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.”
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.