Little Known Black History Fact: The Triple Nickles

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  • In Camp Mackall, North Carolina the first all-black parachute Infantry platoon was activated on November 25,1944. They would be called the 555th Battalion, a.k.a. “The Triple Nickles.” They were called the Triple Nickles because 17 of 20 soldiers selected from the Buffalo Soldiers 92nd Infantry in Arizona made it through the test platoon at Fort Benning. The unit's name came from the old English spelling and identified with three buffalo nickels joined in a triangle or pyramid.

    The Triple Nickles served in more airborne units during both war and peacetime than any other parachute group in history. The Triple Nickles smoke jumped into burning forests of the American northwest, searching for Japanese balloon bombs. In 1945, Private First Class Malvin L. Brown was the first smoke jumper to perish on a fire jump.

    In the Georgia winters of 1943 and 1944, soldiers could stare into the sky and see a blanket of white parachutes belonging to the 555th infantry battalion. Among the troopers were former university students and professional athletes. Their unit was entirely black, from commanding officer down to the private level. Their skills would be tested throughout World War II. The 555th were trained to use biological agents that could destroy the burning woods for wartime purposes. The brave men of this infantry found themselves smoke jumping into burning forests of the American northwest searching for Japanese balloon bombs.

    After being transferred to Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 1945, the 555th became attached to the elite 82nd Airborne Division. In 1950, the Parachute Battalion was disbanded. Its former members would later fight in the Korean War. Specifically, one of the battalion's former officers, Harry Sutton, died while leading a rearguard action during the Hungnam Evacuation and was decorated posthumously with the Silver Star.

    A new monument has been constructed to honor the Triple Nickles at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center's Memorial Walk of Honor. A ceremony was held on the unit’s 33rd reunion in a crowd of over 200 soldiers.

     
        
     

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    3 thoughts on “Little Known Black History Fact: The Triple Nickles

    1. I was so happy to hear that the Triple Nickles were the featured fact this morning. I am the proud youngest daughter of the longtime president of the Triple Nickles association, Joseph Murchison. Though the 555 P.I.A. was long deactivated in favor of integrating the Army, my dad and his fellow soldiers have worked tirelessly to ensure that their story is told and that their descendants realize the brave sacrifice that those men made in being literally on the front lines of domestic defense during World War II. The association still gathers annually to celebrate their legacy, and this year’s reunion just ended in Atlanta, where a monument was unveiled over the weekend at Fort Benning, GA. A documentary called “Nickles from Heaven” airs occasionally on PBS for those who want to know more. You can also write to my dad c/o the association at triplenickle (at) juno (dot) com . Thanks, TJMS, for giving them the spotlight this morning!

    2. As promised above, I now turn to the first Negro Commissioned Officers to earn the coveted Parachutist Wings. On 04 March 1944, six commissioned officers received their parachutist wings and became a part of the Negro Test Platoon. These outstanding pioneers are: First Lieutenant Jasper E. Ross, Second Lieutenant Clifford Allen, Second Lieutenant Bradley Biggs, Second Lieutenant Edwin H. Willis, Second Lieutenant Warren C. Cornelius, and Second Lieutenant Edward Baker. During the Korean War, Lieutenant Clifford Allen was captured and held as a prisoner of war in North Korea.

      These six commissioned officers joined the sixteen, plus one, enlisted men who had already earned their parachutist badges and together they formed the nucleus of the first and only all-Black Paratrooper Company, that ultimately grew to the famed 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion – The Triple Nickel, whose mascot was – you guessed it – The Black Panther!.

      While at Fort Benning, GA, the company continued to grow and on 15 July 1944, the unit was transferred to Camp MacKall, NC. Unit strength was eleven officers and 165 enlisted men. Upon transfer from Fort Benning to Camp MacKall, the unit was later re-designated as the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. In the orders re-designating the former Company as a Battalion, the previously used parenthetical notation of “Colored” was deleted and replaced by an asterisk. The asterisk at the bottom of the orders indicated “Negro personnel”. The commanding officer of the Battalion was Captain James H. Porter, who was a platoon leader in the original 555th Parachute Infantry Company. NOTE: The normal Army organizational Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E), calls for a Lieutenant Colonel to command a battalion; Captain Porter, two grades below that grade, was performing all of the duties of a Lieutenant Colonel. Personal note: the US Army either concluded that Captain Porter was as good as any Lieutenant Colonel, or Battalion Lieutenant Colonels were over-rated for their jobs – the truth of the matter is clear.

      At Camp MacKall, the 555th engaged in intensive combat training; its strength grew to over 400 officers and enlisted men. Some of the new arrivals had engaged in combat in Europe, and the Pacific. Prior to being assigned to the 555th, they had completed airborne training at Fort Benning, GA, and were qualified parachutists.

      Beginning in November 1944, the Japanese began launching high altitude balloons into the jet stream across the Pacific Ocean. These balloons were laden with high explosive incendiary bombs, and were intended to wreak havoc, physical as well as psychological, on the United States and its people; something had to be done expeditiously, and something had to be done efficiently. This was a crucial mission that could not be assigned to any military unit, it called for a unit with special skills, tenacity, and a unit that would respond with alacrity. The 555th, The triple Nickel, Black Panthers, was chosen to execute this highly classified mission.

      The balloons that the Japanese launched were programed to land in the northwest corner of the United States. The Japanese had hoped that these sinister devices would create widespread panic and destruction in America.

      On 05 May 1945, the 555th departed Camp MacKall for Camp Pendleton Air Corps Base, Oregon. The battalion had been selected to participate in a classified mission, code-named “Operation Firefly”. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion would carry-out this extremely important task with the Ninth Service Command, which was located at Pendleton Air Base.

      “Operation Firefly” was the first war-time mission assigned to the 555th PIB, The Triple Nickel. Although a bit disappointed that they were denied a chance to show their mettle on the battlefield against the Germans, and Japanese, they comprehended fully the importance of the task that they were assigned. They executed this mission with great skill, adroitness, and the highest military professionalism. They set the very high standards that all African American Paratroopers have lived up to during the ensuing years. They laid the foundation , they chartered the course, and those of us who have walked in their indelible footsteps have done so with great dignity, much humility, and pride, forever mindful of the fact that our predecessors made it all possible. With those facts in mind, we unabashedly express, with effusion, our sincere appreciation for all that these magnificent Troopers have done for us, as we proudly stand on their stalwart shoulders.

      Upon the successful completion of their arduous mission out West, on 15 October 1945 the battalion was released from control of Headquarters Ninth Service Command, Fort Douglas, Utah, and returned to Camp MacKall, NC, and was immediately assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 27th Special Troops (euphemism for Negro Troops), First Army, Fort Bragg, NC. The stay at Camp MacKall was brief. On 06 December 1945, the battalion was transferred to Fort Bragg, NC, and was attached to the 13th Airborne Division for training and administration. This, too, was a brief assignment, and on 06 February 1946, the battalion was relieved from attachment to the 13th Airborne Division, and was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division for administration, supply, and training. Upon attachment to the 82nd Airborne Division, the battalion was designated as the demonstration unit for planning pre-jump marshaling area operations, and dispersion techniques under atomic warfare concepts. The battalion was also selected to participate in several high visibility parades. Additionally, the highly trained battalion was selected to participate in the joint service live fire Operation Combine I, which was conducted in and around the expansive terrain at Fort Benning, GA. The 555th was magnificent in the execution of its mission and was commended highly by the commanding general of the ninth Air Force.

      As you might surmise, there is so much more to the history and legacy of this magnificent organization – the first and ONLY all-black paratrooper unit in the history of ANY of the US Armed Forces. Once again, all of the information above was extracted from the book that I wrote in 1994. William H Lundy, Lieutenant Colonel Retired, US Army, Paratrooper.

    3. Background: In December 1947, I became a member of the famed 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion (555th PIB); that same month, General James “Slim Jim” Gavin, made a trip to the Pentagon and insisted that the 555th be integrated into the 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. The powers-to-be at Army level, listened to General Gavin, and the famed 555th PIB was deactivated and simultaneously re-designated as the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, thus the beginning of integration in the United States Army. Although I joined the Battalion in December 1947, there were huge numbers of Negro soldiers ahead of me, waiting for a quota to attend parachute school at Fort Benning, GA. It was April 1948, before my turn came to attend jump school, and I earned my Parachutist Wings, and my Gliderman’s Wings in May 1948 – one of the last groups to be trained as Glidermen.

      After several committees and recommendations, Army Chief of Staff, General George C Marshal, directed that a “company be organized of Negro parachutist, even though the Advisory Committee recommended that an all-Negro Battalion be formed. Based on General Marshall’s direction, the 555th Parachute Infantry Company (Colored) was born. On 30 December 1943, some ten months after General Marshall’s orders to proceed, the 555th Parachute Infantry Test Platoon was activated under the auspicious of the Parachute School at Fort Benning, GA. Twenty handpicked, thoroughly screened, cream of the crop, top-notch enlisted men were selected to undergo parachute training to form the nucleus of what would later become the Test Platoon, and subsequently the 555th Parachute Infantry Company, and ultimately grew to the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

      On 18 February 1944, sixteen (16) of the twenty (20) enlisted men selected, graduated and earned their coveted parachute wings, thus becoming the first Negro American paratroopers. These special men are affectionately known as the “Sweet Sixteen”. The sixteen brave and patriotic pioneers are: First Sergeant Walter Morris (the first Negro to be selected for jump training), Sergeant Jack D. Tillis, Sergeant Leo D. Reed, Sergeant Daniel C Weil, Staff Sergeant Hubert Bridges, Technical Grade IV Alvin L. Moon, Sergeant Ned Bess, Sergeant Roger S. Walden, Corporal McKinley Godfrey, Jr., Sergeant Elijah Wesby, Sergeant Samuel W. Robinson, Staff Sergeant Calvin R. Beal, Staff Sergeant Robert Greene, Staff Sergeant Lonnie M. Duke, Sergeant Clarance H. Beavers, and Sergeant James E. Kornegay. NOTE: Sergeant Carstell O. Stewart had a death in his family during training and went home on emergency leave, and he graduated after the “Sweet Sixteen”, thus making it the “Sweet Sixteen” plus one.

      The above information was extracted from the book that I wrote for the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book in August 1994, a copy of which has been placed in the Library of Congress catalog card number 99489966, Fax: 1-202-252-3347, Telephone: 1-202-707-9503.

      I will write about the first Negro Commissioned Officers in another comment posting in a few minutes. Trooper William H Lundy, Lt. Col. Retired, US Army, Paratrooper

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