“Everybody was crying,” said Charles Stevens, a onetime member of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment in a 2010 interview with the Fort Jackson Leader. “I think we were crying for two different reasons. We were glad that segregation was leaving the Army and we were sad we were losing our Triple Nickle colors.”
Their mission of combating Japanese balloon-bombs and wildfires complete in the Pacific Northwest, the paratroopers of the 555th PIR returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina in October 1945. There, they conducted base and mission support operations while conducting very little military training.
Back at Fort Bragg, the men of the 555th PIR and their families continued to experience racism. African American soldiers and their families lived in converted barracks in a region known as Spring Lake, had to ride at the back of the bus and could only use the balcony area of the Fayetteville theater.
Recognizing their contributions and potential while holding a strong belief in racial integration, Maj. Gen. Jim Gavin, onetime commander of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, ensured the “Triple Nickles” marched in the New York City Victory Parade held January 12, 1946 and that they wore the symbols and patches of the 82nd Airborne Division.
“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, a “Triple Nickle” in a 2016 interview with The Ledger.
As developments in rocketry made WWII airborne tactics obsolete, Gavin used the 555th PIR to test new methods of insertion, dispersion and marshalling techniques. In July 1947, the 555th PIR was attached to the 504th PIR to conduct a training exercise known as “Operation Combine” at Fort Benning, Georgia. The joint exercise incorporated elements from the Army, Navy and Airforce and included four parachute jumps.
In October of that year, the “Triple Nickles” were attached to the 505th PIR and on December 9, 1947, the 555th PIR was redesignated as the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. In one bold move, Gavin formally ended segregation in the Army by integrating African American troops into the division’s formation and ended the battalion’s all-African American status by placing Lt. Col. Frank Linnell as their first white commander.
Seven months later, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, granting the African American paratroopers full rights as American Soldiers as it established equality of treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services for everyone, regardless of their race, religion or national origin.
From the 82nd Airborne Division’s lead, the Army would take another five years to fully integrate. Racism and segregation, in different forms and degrees, still lingered. Yet, the brave men of the 555th PIR set in motion events leading to the strength and diversity of today’s Army.