African Americans in the Army poster

FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- In 1946, 18-year-old Charles Stevens enlisted in the Army to provide a better life for his wife and new baby.

He trained to be a medical administrator and was sent to Alaska for his first assignment in an all-black battalion.

The North Carolina native had been dealing with the cold for six months when one day he walked into his first sergeant's office and saw a flyer that read "Volunteer for airborne duty."

"I finished that application before I even left that office," Stevens said.

Within a month, Stevens flew to Fort Benning, Ga., to jump from the sky.

Stevens said he remembers all too well what it was like training to be a black paratrooper in a segregated Army.

"If a white Soldier completed airborne training, he got all the stuff he needed, then was assigned to a nice, big combat division or regiment," Stevens said. "When I got mine (airborne status), people wanted to tell me, 'I don't want you to have that type of thing,' because of the color of my skin. That hurt."

Despite the racial tensions, Stevens earned his parachute wings and landed at Fort Bragg, where he became a member of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

"I finally felt like I belonged to something," Stevens said as he recalled his first days serving in the all-black battalion.

The unit, commissioned in December 1943, had not seen combat during World War II. Racist leaders viewed black Soldiers as both physically and mentally unfit to fight, often assigning them to menial jobs in support of white Soldiers. But the "Triple Nickles" - before Stevens joined their ranks - had become known as "smoke jumpers" for parachuting into West Coast forests and putting out fires set by Japanese incendiary balloons.

One morning in December 1947, the Triple Nickles were ordered to march to an area designated for the 82nd Airborne Division. There, he said, they were to participate in one of the most significant milestones in military history.

"We were in battalion formation, and our battalion commander presented us to the commanding general," Stevens said. "In that formation, the Triple Nickles were deactivated."

The 555th had just become the 3rd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division.

"Everybody was crying," he said. "I think we were crying for two different reasons. We were glad that segregation was leaving the Army and we were sad we were losing our Triple Nickle colors."

Maj. Gen. James Gavin, who became a legend for fighting against segregation in the Army, had ordered the 555th's integration into the elite airborne division.

It wasn't until seven months later, when President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, that the black paratroopers got their full rights as American Soldiers. Executive Order 9981 established equality of treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services for people of all races, religions, or national origins.

It took about another five years for the Army to fully integrate, said Manuel Rucker, who enlisted in the Army in 1950, the same year the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was disbanded.

"Back in the old days, when your orders were cut, they had your name, and if you were black, the words, 'negro enlisted,' after it," Rucker said. "After we integrated, they stopped putting those words on orders, but instead used a code to describe who you were - 'one' for white and 'two' for black. The first sergeant at each company would have a roster of everybody with the codes. They weren't supposed to know our color, but they knew."

"And during Basic Training at Fort Knox," he said, "although every Soldier sat in the same classroom, at the end of the day, the white Soldiers went to one barracks and the black Soldiers went to separate barracks."

Standing 6-feet, 4-inches tall and weighing 200 pounds at 19 years old, Rucker said he didn't personally experience a great deal of overt discrimination.

"Not too many people messed with me too much," he said.

Rucker never finished BCT, he said. By the time he reached the 12th week of his 15-week cycle, he and 21 other Soldiers were pulled from training to become what are now called drill sergeants.

Rucker said he trained Soldiers of every color.

"A Soldier was a Soldier," he said.

Today, both Stevens and Rucker are members of North Carolina's Fayetteville-Fort Bragg Chapter of the 555th Parachute Infantry Association, which honors the legacy of the original Triple Nickles.

During the association's recent annual luncheon at Fort Jackson, the paratroopers had the opportunity to meet Gavin's grandson, Staff Sgt. Joseph Gavin, who is a drill sergeant for Company A, 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment here.

The former paratroopers spoke favorably about the "Jumping General," who earned his nickname for jumping alongside his troops during combat. The general's grandson spoke highly about the Triple Nickles.

"I'm proud my grandfather recognized the talents of these Soldiers and helped integrate them into the 82nd Airborne (Division)," Gavin said. "They paved the way for all Soldiers who followed them."

Page last updated Thu February 18th, 2010 at 07:52