Fort Bragg's Airborne and Special operations Museum's new exhibit tells the story of 555th
March 3, 2009
By Tina Ray
- African-American history
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Before the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, or Triple Nickles, was activated, African-American Soldiers were relegated to primarily serving as cooks, maintenance men and truck drivers.
The establishment of the Triple Nickles Battalion proved that minority Soldiers could train alongside white Soldiers and become the best Soldiers possible, said Mary Dennings, curator of collections at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum on Bragg Boulevard.
Activated at Fort Benning, Ga. on Dec. 31, 1943, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was comprised of 23 officers and enlisted men.
The battalion was later activated at Camp Mackall on Nov. 25, 1944 and assigned to recover and destroy Japanese balloon bombers, Dennings said. They were also charged to suppress forest fires, earning the nickname of Smoke Jumpers.
The Triple Nickles exhibit at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum lauds the service of those Smoke Jumpers and reminds visitors of their contributions to military history.
In 1947, a full year before President Harry Truman ordered integration of the armed forces, 82nd Airborne Division Commander, Maj. Gen. James Gavin transferred the 555th to the 3rd Battalion, 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment. It was the first step toward the integration of African-American officers.
Robert Harris once served as a master sergeant in the Army. He was a member of the 82nd Abn. Div. and now volunteers at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum.
Harris says he recognizes the significance of the Triple Nickles' contributions.
"What they did was groundbreaking," Harris said. "It was a good thing and it inspired me a lot."
Visiting the museum for the first time, Curt Twaddell, of Pennsylvania, said he was impressed with the Triple Nickles exhibit.
"The detail and all the information about what happened and how much they went through, I didn't realize," Twaddell said.
He said that he had not known African-American parachutist served during World War II.
The exhibit showcases an original guidon, the only known one left in existence, said Dennings. The guidon was donated more than five years ago by the late Chief Warrant Officer Fred Farmer, who retired as an aviator.
"He was a fine gentleman; he was a great American," Dennings said as she choked back tears.
On the day the Triple Nickles exhibit was dedicated in 2003, Farmer had been escorted to the museum by his Family and spent time alone taking in the display.
"The tears rolled down his cheeks," said Dennings.
A helmet sits in an enclosed case and a marker indicates that it honors the service of Lt. Col. Bradley Biggs.
Biggs became a Triple Nickles historian and his book, The Triple Nickles: America's First All-Black Paratrooper Unit remains at the museum and at the Cumberland County Library, said Dennings.
In a 1990 issue of Patriots Magazine, Walter Morris, who was a 555th first sergeant, recounted the skepticism faced by the paratroopers.
"The entire post was making bets that we wouldn't jump, we'd be too afraid," Morris said then. "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."
Though he liked the display, at least one recent spectator at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum thinks the Triple Nickles exhibit should be expanded.
"I think for what they did, it should be a little bigger," said Ron Smith of Pinehurst.
Smith served as an Army sergeant before separating in 2000.
"They have a lot on riggers and gliders," Smith said.
The exhibit, with its replica of a Soldier in uniform, remains at the museum year-round.
"It highlights a piece of history that a lot of people just don't realize," said Paul Galloway, the museum's executive director. "The African-American Soldiers served when segregation was still going on. These guys had to be the best of the rest."
They served, said Galloway, during a time when the Army trusted them to jump out of airplanes, but did not trust them to fight; during a time when it was not safe to get off the buses for fear of death when they traveled to Army bases in the South.
"It's a very interesting story," Galloway said.
"We think it's important that Soldiers know their history," Dennings said. "They need to know where they came from so they can be inspired to be the best Soldiers they can be."
The Airborne and Special Operations Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., closed Mondays, except when federal holidays fall on Mondays.
For more information, call 483-3003 or visit www.asomf.org.