A revered person in Palm Coast once mentioned that I should resonate stories about people because generally no one will tell our story but us. And so, my story of Walter Morris resonates a collaboration with Madalin Olivia Trigg Price, Ph.D.
En route, Dr. Price charted her course in radio, TV and film. She’s a retired faculty member from the Communications Department at Xavier University of Louisiana.
Walter Morris is our nation’s first African-American to serve as a United States paratrooper.
He was born Jan. 23, 1921, in Waynesboro, Ga., expending his formative years between Waynesboro, New York City, and Newark, N.J. It was in Waynesboro that Morris graduated from high school in 1939 and began an apprenticeship as a bricklayer.
In the next two years, he became a soldier in the Army, and was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. In 1943, he transferred to the Service Company of the Parachute School from the reception center as a classification clerk.
Morris said, in the role as the first sergeant, “I thought it was my duty to instill some self-esteem in the men.
“As servants, that’s what they were,” reiterates Morris. “Their self-esteem was low, and they had an inferiority complex.” They were not permitted in the post exchange and theater. The Army had erected a small exchange and theater for the ‘colored’ soldiers. They were segregated servants with menial jobs as drivers, guards, and cooks to serve the White troops.
“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.” said Morris.
Made good impression
The White paratroopers maneuvered training at jump school in an area adjacent to the “colored’’ barracks. When they left the training area, Morris had his men double-time out to the area, where the White paratroopers had trained and to pattern maneuvers as if they were dropping from the fuselage of C-47 aircrafts.
One day while Morris’ company simulated jumping out the mock-up planes, shouting “1,000, 2,000,” as paratroopers do when they jump from a plane and do strenuous calisthenics, a visitor appeared.
Lieutenant General Ridgley Gaither, commander of the paratrooper airborne school, was passing the training field and sighted the soldiers. He told his driver to stop so the men could be observed. When he returned to his office, he told his aide to have the first sergeant report the following morning.
Morris explained that the general was impressed and confident that he (Gaither) would get orders from the adjutant general to activate the 555th Paratroop Infantry Company with all “colored troops.’’ Morris was thrilled to be asked to command the company.
The ‘”colored’’ paratroopers did not engage in combat overseas during World War II, but instead fought forest fires. Referred to as smoke jumpers, the unit was trained to jump into areas where Japanese incendiary balloons intentionally started fires in the mountains of the Western United States.
It was understood that “no commander in Europe or the Far East wanted ‘colored troops’ mixing with their racist White troops.” ‘Operation Firefly’ was dangerously top secret, which was not reported in 1945 from July to September.
Morris said that a stepped-up effort for desegregation had been pushed by our leaders: A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, General B. O. Davis, and the Black press.
So in 1947, at the end of World War II, “the Triple Nickel” merged into the 82nd Airborne Division as General James M. Gavin had seen how badly the Black troops were treated. He had them become part of a victory parade along New York’s Fifth Avenue. And because they were the last marchers, Fox Movietone News turned their cameras off when the Black soldiers came into view.
“We integrated the United States Army…” said Morris, “and we did that almost a year before President Truman integrated the Armed Forces by Executive Order.”
Retired in 1984
As time passed, Sergeant Morris completed Officer Candidates School, graduating in August 1944 as a Second Lieutenant Paratrooper. So when the 555th Parachute Company, called “the Triple Nickle,” became a battalion, Morris was sent to the Adjutant General School in Fort Sam Houston to train as a Battalion Adjutant, requiring responsibility for all correspondence of the commander.
Lieutenant Morris was honorably discharged in 1946 and headed to Seattle to continue his apprenticeship of bricklaying for his father’s business. In 1950, he worked in New York as a union bricklayer and, moving forward, a foreman in 1965, supervising 15 to 25 bricklayers to put up schools and libraries.
As part of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation Project, initiated by Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1976 to restore Brooklyn’s inner-city housing, Morris was appointed construction supervisor. He was involved with all the trades for completing the 104-unit apartment complex, as well as the Restoration Mall for the offices of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.
Morris retired in 1984, and with his wife, Irma – who later on passed away – relocated in 1988 from Springfield Gardens, N.Y. to Palm Coast. The Morrises are the parents of four daughters.
Walter Morris became a volunteer at Memorial Hospital (Florida Hospital-Flagler) and a founding member/first treasurer of the African American Cultural Society (AACS). He served tirelessly as chairman of the AACS Christmas Basket Committee, which oversees food and gifts for insolvent families of the county.
United States history was made during the pinnacle of Morris’ career, and consequently, in 1990, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy invited the World War II paratroopers to Washington for a ceremony of appreciation and service. At the time, seven of the original 16 paratroopers were living.
He is a sought-after speaker and the subject for awards, print media, documentaries, and TV broadcasts – particularly by journalist/NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw – as well as CNN.
Morris is a classical music and opera aficionado, and there was a time he avidly played tennis.
We are proud of Walter Morris, and salute his talents, skills, and altruistic contributions to history and the nation.
As always, remember our prayers for the sick, afflicted and bereaved.