Paratroopers proved their tactical prowess and combat acumen during a demanding field exercise conducted late February and early March on Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Paratroopers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division proved their ability to synchronize a multitude of lethal assets and Mission Command elements during the brigade’s Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise from February 18, 2019 to March 5, 2019.
“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.
“There was a terrible explosion. Twigs flew through the air, pine needles began to fall, dead branches and dust, and dead logs went up” said Richard Barnhouse to Oregon’s Mail Tribune, describing the detonation of a Japanese bomb.
However, Barnhouse not talking about combat in the Pacific Theater; World War II Japan was attacking the United States.
The Japanese fire balloon campaign, known as Fu-Go, involved hydrogen-filled balloons carried across the ocean by the Jet Stream to the US’ West Coast, where they would drop their payload of explosives.
The men of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment answered the nation’s call to fight back. Never reaching the necessary manning to fight in the European Theater, the 555th PIR received orders on May 5th, 1945 to report to Oregon and be assigned to the 9th Services Command.
Their primary mission; recovery and destruction of Japanese balloon-bombs; firefighting was their secondary mission according to a report published by the U.S. Army War College.
Arriving at Pendleton Field, Oregon a week later, the men of the 555th PIR conducted more training in land navigation, medical aid and physical endurance while waiting for their equipment to arrive.
Even there, the all African American unit faced discrimination much like that of the deep South when training at Fort Benning. The paratroopers found it difficult to buy a drink or a meal in the town of Pendleton and the commander of the base did not want them mixing with the base’s population. Undaunted, the paratroopers continued taking pride in their skills and staged demonstration jumps for local civilians.
By that time, however, the Fu-Go campaign was tapering off, the Japanese reportedly having used it as an effort to improve morale among factory workers, telling them the balloons were causing havoc in Los Angeles or Seattle.
They soon received training by the U.S. Forest Service to parachute into heavily wooded areas and fight fires caused by the Fu-Go balloons, careless campers and lightning. Specially equipped and trained, the “Triple Nickle” paratroopers became the forefathers of modern-day Smokejumpers.
Based at Pendleton Field, Oregon with a detachment at Chico, the 555th PIR responded to 36 fire calls, making more than 1,200 individual jumps.
More than thirty paratroopers sustained injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to broken legs and even crushed chests. Tragically, Malvin L. Brown, a medic assigned to Headquarters Company, died August 6, 1945 after falling while trying to descend from a tree.
While at Camp Pendleton, the 555th PIR would establish another historic landmark. On July 25, 1945, fifty-four men conducted a full combat-equipment jump with live ammunition. After their initial assault on their objective, they marked it and called in Naval aircraft piloted by trainees to bomb and strafe it. This marked the first time African-American paratroopers to conduct a joint operation with the Navy.
Even with the accomplishment of these tremendous feats, their most important footsteps were yet to come.