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Triple Nickel to hold reunion

by webmaster |

With World War II still raging in Europe, the "Triple Nickels" completed paratrooper training, hungry for battle. But no overseas commanders wanted them.

"We were a battalion ready for combat with no place to go," said Walter Morris, first sergeant in the U.S. Army's first black paratrooper unit.

The unit which got its Triple Nickels nickname because it was the 555th Infantry Battalion was integrated into the 82nd Airborne Division in 1947. But members of the Triple Nickels spent World War II in the western United States as smoke jumpers, parachuting into the woods to fight fires, ignited by Japanese balloon bombs and lightning.

This weekend, the group will hold its 61st anniversary reunion during the Celebrate Freedom Festival in Camden.

About 100 members of the group's association are expected to be in Columbia and Camden for reunion activities.

In 1945, when the soldiers finally got their orders to head to the West Coast, they thought they would be going to fight against Japan in the Pacific.

Instead, their train made a pit stop in the mountains of Oregon. Morris and several other soldiers went into a nearby country store for cigarettes.

"Loggers were sitting around whittling and talking," Morris said. "They said, 'You finally got here.' I said, 'You were expecting us?' "

That's when the paratroopers figured out their smoke-jumping assignment.

"The newspapers knew we were going to be trained as smoke jumpers," he said. "But we didn't know it."

The Triple Nickels put their desire for combat on the back burner and made 112 individual jumps into 32 fires along the West Coast that year. They lost one man, who died after he fell out of a tree.

"They were soldiers," Morris said, "and that was their job and that was what they did.

"As for what was deep in our hearts, I'm sure they would rather have been soldiers on the battlefield."

Joe Murchison, who joined the Triple Nickels in 1948, said the unit played a vital role in helping integrate the nation's armed forces. Murchison is president of the association, which has been telling the unit's story since the 1970s.

He said the unit's history is a well-kept secret, but association members are trying to change that.

Murchison said it makes sense for the Triple Nickels to hold their reunion at Celebrate Freedom.

"We have some of the same goals. We're both patriotic organizations, and we want to teach kids history," he said. "I think that it's a worthwhile calling."

Morris whose grandson, Capt. Michael Fowles, is stationed at Fort Jackson left the Army in 1946, missing the Triple Nickels' groundbreaking integration into the 82ndth Airborne by a year. But he is proud of the battalion's accomplishments and has traveled the world telling their story.

"When I look out in the audience and see the faces of these kids black, white, red, yellow, brown all sitting there, men and women, I say, 'Oh, boy, how we have changed. What a difference,' " Morris said.

"The country has moved forward, and it's great. We have not completed the trip, but we're on the right path."