The Parachute Infantry Regiment that didn’t fight

Hey, what have all these paratroopers got in common?

Hey, what have all these paratroopers got in common?

Even if you’ve studied all the combat operations in the European and Pacific theaters in World War II, you might not have heard of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment. That’s because the “Triple Nickel PIR” never deployed overseas; the segregated black unit was not wanted in either theater of combat. Army generals said that the problem wasn’t that the black troops wouldn’t perform; it was that white troops wouldn’t accept them.

As a result, the 555th PIR was committed not to combat, but to fight another threat: wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. It wasn’t a combat role, but the men did it, and did it well. In 1947, one of the very generals who hadn’t wanted them in 1944 forced their integration into the American airborne forces, and the name of the 555th vanished.

But [late 1SG Walter] Morris knew that, despite receiving second-class treatment, black troops were not second-rate service members—and in 1943, he was able to prove it. That year, First Sgt. Morris was assigned to lead a group of black troops at Fort Benning, where the army was training an elite new division: paratroopers. Although blacks were barred from serving, the proximity of the training field to the “colored” barracks allowed Morris to observe and learn the routines. Each day when the white trainees left the field, Morris assembled his men and put them through the rigors of paratrooper training. “They loved it,” he recalled. “They wanted to be soldiers, not servants.”

Morris in 2010 at a Pentagon ceremony honoring the 555th (D. Myles Cullen/Civ)
One day, the commander of the parachute school, Brig. Gen. Ridgley Gaither, witnessed the unauthorized training session and sent for Morris. “Who gave you permission to use my calisthenics field?” Gaither asked. “No one, sir,” replied Morris. “I just wanted to create a bit of morale and self-esteem for the men.”

via How These WWII Paratroopers Made Military History.

The story is from the tabloid Parade magazine that’s stuffed into the Sunday papers of those that still support their local anti-gun propaganda sheet. Morris passed a way a while back, in his nineties. And it was alnost accident that made him America’s first black paratrooper.

Gen. Gaither had been planning to conduct an evaluation of black paratroopers, when he saw 1DG Morris’s display of initiative and leadership. And, by the minarets of Serendip, here were a bunch of ready volunteers right in front of him: Morris’s men, who came from the all-black 92nd Infantry Division. The evaluation was a success, and led to the creation of the 555th. 1SG Morris was the first black man to pin on paratrooper wings; his descendants have continued his tradition of service to America.

Here is a short video about the 555th from a regimental website. It tells the whole history from test platoon to smoke jumpers to veteran survivors in a couple of minutes. You may wish to mute the music soundtrack (the footage was probably originally silent):

Today, the idea that black men might be unsuitable to be paratroopers is so ridiculous that it’s hard to encase within one’s living skull the bizarre notion that within within living memory, not only did some people feel that way, but many people felt that way. Enough people felt that way that American officers had real concerns about the disruption bringing the unit overseas might’ve caused. (That would not be the last time officers would underestimate the character of their men).

While the US at the time was racist from beak to tailfeathers, the Army looks pretty bad compared to the Air Corps, which committed all-black fighter and bomber units to combat in the European Theater. (The Army did commit a combat regiment of Japanese-American soldiers, the famous 442nd). And while General Gavin’s order to integrate the 555th with the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment in 1947 seems to be admirably ahead of President Truman’s 1948 desegregation order, the Army as an institution dragged its feet on desegregation. Some of the first units committed to the Korean War in 1950 were still-segregated black infantry units, that would not have existed as such if the Army had obeyed Truman’s order. As late as 1951, the Army was still drafting men with the intent of employing them in all-black segregated units. Of course, as late as the 1960s, black soldiers entered a Jim Crow world when they exited many Army bases. Times do change.

There’s nothing in the life of an infantryman that confers an advantage on one race over another. If scientists are right about the roughly 60 traits that are unevenly distributed across the races, every race gets some advantageous ones and some that are not so advantageous. (For example, blacks tend to have longer long bones and more fast-twitch muscle than, say, East Asians, giving them more sprinting speed, the combat utility of which is obvious. But East Asians do disproportionately well on the sort of time-speed-distance problems involved in shooting on the move). And these group differences, which have to do with where the median of a population is relative to another population, are tiny compared to the individual differences, which have to do with where an individual is under the bell curve that represents the population he’s a part of. In other words, knowing someone’s race doesn’t give us much practically useful information about his potential performance as a soldier (or much of anything else). It gives us some statistics and probabilities, which are useful when analyzing large groups but nearly worthless when dealing with individual human beings.

It probably has been expressed best by a legion of sergeants over the years:  “Ain’t no black soldier or white soldiers here. All I see is green soldiers.” Not the only thing where an NCO has been out way in front of society at large. The only practical way ever found to judge men’s character has been as individuals, one man at a time. Nothing else matters.

Unfortunately, the men of the 555th, like their WWII cohort, are mostly gone from us now. Fortunately they left us a lot of history; here’s the late Walter Morris’s own story from the regimental web page.

8 thoughts on “The Parachute Infantry Regiment that didn’t fight

  1. Barry Jones

    Although the 555th never was committed to combat the Army Ground Forces did have several all black (excepting most of the officers) units to combat in both the Pacific and the ETO – infantry, artillery and armor…

    1. Hognose Post author

      Good point, Barry. There was one black tank destroyer outfit that was part of, IIRC, 4th Armored Division, that had a very good record.

      I was surprised to see most of the 555ths officers were black men.

      A lot of blacks were assigned in logistic roles. Everyone knows about the Red Ball Express. I think almost all of the men killed in the Port Chicago disaster were black Navy stevedores. Of course the Navy retained segregation as long as they could….

  2. Kirk

    Interesting addendum to the whole “Blacks won’t fight…” idea. The foremost proponent of that idea were the so-called “Progressives”, starting out with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt was particularly hypocritical, because it was the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th and 24th that actually did most of the fighting, and who arguably saved Roosevelt’s ass. He later rewarded them for doing so by denigrating their performance in the battle, making statements like “Under the strain the colored infantrymen (who had none of their white officers) began to get a little uneasy and drift to the rear… This I could not allow.”.

    There aren’t any eye-witness accounts that corroborate this characterization of the battle, but good ol’ Teddy still managed to steal the limelight from the Buffalo Soldiers and parlay the notoriety he gained into a political career. The rest of his record with regards to black Americans is a somewhat checkered affair, and probably of a piece with his background. I do find his conduct with regards to the 10th Cavalry and 24th Infantry.

    The real bad apple was Wilson, however. Almost as soon as he took office, he re-segregated the heretofore Federal government offices in Washington, D.C, and took many other actions that rolled back what progress had been made. When WWI started, he actively ensured that the Army would remain segregated, and that the majority of black troops raised would be relegated to support roles. The theory was that blacks would not, and could not fight.

    How the hell that squared with the record of the Buffalo Soldier regiments, who were often the only real professionals on the frontier, given that the majority of white troops in those days usually deserted as soon as they arrived at their postings in the West, I’ll never understand. The communities around most of the Western Buffalo Soldier posts were usually in stark contrast to other locations, where the black troops were seen as being vestigial representatives of the Federals from the Reconstruction. Hell, Salt Lake City threw a huge going-away ceremony for the 24th Infantry when it was called to fight in Cuba, and was sorry to see the regiment depart.

    All in all, the record of the assholes leading this country during that era is an embarrassment, especially when it comes to the way they treated what were often the only troops they could really rely on out here in the West. By contrast to the black regiments, most of the white ones were full of drunks and ne’er do wells, while the black regiments were filled with long-service professionals. And, yet, thanks to assholes like Roosevelt and Wilson, the myth grew up that black Americans were shitty soldiers. Most of the problems with them stemmed from piss-poor leadership, which was mostly provided by white southern-origin officers. You read the accounts of what went on, and the first concept that springs to mind is “Self-fulfilling prophecy…”. I honestly can’t recall a more enraging issue in my readings on the US Army, over the years, unless it was the way we responded to the IED and mine threat in the Vietnam era.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Great post as usual. The still-segregated 24th got a bad rep in Korea (bringing the black term “bugging out” into mainstream English for the first time) but it held as well as, and when broken, retreated no further than before reorganizing, white units. But it was the black men who were vilified in the press.

      Meanwhile, the Commies, reading the same papers (hell, sometimes writing them), figured they could persuade the Buffalo Soldiers to desert. They mounted a full psyops operation (radio, speakers, leaflets, the works) and had nothing to show for it except they learned a few new anglo-saxon-african-american obscenities.

      What finally broke down segregation was that replacements’ races were not coded in personnel documents as units in Korea reconstituted in the winter of 50-51. The retirement of Macarthur can’t have hurt, either.

    2. Aesop

      Well, what would you expect for the former President of Princeton?
      He was so much smarter than everyone else, after all.

      Sounds like the 555th should have a movie brewing in the wings somewhere.

  3. jim in houston

    Fun story about black paratroopers… I’m involved with a crowd that puts on a charity cookoff for the Make a Wish foundation every fall. A few years ago the Houston Roller Derby girls (one of our liveliest teams) got ahold of someone at Ft. Hood and asked if there were any Purple Heart recipients stationed there who would like to spend a day barbecuing and drinking beer with a bunch of cute, crazy women. Surprisingly, only four guys showed up. One of them was this really funny black guy from Brooklyn whose name, near as I could tell, was Yo Airborne! We were sitting around on folding chairs drinking a couple of beers and trading stories. Yo Airborne! told me “I’m third-generation African-American Army Airborne. My grandfather was Triple Nickel, the 555th in WW2. My dad fought in Nam with the 173rd, and I’m 82nd with two tours in Afghanistan. So jumping out of airplanes with machine guns is just our family business.” Then he took a sip of beer and nodded at the submarine dolphins pinned to my cap and said “You, on the other hand, must have been out of your goddamned mind!” Always funny when the paratroopers think you are nuts….

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