Walter Morris was one of the first black paratroopers during WWII. As an original member of an all-black 555th Parachute Infantry Company.
The 555th Parachute Infantry Company was the first all-black paratrooper company during WWII. Walter Morris was one of the original members of this company which was activated on December 30, 1943.
The parachute company was tasked with a secret mission which was called ‘Operation Firefly’.
May 1945, Sergeant Morris was on a train headed west from Camp Mackall, N.C. to the Pacific. It was his belief that he and his men would be joining up with General Douglas MacArthur.
When the train arrived at Pendleton Field, Morris believed it was only a brief stop over. He got off the train and purchased a pack of cigarettes.
Morris tells Bend Bulletin, “There was this group of loggers sitting around this big potbellied stove,” he recalled in 2000. “And they said, ‘Oh, you’re here. We’ve been waiting for you a long time. We read in the paper that you were coming out here’” to be smoke jumpers.
Being a smoke jumper, he was to parachute out of planes to extinguish forest fires that were deep in remote locations. The only weapon he was equipped with was a shove which was used to dig trenches. These trenches were to stop the fires from spreading.
The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was named the Triple Nickles–unusual spelling was intentional. These brave men responded to over 30 fires. They made over 1,000 jumps by 1947.
“None of the commanding generals wanted to accept the black battalion because it meant integration, which had never been done,” Morris recalled.
When the company finally got to Oregon, the threat of Japanese “balloon bombs” was nearly gone.
In November of 1944, Japan sent 9,000 of these balloon bombs across the Pacific Ocean. The only thing that carried these bombs were the trade winds. Very few of these bombs actually made it to US shores.
One bomb did land on a picnic site in Bly in May of 1945. The bomb killed 5 children and the wife of a minister.
Morris and his men mostly responded to fires that were caused by lightning, campers or arsonists. They had endured difficult training. They learned how to use demolition equipment and how to climb trees. They also learned how to get out of their heavy gear if they were caught in a tree.
The men also were trained on how to avoid conflicts with the bears and rattlesnakes that inhabited the forests.
Three years after the war in 1948, Truman signed an executive order that desegregated the military.
“We didn’t win any wars, but we did contribute,” Morris told the Associated Press decades later. “What we proved was that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability.”
Walter Morris was born in Waynesboro, Georgia on January 23, 1921. He was the youngest of seven children and the only boy.
When he graduated high school, Morris began his apprenticeship with a brick layer. However, construction work hard to come by during the depression. So, in 1941 he joined the Army for what he had thought would only be one year.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Morris stayed in the Army and worked as a clerk.
In 1943 during the spring, Morris recalled that he “washed out” of the Infantry Officer Candidate School with only one week left until the classes were over. He said he never attended basic training because he had never fired a rifle and didn’t have combat training.
Because of this, he had orders to guard the parachuting school at Fort Benning, Georgia.He and several other black soldiers were told to remain at the school from 4pm when the white trainees left the field. They were to able to leave at 8am when the trainees come back.
Morris recalled that the morale of the African-Americans was abysmal. Many parts of the post were segregated. This included the movie theater and exchange.
“When we walked past the post exchange, we could see the German and Italian prisoners sitting at tables … drinking and smoking, and we, in the same uniforms, could not go in,” he said earlier in 2013.
In an effort to boost his compatriots self-esteem, Morris initiated a rigorous exercise regime that was similar to the white soldiers training.
“Having just come from O.C.S., I thought I knew how to lead men,” he said. “After all, I had just missed becoming an officer in the United States Army by one week.”
He later said that Lt. Gen. Ridgely Gaither, commander of the parachute school, drove by one day and saw “50 black soldiers jumping up and down shouting, ‘One thousand one, one thousand two.’ He didn’t know what to make of it, so he called me to his office.”
The Lieutenant General informed Morris that an all-black parachute company was being formed and he wanted Morris to be the first sergeant. “My heart almost burst.”
He was the only black student in his class at the Adjutant General School. He completed O.C.S. in August of 1944.
Once the war ended, Morris spend his career as a bricklayer in North Carolina. He then became a construction project supervisor in New York. In the mid-1980s he settled in Palm Coast, Florida.
Morris died on October 13th, 2013 at 92 years old. He died in a hospital of cardiac arrest. He was survived by two daughters, two step daughters, five grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.