America's First African-American Paratrooper Unit

Born within an army that had traditionally relegated blacks to menial jobs and programmed them for failure, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, or "Triple Nickles," succeeded in becoming the nation's first African-American parachute infantry battalion and the first African-American unit to be integrated into the "regular" army during World War II.

Bradley Biggs, was the first black officer accepted for parachute duty in the U.S. Army and a member of the 555th Battalion of the 82nd Airborne. The following narrative describes his first few days at Fort Benning's jump school. The following is an excerpt from Chapter One of Mr. Biggs' book, The Triple Nickles.

Personal Beachhead

In November 1943, while I was home in Newark on leave, the order was issued to activate the 555th Test platoon, and I was told to report to Fort Benning for duty and parachute training.

The black soldiers' first taste of Fort Benning came at the railroad station in Columbus, Georgia an ugly, smelling building, heavy with the racist atmosphere of the south, complete with separate facilities for "white" and "colored." Transportation from Columbus to the post was usually in the form of long, boxcar-like buses, similar to many of the trailers one sees on U.S. highways today. These so-called "cattle cars" would carry up to sixty men, each sitting astride a wooden bench facing the rear door.

I arrived at the station during the late evening of 8 January 1944. I was familiar with the scene around Fort Benning and knew what to expect in the attitude towards blacks. But I also knew I could get a taxi and I chose this over the cattle car.

The ride took about forty-five minutes. There was no conversation with the white taxi driver. At the service company orderly room of the Parachute School I was greeted by the night "charge of quarters," a young black sergeant and test platooner named Jack D. Tillis. As I paid the cab driver, Sergeant Tillis unloaded my valpack and handbag and said, "This way, Lieutenant."

Officers of the Test Platoon I followed him down a hill for about fifty yards to a troop barracks building which had been converted into a supply room on the first floor and officers' quarters on the second.

As we reached the second floor, I could see immediately that this too was an improvised facility. At the top of the stairs and on the left was a large room with a Ping-Pong table and four or five lounge chairs. Beyond this area was another large room providing sleeping quarters for eight individuals in ordinary troop-sleeping style.

I thanked Sergeant Tillis for helping me with my equipment and then went into the sleeping room. It was now nearly 2 A.M. The room was dark, but not too dark to keep me from seeing that three officers were already there, and apparently sound asleep. The second bunk on my right was empty; it had already been made up army-style. Trying not to disturb my new comrades, I undressed in the dark and crawled into the bunk for much-needed sleep.

First call blew at 5:45 A.M. Traditionally that should have signaled to everyone to hit the deck and rush into the latrine to wash and shave in time for reveille formation. This morning, however, no one jumped out of bed, though daylight had already brightened the big room. But everyone began to stir.

As I turned over to my left, I looked into a familiar face. It was Warren C. "Cal" Cornelius, my old friend and former sergeant from the 1st Battalion, 372d Infantry. Without waiting for him to open his eyes, I took my pillow and slammed it against his head. Cal woke up with a jump. When he saw me, we both leaped out of our beds and into each other's arms.

Soon the others were awake. As they sat up in their beds, Cal introduced me to these officers who would be my com- rades in this new adventure. They were 2d Lt. Edward Baker from Chicago and 2d Lt. Edwin Wills from Zacata, Virginia. Both Baker and Wills had recently arrived from Fort Huachuca, though I had not known them there. As we were talking, 1st Lt. James Porter from New York City, who was later to become our commanding officer until his assign- ment to Japan in 1946, and two Chicagoans, 2d Lt. Clifford Allen and 1st Lt. Jasper Ross, came in.

We went to breakfast together at the joint officer-enlisted men's mess. I took special note of the soldiers we encoun- tered: trim, sharp professionals, with a look of pride in their eyes. These I soon realized were no ordinary soldiers; they were the men who would be jumping with us. All enlisted men of the test platoon were already in training for their wings.

After breakfast, I went to the orderly room to turn in my orders assigning me to the "555th Parachute Infantry Company," and to make myself available to the company's first commander, Capt. William V. Johnson. Captain Johnson, a white paratroop officer who had been injured in action in North Africa, would be in charge of the cadre until our own black officers won their wings and took over command positions.

The author and some of his former platoon troopers As I turned to leave the orderly room, the door opened and in stepped a tall, handsome, 180-pound soldier who was every inch the type of man one expected to see here. He approached me in one step, stood at attention, and introduced himself as First Sergeant Walter J. Morris.

Sergeant Morris, as turned out, was the first black soldier in uniform to become airborne. "So here we stand," I said, "you, the first Negro enlisted man accepted for the airborne forces, and me, the first officer." We smiled and shook hands.

I left the orderly room and headed for the supply room, located just below our sleeping quarters. Paratroopers, of course, have special uniforms and equipment, and it was here that I would get my first look at what paratroop gear would be like. As I entered the door, attention was called and a pleasant but pugnacious-looking sergeant approached me. He had all the marks of a prize fighter.

"Sergeant Webley, supply sergeant, sir. May I help you?"

Color Guard of the 555th PIB First came fittings for the jump suits and parachute boots. While I was being measured, I looked at the small arsenal that was being stacked on the supply counter: a switchblade knife which would be carried in a zippered pocket close to the neck of my jump jacket; a machete; a .45 caliber pistol; a carbine with a collapsible metal stock; steel helmet; compass; binoculars. As Sergeant Webley handed me two pairs of jump boots, he explained, "Sir, these are issued free. After that, officers are expected to purchase their own boots." I smiled. "Thank you, sergeant. A privilege of rank."

Back at my bunk, I was putting my gear into my footlocker when Cal Cornelius returned and the two of us began to reminisce. Cal and I were old buddies. We served together in the New Jersey State, then National Guard. When that outfit was federalized in September 1940, we became the 372d Infantry. We used to see each other in summer training at Camp Seagirt, New Jersey he was a sergeant in Company B from Atlantic City and I was a corporal in Company A from Newark. I was damned glad to see him at Fort Benning.

555th Football Team Cal had been one of New Jersey's promising young light heavyweight boxers, and he knew that I had been a profes- sional football player. So he and I had more in common than the others: former athletes, old comrades, both with com- mon military backgrounds and months of soldiering behind us.

As Porter, Baker, Cornelius, and Allen came in and we talked, we knew we all had a common goal. Although paratroop officers were paid an extra $100 a month, not one of us had come for the money. Nobody mentioned jump pay. We were all there because we wanted to be.

In fact, the most exciting question was, "When do we start training?" Wills, who was later to become the platoon leader of the Second Platoon, and eventually the brains and operations officer for the company and the battalion, ex- plained that seventeen of the enlisted cadre were already in A-stage of the four-week parachute training program. Our own training would start later. We all knew it wouldn't be easy, but we looked forward to this tough job with eagerness and spirit. We knew that we were privileged and fortunate to be among the first black men on earth to train for parachute wings.


Written By Brad Bigggs

555th marching down 5th avenue

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Copyright 1996 Patrick O'Donnell