Welcome back to The Nikel, where we dive into some of American history's most fascinating (and often untold) stories. Today, we will talk about a group of unsung heroes who played a pivotal role in American military history during World War II: the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, also known as the Triple Nickles. I'll be guiding you through their training, their struggles within the ranks of a segregated military, and how their remarkable story intersected with events like Operation Firefly, the Doolittle Raid, and the Japanese balloon bombs. Buckle up, and let's get started!
The Triple Nickles prepare for a jump. (National Archives and Records Administration/courtesy the Oregon Travel Information Council)
The Birth of the Triple Nickles
At the onset of World War II, African Americans joined the military at an accelerated rate. However, they were not assigned to combat roles; they served as support personnel. Their duties included cooking, cleaning, laundry, carpentry, road building, guarding, and clerical work. If African Americans became officers, they could only lead other African American troops.
Segregation extended to housing, meals, and recreation within the military. For instance, if African American soldiers were allowed to attend movies on base, they would have separate entrances and seating areas.
This was different from the Army they had envisioned.
Some of these men worked as support staff at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the Army's new parachute school was based. Watching the white soldiers train as paratroopers was thrilling but disheartening, as they wondered why they couldn't qualify for such roles.
Walter Morris, a first sergeant at Fort Benning, was officially a clerk. However, he noticed his fellow soldiers were disheartened, with many feeling their previous jobs were better than their current roles at Fort Benning.
Morris began to explore the possibilities. If the white soldiers completed their training by 4 p.m. and the support staff finished their work, what would stop him from assembling a group of men to undertake the same training as the white soldiers?
Walter Morris, who died October 13, 2013 at 92, preparing for a jump. (US Army)
Morris took a risk, gathering the men and guiding them through the same intense calisthenics he had observed the white soldiers doing. Although some equipment was off-limits without specialized trainers, the men could use a 5-foot tower to simulate the sensation of jumping from a height and practice evenly distributing their weight upon landing, which is essential for reducing injuries.
As Morris continued his after-hours program, the men became fitter and took pride in their accomplishments. One evening, the base's commanding general witnessed the men training. Morris was summoned to headquarters the following day, fearing he was in trouble. However, the general congratulated and informed him of plans to create a test platoon of African American paratroopers. Morris was assigned to be their First Sergeant.
On February 18, 1944, sixteen soldiers became America's first black paratroopers, known as the "Triple Nickles" as shorthand for their official title, the 555th Parachute Infantry Company. The spelling "nickle" derives from Old English, but it may have also been a spelling error that persisted.
Despite qualifying as paratroopers, the Triple Nickles still experienced segregation in living, eating, and recreational situations. Only their work life changed.
The 555th hoped they would soon be deployed to Europe to fight. In December 1944, their hopes were raised when they heard that the Allies needed reinforcements. However, the Army hesitated since all the Allied paratroopers were white. Sending African American paratroopers as reinforcements raised concerns. But fate rendered a decision unnecessary as Germany's slow collapse signaled that the fighting would not last much longer.
Training, Segregation, and the Exceptional Triple Nickles
The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion honed their skills at Fort Benning, Georgia, before moving on to Camp Mackall, North Carolina. They endured demanding physical and mental preparation to become proficient paratroopers, mastering not only the art of parachuting from aircraft but also combat techniques and survival skills in hostile environments. Several Triple Nickles attended top U.S. Army schools, where some became qualified riggers and jump masters. In contrast, others specialized in communication, pathfinding through challenging terrain, and the complex art of demolition.
These extraordinary men were the epitome of excellence—college-educated, accomplished athletes and individuals of exceptional character and intellect. One Triple Nickle member, "Tiger" Ted Lowry, even had the chance to step into the boxing ring against world champion Joe Louis, who, along with the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson, visited Lowry's base in 1943 as part of their tour of military camps to boost soldiers' morale. Robinson advised Lowry to "remain in the center of the ring" and "avoid being cornered on the ropes." With 70 prior fights, Lowry held his own during the three-round exhibition against one of history's most celebrated boxers.
Tiger Ted Lowry preparing for a fight. (US Army)
Reflecting on the experience, Lowry said, "You can't fathom the boost it gave my self-esteem. I had just sparred with the world champion, the best fighter on the planet, and he couldn't knock me down. My confidence soared." Lowry took a break from boxing when he joined the Triple Nickles, but he later returned to the sport, stunning heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano in a match. Lowry not only surprised Marciano but also left Italian-American fans in awe by lasting the entire fight twice against the "Brockton Blockbuster," a feat no other fighter had ever achieved.
However, the Triple Nickles faced unique challenges due to their race. The military was segregated at the time, and they frequently encountered prejudice from white peers who often refused to train or share facilities with them. Even after completing their training and earning their esteemed paratrooper wings, the 555th continued to confront discrimination, as numerous white officers questioned their abilities and loyalty to the United States.
Despite these hurdles, the Triple Nickles repeatedly demonstrated their skill, dedication, and patriotism, proving themselves equal to any other American soldier. Their remarkable achievements, both in and out of combat, stand as a testament to their resilience and unwavering determination in overcoming adversity.
The Triple Nickles never saw combat overseas, but they still played a crucial role in protecting the American homeland. In 1945, as the war in the Pacific was reaching its peak, the U.S. military faced a new and unexpected threat: Japanese balloon bombs.
The Japanese had developed a simple yet ingenious weapon: balloons carrying explosive payloads that were designed to travel across the Pacific and detonate over American soil. These "balloon bombs" were intended to spread fear and panic among the American population and tie up valuable military resources.
Enter the Triple Nickles. Tasked with a top-secret mission known as Operation Firefly, the 555th was deployed to the Pacific Northwest to hunt down and neutralize these dangerous threats. The men of the 555th became "smokejumpers," a term used for firefighters who parachute into remote areas to fight wildfires. The skills they had learned as paratroopers served them well in this new mission.
For several months, the Triple Nickles tracked down and disarmed these deadly balloon bombs, risking their lives to protect their fellow citizens. Their efforts not only prevented significant damage to American lives and property but also denied the Japanese a propaganda victory.
The Doolittle Raid, the Japanese Response, and the Tragic Consequences
To gain a deeper understanding of the Triple Nickles' vital role in Operation Firefly, we must first examine the Doolittle Raid and the Japanese response. The Doolittle Raid, named after its leader Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, was a daring attack on Japanese territory in April 1942.
The mission was a direct response to the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor just a few months earlier. Sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers launched from the USS Hornet aircraft carrier, traveling 650 miles to carry out a surprise bombing raid on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. While the physical damage inflicted by the raid was relatively minor, the psychological impact on both the Japanese and American people was immense.
Stunned by the Doolittle Raid's audacity, the Japanese sought to retaliate. They developed the Fu-Go, or balloon bomb, campaign, which aimed to spread fear and destruction on American soil.
The Japanese designed these balloon bombs to carry incendiary and anti-personnel devices across the Pacific, using the high-altitude jet stream to reach the United States. These balloons would then release their deadly payloads, causing fires, destruction, and panic among the American population.
Although the balloon bomb campaign had limited success, it did have tragic consequences. In May 1945, a balloon bomb detonated near Bly, Oregon, killing six people—five of them children—on a church outing. The group, led by Pastor Archie Mitchell, had embarked on a fishing trip in the nearby woods. As they arrived at their destination, Mitchell's pregnant wife, Elsie, and the five children spotted an unusual object on the ground.
Unaware of the danger, they approached the balloon bomb, which exploded, killing Elsie and the children instantly. The incident marked the only fatalities on the U.S. mainland as a direct result of enemy action during World War II. The tragic event highlighted the potential danger posed by these balloon bombs and the urgent need for a response.
The Triple Nickles' involvement in neutralizing this threat through Operation Firefly was not only a critical part of America's homeland defense but also a testament to their adaptability and resilience as an elite military unit. Tasked with a top-secret mission, the 555th was deployed to the Pacific Northwest to hunt down and neutralize these dangerous threats. The men of the 555th crosstrained as "smokejumpers," firefighters who parachute into remote areas to combat wildfires. The skills they had learned as paratroopers served them well in this new mission.
Private First Class Malvin Brown was the sole casualty among the Triple Nickles. Brown played a crucial role in the team due to his medical expertise, attending to injuries, accidents, or any other concerns that arose. On the morning of August 6, 1945, when 15 Triple Nickles paratroopers prepared to board their C-47, Brown wasn't initially scheduled to join them.
However, he volunteered to take the place of another medic who had fallen ill. Hours later, he parachuted into a fire in the Umpqua National Forest in southern Oregon's Cascade Range, only to land in a tree. Tragically, moments later, he slipped and fell over 150 feet to the ground below, dying instantly.
Upon learning of Brown's fate, his fellow smokejumpers shifted their focus from battling the fire to retrieving their comrade's body. After an exhaustive search in the rugged terrain, they found him and carried him more than 3 miles through the wilderness. Their first encounter with civilization was a trail, but it took an additional 12 miles before they discovered a road to seek assistance. The loss of Private First Class Malvin Brown and the determination of his team to bring him home serves as a poignant reminder of the risks and sacrifices made by these brave men.
For several months, the Triple Nickles tracked down and disarmed these deadly balloon bombs, risking their lives to protect their fellow citizens. Their efforts not only prevented significant damage to American lives and property but also denied the Japanese a propaganda victory. The legacy of the Triple Nickles and their role in combating the Japanese balloon bomb campaign serves as a powerful example of bravery, adaptability, and dedication in the face of an unexpected and lethal threat.
The Legacy and Impact of the Triple Nickles
The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion's groundbreaking achievements during World War II have had a lasting impact on both the military and society at large. Their success in overcoming segregation, discrimination, and adversity has reverberated throughout history, inspiring future generations and contributing to the eventual desegregation of the U.S. military.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which mandated the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces. This landmark decision was influenced, in part, by the outstanding service and dedication of the Triple Nickles and other African American units during World War II. The order marked a major step forward in the fight for civil rights and equality, setting the stage for the broader civil rights movement that would emerge in the following decades.
The Triple Nickles' legacy also extends to the modern-day U.S. military. Today, African American soldiers serve in all branches and at all levels of the Armed Forces, with many rising to the highest ranks of leadership. This progress can be traced back to the trailblazing efforts of the Triple Nickles, who proved that courage, determination, and skill know no racial boundaries.
Moreover, the Triple Nickles' story has become a symbol of the power of unity and the importance of breaking down barriers to create a more inclusive and just society. Their legacy serves as a reminder that, when we work together and support one another, we can overcome even the most daunting challenges and achieve greatness.
The Triple Nickles Today
While the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion no longer exists as a formal unit, the spirit of the Triple Nickles lives on in the hearts and minds of those who continue to honor their legacy. Numerous organizations, museums, and memorial sites have been established to ensure that the story of the Triple Nickles is preserved for future generations.
One such organization is the Triple Nickle Association, which was founded in 1978 by a group of former members of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. The association is dedicated to preserving the history of the Triple Nickles and promoting fellowship among its members. It also provides support for various educational, charitable, and community service initiatives, helping to carry on the Triple Nickles' tradition of service and commitment to others.
In addition to these organizations, the story of the Triple Nickles has been chronicled in numerous books, documentaries, and other media, ensuring that their inspiring tale of bravery, perseverance, and unity continues to be shared with the world. By learning from the experiences of the Triple Nickles and celebrating their achievements, we can all play a part in honoring their memory and upholding the values for which they fought.
The story of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion is one of courage, perseverance, and triumph in the face of adversity. As we look back on their achievements, we must not only honor their contributions to American military history but also recognize the importance of continuing the fight for equality and justice both within our armed forces and our society as a whole.
The Triple Nickles serve as a powerful reminder of the strength that lies in unity and the potential for greatness that exists within each of us, regardless of the challenges we may face. So the next time you encounter a challenge or obstacle, just think about the story of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion and remember that, with determination, adaptability, and courage, anything is possible.
Now, I hope y'all enjoyed learning about the Triple Nickles as much as I did. These men were truly inspiring, and their story deserves to be remembered and celebrated. If you're interested in learning more about military history or the experiences of African Americans during World War II, be sure to check out some of my other blog posts. Until next time, stay curious and keep exploring our fascinating past!