When the Army was forming its elite 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, the rule was "whites only." Blacks allegedly "couldn't handle" the tough training and didn't have enough "guts" to jump out of airplanes.
Blacks were supposed to guard the all-white paratrooper school and packing shed and patrol the area as they watched the white soldiers train.
But there was one man who knew that black soldiers could do just as well as whites and decided to prove it. The year was 1944.
"Since we were in the vicinity, I decided we would emulate the white paratroopers," said Walter Morris, who was first sergeant of the black service company. "We observed them when they did their calisthenics and double-timed everywhere they went. So we copied some of the things they were doing. But we didn't have any paratrooper boots.
"We caught the attention of the general (Lt. Gen. Ridgely Gaither, who commanded the parachute school) when he was making an inspection," said Morris, who is retired from the construction business in New York and now lives with his wife in Palm Coast, Florida.
"He was impressed when he saw us doing our calisthenics. We were showing off to show him that we could do as well as the white paratroopers."
Morris and his soldiers got a lot of prideful satisfaction out of proving blacks could endure the same training as whites. But little did they know that by emulating the white paratroopers they would become a part of airborne history.
Not long after the calisthenics demonstration, General Gaither summoned Morris to his office. "He let me know that President (Franklin D.) Roosevelt had ordered Gen. (George C.) Marshall to form an all-black paratrooper unit. The decision was made in response to complaints by A. Philip Randolph, organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and president of the National Negro Congress and the black press," said Morris. "Blacks were asking, why can't we have black paratroopers, too?"
Morris' efforts toward black soldiers proving their mettle paid off.
"General Gaiter selected me as the first sergeant and the first black paratrooper in the first all-black paratrooper company in American history, "said Morris. That was the 555th Parachute Infantry Company.
"I then waited until a cadre was brought in from the 92nd Infantry Division at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, "said Morris. "There were originally 20 of us, but only 16 graduated from the jump training; two didn't make it for medical reasons, one had a death in the family, and the fourth one just couldn't jump. Since we needed cooks and he was one, we decided to let him stay. But he wasn't on jump status."
Morris continued, "Of course, all of the instructors were white. Being a paratrooper was a big thing at the time and there weren't a heck of a lot of whites jumping out of airplanes. We got along pretty well with the white troopers. The only problem we had was that the entire post at Fort Benning, Georgia, both of officers and enlisted, were making bets that we wouldn't jump-- we'd be too afraid. The thing that inspired us was that this was the only black combat outfit then, and it was an opportunity for black troops to enter something they could be proud of."
The black paratrooper students were segregated from the whites, both on and off post. But that didn't deter them.
"It was not a big thing to us, because we had been conditioned," said Morris. "It was something we had learned to live with and accepted."
It was a grueling, exhausting four weeks of training for the black paratrooper pioneers--push-ups, sit-ups, running, push-ups, sit-ups, running--from morning 'til night the first week. The second week had more calisthenics and an introduction to the 35-foot tower jump. The third week had the 250-foot tower. The fourth week was packing and repacking parachutes and jumping every day, ending with a night jump on Friday. Saturday was graduation day when they received their silver airborne wings.
After the class graduated, the white cadre troopers returned to Fort Huachuca and the graduating class became the cadre.
"When we graduated, the word went out that the Army was accepting volunteers for an all-black parachute battalion, and we got applications from everywhere--overseas and all over the states," said Morris.
Seven black officers were brought in. Each platoon had two officers. General Gaither had a big surprise for Morris after the first class completed the course. The 555th Parachute Company was going to become the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, and the outfit needed an adjutant.
"General Gaither said 'I want you to go to OCS (officer candidate school) because we're going to have a battalion', so I went to OCS at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in April 1944 and graduated that June," Morris recalls. "I was then reassigned to the 555th, which had been relocated to Camp Mackall, N.C., adjacent to Fort Bragg."
"This was a unique situation," said Morris. "We had a battalion with a captain as commander."
Morris had a problem when he returned as a second lieutenant; there were no quarters for black officers. "They let me stay in the same house I had as first sergeant. They gave us (the other black officers) an empty barracks and fixed it up a little bit. I stayed there (in the house) for about three months. When I went back to pay my rent, they discovered that there were no provisions to collect rent from a black officer. So they said to forget about (paying) it," Morris laughed.
"When General Gavin (Major Gen. James M. Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division) saw the conditions in which we were training and living back in the woods, he integrated the black and white paratroopers," Morris said. 'This was long before President (Harry S.) Truman signed the order to integrate the military services.
"Once we graduated, we started combat training preparing troops to go overseas," said Morris. But the black paratroopers never set sail for the war in Europe. Instead, they were sent to fight forest fires started by Japanese incendiary balloons on the West Coast - from California to Arizona
"The Triple Nickels" earned a new nickname, "Smoke Jumpers," for their ability to leap into smoke-filled clearings. They racked up 36 fire fighting missions, making more than 1,000 individual jumps into burning forests. For this they earned another nickname... "Black Panthers."
The 555th Parachute Battalion was redesignated the 3rd Battalion, 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment, and became a part of the 82n Airborne Division. Former members of the first black paratroopers joined the all-black 2nd Airborne Ranger Company at the all-black 2nd Airborne Ranger Company at Fort Brag and saw action in Korea with the 7th Infantry Division. That company was later attached to the 187th Regimental Combat Team and made two jumps in Korea. The unit received a bronze arrowhead for its parachute assault at Munsan-ni. They also received several other awards.