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It's time to see the invisible man


I spoke with an invisible man the other day.

Last July, this man, this invisible man, went to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first American airborne infantry battalion.

"I was glad and I was sad," said this man, this invisible man. "I saw some of my buddies I hadn't seen since, wow, since 1953. And everybody was dressed up in uniform, all neat and trim and full of pride, and we were talking about the kind of things that only someone who has earned his airborne wings can understand.

"But it was sad, too," he continued, "because for the blacks there, it wasn't really our celebration. I got to thinking about how, unless we do something, we will never get this many blacks together in uniform ever again, and about how a part of the airborne history could be lost forever."

"What history is that?" I asked the invisible man.

"The heritage of the black parachute trooper," he said. "I talk to people today. I talk to children. They don't know anything about that heritage, about what we went through and what we accomplished."

The invisible man returned to Baltimore and pondered the question. In August, he formed the Baltimore 555th Airborne Inc., the local affiliate of the national, 555th Parachute Infantry Association. In the old days, the men in the airborne used to call their unit the Triple Nickel.

"Most people have never even heard of the Triple Nickel," said the invisible man.

The Triple Nickel Battalion was formed in 1944 but never saw combat in World War II. It first saw action in Korea.

"I have to confess," I said sadly, "I have never, ever heard of the Triple Nickel or of black paratroopers in general."

"Please don't say that," pleaded the invisible man and he said this with great pain, as if I had pierced him to the heart. "Please don't ever tell anyone that you didn't know about us."

But isn't that the point?

I don't know. You don't know. Nobody knows more than a fraction of the accomplishments of black men and women in our society. Not in history, not even as recently as the last generation. We don't know how they felt, what they feared. We know very little of their dreams.

They are invisible men and invisible women.

Invisibility is cruel.

"To be a paratrooper is to be a very special breed of man," said this man, this invisible man. "I know I'm speaking for a lot of the guys. They were very proud to get their airborne wings because, you know, not everybody has the guts to jump out of airplanes.

"But, like I say, it upsets me that nobody knows what we did. Nobody knows what we accomplished. We see all of these John Wayne movies and it's like we never ever existed."

"It makes me angry," said the invisible man. "It makes a lot of us angry. Not for our personal glory, you understand, but just for our recognition."

So, let's turn on the lights.

The founder and president of the Baltimore 555th Airborne Inc., is Ray Williams, of the 900 block of North Hill Road in northeast Baltimore. He is 60 years old, a postman for over 30 years, a TC husband, a father and a home owner.

Invisible no more.

Williams joined the Army right after high school in 1950. He was a handsome, muscular, clean-cut looking young man in those days, and eager to make good. He trained at Fort Benning, Ga., rose quickly to sergeant first class and fought in Korea where he earned four battle stars.

And today, much heavier and a little grayer, Williams is proud, oh, ever so proud, that he once was an elite paratrooper.

"We were a special breed of men," he repeated. "We trained harder than anybody else. And for blacks to make it, we had to train five times harder because they wanted us to fail. And for all of the training, jumping is something you never know if you'll do until you do it. We did it. That's something that should never be forgotten."

I don't know how it feels to be rendered invisible in this world of ours, not like Williams and his comrades; not like generations of black men and women.

But my generation and those that follow do know what it's like to be rendered blind to their accomplishments. It is like groping in the dark.

The men of the Baltimore 555th Airborne Inc., want to share their experiences with city school children. I hope they get their chance.

No more invisible men and women. Above all, no more groping in the dark.

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