was to occur from the 92nd Infantry Division based at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Like all paratroop units, they were to all be volunteers.
After its official activation December 30, 1943 at Fort Benning, Georgia, the unit had several months of training and eventually moved to Camp Mackall, North Carolina. The unit would be reorganized and redesignated November 25, 1944, the Company A of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
The “Triple Nickles” would never serve in conflict. Never reaching the full strength of an Airborne Infantry Battalion, the 555th PIR instead received orders to deploy to the West Coast in support of a secret mission named “Operation Firefly.”
Though in equal in all ways to all paratroopers, the men of the 555th PIR would face fierce racial discrimination both in the service and in the country they served.