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Nation's first black paratroopers recall their glory days

THE BALTIMORE SUN

World War II generals didn't believe black soldiers had the courage to parachute from the belly of a plane. Walter Morris proved them wrong before the war ended.

George Bivens did the same in Korea. And when it was Robert L. Drake's turn during the Vietnam War, he too proved that a black man could have wings.

They lived through different wars, served with different military units, parachuted from different planes. But these men share a history symbolized by a banner and a crest that hang on a wall in East Baltimore's Wooden Nickel bar: a winged gold parachute topped by a star and a black panther perched on a parachute canopy.

At the Wooden Nickel, an elite group of veterans meets each month to celebrate a heritage begun by Walter Morris and 15 others. The country's first black paratroopers earned their wings in 1944 as the 555th Parachute Infantry Company, nicknamed the Triple Nickel.

"This is the greatest fraternity in the world," said Raymond L. Williams, a 60-year-old veteran of Korea and founder of the Baltimore 555th Airborne Inc., the city chapter of a national association of black paratroopers. "We're always talking about black history. We were taught about civilian history. But we want the kids to know that we are very rich in military history."

"The reason we come together and stay together is to keep alive the feeling, the heritage and courage of those who went first," added William L. Foster, a 53-year-old Korean War paratrooper who is also a member of the Baltimore 555th. "We followed behind them."

In the latter part of 1943 at Fort Benning, Ga., 1st Sgt. Walter Morris headed a service company of black soldiers -- referred to then as Negro troops. While white soldiers trained in the Army's special paratrooper school, Sergeant Morris and his soldiers were relegated to guard duty. They guarded the parachute school's equipment, the hangars at the airfield and the jump tower. To boost morale, Sergeant Morris gave his troops the same grueling training as the white paratroopers received.

A general passing through liked what he saw. Lt. Gen. Ridgely Gaither, a Baltimorean who headed the parachute school, later told the young sergeant from Spokane, Wash., that he would be the first sergeant in the country's first all-black paratrooper unit.

When their training began, Sergeant Morris and the other black soldiers entered the four-week school previously open only to whites. They learned to jump from a 35-foot tower, then from one at 250 feet and, finally, to jump at night. But the blacks were segregated. They trained separately, they lived in separate housing and they ate at separate tables.

Back then, black soldiers didn't realize "the damage segregation does to one," said Mr. Morris, 70.

The 16 graduates earned their wings, walked through town and heard passers-by exclaim, "Damn, black paratroopers!"

Mr. Morris said, "It was quite a feeling.

"Being able to walk down the street with a pair of boots on and get the feeling that you were as good as the other guy," he recalled, "it made us so proud to wear your pants in your boots and with your wings. It threw off the shackles."

But wings alone didn't guarantee the Triple Nickels a place in combat.

When the 555th Parachute Infantry was first formed, the United States was still fighting the war in Europe. The black paratroopers were sent to the West Coast. There, they became "smoke jumpers," trained to deal with hydrogen-filled balloons that the Japanese had launched to set aflame the country's forests.

"We had been trained to stay clear of trees," recalled Mr. Morris. "Then we trained to jump in densely populated forests."

Dubbed Operation Firefly, the mission saw 1,000 individual jumps by Triple Nickels. Mr. Morris said no fires were ever started by the Japanese balloons: "They were started by someone smoking at a camp fire or by Mother Nature with lightning."

After the nation's Jim Crow Army was integrated, the black paratroopers served with a variety of units: the 82nd Airborne, the 188th Airborne Infantry Regiment, the 187th Regimental Combat Team, the 2nd Ranger Infantry Company, the Green Berets.

Their nicknames ran the gamut -- the "Hell's Angels," the "Screaming Eagles," the "Rakkasans" (apparently a Japanese reference to "umbrella men").

"I'm looking now at the war in the Persian Gulf, having never been in combat," said Mr. Morris, a retired contractor living in Palm Coast, Fla. "I can't imagine what they are feeling. I only know what it feels like to come out of a plane."

In the back of the Wooden Nickel on a recent Monday night, a dozen former paratroopers stood up, turned toward a paper U.S. flag pinned to a back door, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. They had come from their homes in Northwood and Edmondson Village, Parkville and Ramblewood, Haywood Heights and Roland Park.

They are postmen and policemen, retired bus drivers and financial examiners. The oldest is 70; the youngest is 42.

"The thing that brings us together," said Bobby Drake, in between puffs on a small cigar, "is airborne. We stood in the door."

In heaven's doorway, 1,250 feet up. They know what it's like to have a 250 mph wind tugging at their sleeves. They know the only thing that kept them from jumping was a red light in the plane.

They remember the jolt of the parachute's opening and recall the peace of floating to earth through a cloudless sky.

They laugh uproariously in explaining "the nutcracker," a rite of passage in which a novice trooper, strapped in a harness that fits snugly around the crotch, plummets 34 feet to the ground.

And they grow somber when one describes the stillness of a jump being shattered by enemy ground fire.

"Munsan-Ni! Munsan-Ni," shouted Fred D. Atterberry, invoking the site of a famous parachute assault during the Korean War. "March 23, 1951. I got all shot up before we hit the ground. They cut some of my buddies in half."

George Bivens, 70, the oldest member of the Baltimore group, never parachuted into a field of fire. But he fell into a tree during a night jump while training at Fort Benning.

"I hung there. I dropped my helmet," said Mr. Bivens, explaining that he counted "1-one thousand, 2-one thousand" while his helmet clattered through the trees. "And I didn't hear anything. So I hung there until daybreak."

Jesse Moody will never forget his first jump. In 1960, he and about 40 other recruits climbed aboard a C-119, a Flying Boxcar, at Fort Bragg, N.C. As the plane went up, an engine caught fire. The pilot returned to the airfield. A mechanic tinkered with the engine, and then Mr. Moody and the others were put back on the plane. Within 30 minutes, the troopers were jumping from the doorway, heading for what looked like a postage-stamp field.

"The amazing part of it," said Eugene Tanzymore, a 48-year-old PTC veteran who commands the city Police Department's Western District, "they all got back on that plane."

The table of paratroopers erupted in laughter.

"Every time I made a jump," said Mr. Williams, "I had butterflies."

"I miss airborne," Mr. Drake said wistfully. "It's like that junkie. Once you take your first hit, you're hooked. I broke my back five years ago [in a jump]. I can't jump. But if the opportunity ever presents itself. . . ."

Before he enrolled in paratrooper's school at Fort Benning, Mr. Tanzymore had been no higher than the third floor of his house. But he volunteered to be a trooper.

"I didn't jump out for the glory," said Mr. Tanzymore. "I jumped out for 55 extra dollars a month. So at the end of the month, I had $135 and I was rich. Plus, if you got caught with somebody's else girlfriend, you never had to worry about jumping out of a second-floor bedroom."

For most of the former soldiers sitting around the table, service as paratroopers meant induction into an elite corps. And from there promotions came faster. "I was a buck sergeant in 18 months," said Mr. Tanzymore.

"If you didn't have wings on your chest," added Mr. Moody, "you were a leg."

L That distinction engendered a camaraderie that has remained.

"Each one of us had our wars to fight, and we did it with honor and dignity," added Mr. Tanzymore. "Self-discipline and self-motivation have played a part in our lives today. When times got hard out here, we hunkered down and did the job."

"When you're in a soldier's elite unit," said Mr. Foster, deputy director of the state's financial examiners' unit, "there's a certain sense [of self]. Out here they call it self-esteem, and a lot of young people don't have that. We know the price of freedom. We know the cost. I think the values could be passed on."

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