Walter Morris, original member of all-black 555th Army Parachute Battalion, dies at 92

During World War II, Walter Morris became one of the first black paratroopers in the Army — an original member of the all-black 555th Parachute Infantry Company, which was activated Dec. 30, 1943.

Toward the end of the war, they were tapped for a secret mission called Operation Firefly. While on a westbound train in May 1945 from Camp Mackall, N.C., then-1st Sgt. Morris thought that he and the men under his command were headed to the Pacific, perhaps to join up with Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

(US Army) - Walter Morris, who died Oct. 13 at 92, was part of the Army's all-black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

File-This Sept. 29, 1975, file photo shows Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll conferring with quarterback Joe Gilliam, left, and wide receiver John Stallworth during game in Pittsburgh, Pa. Noll, the Hall of Fame coach who won a record four Super Bowl titles with the Pittsburgh Steelers, died Friday, June 13, at his home. He was 82. The Allegheny County Medical Examiner said Noll died of natural causes. (AP Photo/File)

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When they arrived at Pendleton Field, Ore., Mr. Morris hopped off to buy cigarettes for what he thought was a quick stopover.

“There was this group of loggers sitting around this big potbellied stove,” he told the Associated Press 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.

Mr. Morris, who died Oct. 13 at 92, played a pivotal role in a little-remembered theater of war: the Pacific Northwest. As a smoke jumper, he parachuted out of airplanes to extinguish forest fires in remote areas that would take days to reach by foot. The weapon they most used was a shovel, to dig trenches to control or stop the spread of deadly fires.

The Triple Nickles — as members of what became the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion were dubbed, with the unusual spelling — responded to more than 30 domestic fires and made more than 1,000 individual jumps between 1943 and 1947, when they were augmenting the U.S. Forest Service’s smoke-jumper program, which had been in effect for several years.

“None of the commanding generals wanted to accept the black battalion because it meant integration, which had never been done,” Mr. Morris recalled.

By the time the 555th arrived in Oregon, the threat of Japanese incendiary “balloon bombs” had largely ceased.

Starting in November 1944, Japan sent more than 9,000 such bombs across the Pacific, carried by trade winds. A small portion reached the United States.

Five children and a minister’s wife were killed by a balloon that exploded May 5, 1945, at their picnic site near Bly, Ore.

Mostly, Mr. Morris and his men leapt out of planes to quell fires started by lightning, thoughtless campers or arsonists. They underwent rigorous training, learning how to use demolition equipment, how to climb trees and how to get out of a tree if a jumper got tangled with heavy gear during the descent.

There was also training in how to avoid ugly encounters with bears and rattlesnakes, which vied for the food dropped into the wilderness by parachute.

In 1948, three years after the war ended, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military.

“We didn’t win any wars, but we did contribute,” Mr. 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 Jan. 23, 1921, in Waynesboro, Ga., and was the youngest and only male of seven children. After high school graduation, he began an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, but he found construction work was sparse during the Depression. He joined the Army as a one-year volunteer in January 1941.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that December, Mr. Morris continued his Army service as a clerk.

In early spring 1943, he said he “washed out” of Infantry Officer Candidate School on the 12th week of a 13-week program. He had never attended basic training and attributed his failure at O.C.S. to having never fired a rifle and his lack of combat training.

He was relegated to guarding the parachute school at Fort Benning, Ga., with fellow black soldiers from 4 p.m., when the white paratrooper trainees left the field, until the students returned at 8 the next morning.

Mr. Morris said the morale of the African Americans was miserable. The post was largely segregated, including its 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 told the Daytona Times newspaper in Florida this year.

Mr. Morris was determined to boost the soldiers’ self-esteem. Under Mr. Morris’s command, the men voluntarily began a daily regimen of strenuous calisthenics similar to that of white paratroopers. “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 told an interviewer 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.”

Gaither then confided in him that a new, all-black parachute company was being formed, and the general invited Mr. Morris to be the first sergeant in the outfit. “I was elated,” he said. “My heart almost burst.”

He completed O.C.S. in August 1944 and was the only black student in his class at Adjutant General School.

Mr. Morris, who spent his postwar career as a bricklayer in North Carolina and then a construction project supervisor in New York, settled in Florida in the mid-1980s. He was a resident of Palm Coast, where he died at a hospital. The cause was cardiac arrest, his family said.

His first wife, Ruby Lovette, died in 1979 after 35 years of marriage. The next year, he married Irma Page. She died in 1999.

Survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Patricia Worthy of Washington and Crystal Poole of Palm Coast; two stepdaughters, Jean Lanier of Ormond Beach, Fla., and Verneal Corbett of Woodbridge, Va.; five grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

One grandson, Army Maj. Michael Fowles, graduated from paratrooper school at Fort Benning in 2004 — 50 years after Mr. Morris received his paratrooper wing pin.

 
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