Monument honors Army's first black parachute unit

benw@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 6, 2012 

Determination is the word that stirs memories for Trooper Walter Morris when he talks about the "Triple Nickles," the Army's first black parachute unit.

Morris, 91, was among the first soldiers trained at Fort Benning after the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was activated in December 1943. On Thursday, he joined about 200 other soldiers, members of the 555th Parachute Infantry Association and other visitors to dedicate a monument at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center's Memorial Walk of Honor.

"I'm so glad to be here to see this day," said Morris, of Palm Coast, Fla. The dedication came on the 33rd reunion of the association, a nonprofit group dedicated to keeping alive the history of the Triple Nickles.

The monument records the history of the unit from its beginning in 1943, said John Wilder, president of the Richard W. Williams Chapter of the 555th Parachute Infantry Association. "It kind of paved the way for us younger guys," said Wilder, a retired sergeant first class and former instructor at Fort Benning. "Now it's part of history."

Jordan J. Corbett, the guest speaker, was in the first platoon after the original group went through training at Fort Benning. He had served with two other units before he signed up to become a paratrooper.

"I feel highly honored," Corbett said of his year with the unit. "I had so much respect for the unit. Nothing impressed me like the paratroopers."

After training at Fort Benning, Morris and Corbett didn't get a chance to serve overseas during World War II because of segregation. The men were assigned to "Operation Firefly," a mission to fight fires in Oregon and throughout the Pacific Northwest.

From 1944-45, during the winter, the Triple Nickles fought fires ignited by fire balloons launched by the Japanese. Possibly 1,000 of a total 9,000 balloons reached the United States. An incendiary device was dropped from the balloons after three days.

Called "Smoke Jumpers," the soldiers took part in more than 1,200 missions, fighting dangerous fires.

The unit only lost one soldier fighting fires on Aug. 6, 1945.

The Triple Nickles received its nickname because 17 of 20 soldiers selected from the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., made it through the test platoon at Fort Benning. The unit's name is derived from the old English spelling and identified with three buffalo nickels joined in a triangle or pyramid.

Corbett, who later spent 30 years in the classroom as a school teacher and football coach in Bartow, Fla., said he never forgot what he learned as a member of the Triple Nickles.

"This to me had made me a better man," Corbett said. "I have carried it with me in service to the community, the determination to never quit."

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