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Interview with Walter Morris [11/21/2002]

Judith Kent:

Today is November 21, 2002. This is Judith Kent speaking from the Flagler County Public Library in Palm Coast, Florida. Joining me today is Mr. Walter Morris who was born on January 23, 1921. Mr. Morris resides in Palm Coast, Florida and has agreed to participate in the Veterans' Project. He and I are the only persons present at the interview. First of all, thank you, Mr. Morris for agreeing to participate in the Veterans' History Project. Would you state for the record the branch of service in which you served?

Walter Morris:

I was in the first all colored parachute unit. In December of 1943 the Army activated a colored parachute unite and it was designated the 555 Parachute Infantry Company. That was in Ft. Benning, GA.

Judith Kent:

The "Triple Nickel"?

Walter Morris:

[nodding in the affirmative and grinning broadly] The "Triple Nickel".

Judith Kent:

OK. Let's go back a little bit. Tell me about your family.

Walter Morris:

I was born in Waynesboro, GA and in 1925, my family migrated north to Newark, NJ. I started my schooling in Newark, NJ and in 1937 I moved back to Waynesboro, GA because of the bad influence I was getting in Newark with the street gangs and all. My mother decided to send me back to my uncle who was in Waynesboro, GA (her brother). In 1939 I graduated from high school in Waynesboro, GA and started my apprenticeship as a bricklayer. The work was so scarce in 1940 that there was no work for bricklayers and certainly no work for apprentice bricklayers. The Army at that time was offering one year service to anyone who wanted to volunteer for a year. That was a godsend for me because it allowed me to do something other than sit around all day. I volunteered and in January of 1941 I left Waynesboro and went to Ft. Benning, GA as an inductee.

Judith Kent:

What was your basic training like?

Walter Morris:

I did not get any basic training, but because of my Army General Classification test score was pretty high they asked me if I would like to stay in Ft. Benning as a Classification Clerk. I had no idea what a Classification Clerk was; I couldn't even pronounce it! [laughter] They trained me. What it was, we as soldiers interviewed inductees and filled out their Form 20 card (which was the Army's record book, so to speak). The Form 20 asked your civilian occupation and education goals and whatnot. From that form the Classification Clerk then (with the help of his superiors) assigned the inductees to the various branches depending on his background and his skills.

Judith Kent:

How long did you stay in that role?

Walter Morris:

I stayed in classification for two years. I left, or rather I applied for Officer Candidate School. They accepted me because of my AGCT test score. I went to OCS (Officer Candidate School) in Ft. Benning and it was at that time a thirteen week course. That was my basic training; I had never had my hand on a rifle, never done any close order drill. All we did (us Classification Clerks) we were civilians in Army clothes. I persevered that course for twelve weeks. The thirteenth week I was called in by the board and they told me, "Walter, you almost made it but you are still lacking that experience. So what we want you to do is stay here in Ft. Benning, GA in any of the units. We are going to give you a list of the units that you can go to and in three months you can reapply for OCS." The showed me a list and the list included a service company of the Parachute School. The Parachute School kind of intrigued me, and I chose that. I was sent to the Service Company on the Main Post of Ft. Benning.

Judith Kent:

How is a Service Company different from the regular?

Walter Morris:

A Service Company at Ft. Benning Parachute School was a company made up of all colored troops (I use the phrase colored because in the '40s we were designated as colored). This Service Company had a white officer and all colored soldiers in it. Our sole function as a Service Company was to do guard duty for the Parachute School and its' properties. For example we guarded Lawson Air Force Base (that was where the planes were housed for the Parachute School), we guarded the jump towers and the callisthenic field and the packing shed. Every day at 4 o'clock in the afternoon when the white students would go back to their barracks (complete their basic training) we guards would assume our duties. We would do guard duty from 4 o'clock in the afternoon until 8 o'clock the following morning. That was our schedule. Having just left Officers Candidate School I thought I had the know-how to run a company (I thought). I saw so many things that were lacking in the supervision of this company (mainly because the Company Commander of the service company was a temporary post for white officers who had washed out of the Parachute School). They were assigned as Company Commanders until they were reassigned; so it was always a temporary position lasting two to three months. So the Company Commander spent more time in the Officers' Club than he did in the Headquarters of the Service Company.

Judith Kent:

What did you think was lacking?

Walter Morris:

I beg your pardon?

Judith Kent:

What did you think was lacking?

Walter Morris:

Well, they had the wrong people in the wrong positions. For an example, the Supply Sergeant of the Service Company had no knowledge of what he was doing. He had no basic training so that there was always a problem with supplies. The Platoon Sergeants, some were good and some were bad. One day I sat down and made out a table of organization for the Company replacing certain people, moving certain people around. I had myself as the First Sergeant and I had the existing First Sergeant as the Supply Sergeant. I changed a lot of the personnel and presented that to the Company Commander. He looked it over and said, "Is this what you want? I'll go along with you." He had no interest in the whole thing. So the following morning I was First Sergeant and I had all my men rearranged and then we operated (I must admit it was more efficiently run.).

Judith Kent:

Did that help the morale?

Walter Morris:

The morale was so low that I took it upon myself to put into operation a scheme to raise the morale of the men. I did that because we were billeted next to the callisthenic field. Every day the white students would go through their training: push-ups, jumping off of a five foot platform, coming out of a mock up fuselage of a C47 plane (the plane that the parachute troops jumped from). We watched them day in and day out and we knew the routines. It occurred to me that if I could get my men to go through that same calisthenics that the white students did that it might inspire them. So one day at four o'clock the white students left the field and I got all of our men (with the help of the NCO's) and we double-timed the men to the field (which was just next door to where we were). We assigned them to each post: some were doing push-ups, some were jumping off the platform and learning how too do what is called the "fluid roll" (a method of falling and dispersing the shock throughout the body so that it wouldn't concentrate in any one particular part of the body, ankles or back). Another group was learning how to come out of the C47 plane; we imitated the parachute trooper coming out saying, "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand..." (which is counting the seconds). After three thousand if your chute didn't open you pulled your reserve chute. An amazing thing happened, because after a week or two of that type of regimen I could notice a distinct improvement in their appearance (my service men's appearance). Their clothes were pressed. When you talked to them they looked you straight in the eye. They began to act like soldiers rather than servants. That was very heart warming to me. There was one day during our exercise that the Commanding General of the Parachute School (whose name was Ridgley Gaither)... General Gaither was on his way back to his office one day and looked across at what should have been an empty callisthenic field and saw about fifty colored soldiers running up and down shouting, "One thousand, two thousand..." He told his chauffer to stop and he observed us for a while; we had no idea he was there. He went back to his office and told his aide to get in touch with that sergeant and have him in the office the next morning at nine o'clock. I went back to my orderly room the clerk said, "Sergeant, General Gaither wants you in his office at 9 o'clock. Well, if you are a First Sergeant and you get a request or a command (as it were) from the General, you wonder what in the world you had done wrong? [laughing]

Judith Kent:

Called on the carpet!

Walter Morris:

That's right! The next morning I took my bicycle and pedaled up to his office and they ushered me in. I saluted and he returned the salute and said, "Now explain to me what I saw." I did and he was impressed and he said, "That's a good move that you made. Now let me tell you a secret, Morris. In a few weeks the Army is going to direct me to activate a 555 Parachute Company, all colored, officers and men. Would you like to be the First Sergeant of that Company?" I said, "Oh (my heart was just...) first of all, I am not really a First Sergeant, I am just an Acting First Sergeant because the Company Commander of the Service Company never put through any papers or anything. We were all just acting: Acting Platoon Sergeant, Acting First Sergeant... I said, "I am not really a First Sergeant. He said, "No?" and he looked around at his aide and his aide left the room. He said, "You will hear from us later." When I left his office going back to my office, to this day I have no idea how I got back. My head was in the clouds, I might have flown back, I might have "taken wings". [laughter] When I got back to the Orderly Room the Clerk said, "Sergeant, General Gaither's office called and blasted the Company Commander. He just came out and ordered me to type up orders making you First Sergeant and making all these acting commands [permanent]. Now I am a First Sergeant and in December of 1943 orders came down from the Adjacent General in Washington DC activating the 555 Parachute Company with Walter Morris First Sergeant of that Company and William Johnson (who was a white officer at the time) the Commanding Officer. Captain Johnson was his name. His name and my name are on that December order activating the 555. I must say that the reason for this was not that I instigated the Adjacent General to activate the 555. The reason that the Army activated a Colored 555 is because of the lobbying of Brigadier General (his son was a Tuskegee Airman) Benjamin Davis was his name. Benjamin Davis was the only colored General in the Army and he had lobbied President Roosevelt to start a colored parachute company, colored parachute outfit. He said, "Mr. President, I have been around to the different installations and I have seen colored soldiers loading ships, doing guard duty, driving trucks, waiting tables, cooking but I don't see any combat paratroopers.

Judith Kent:

Fighting men?

Walter Morris:

Yes. President Roosevelt looked at General Marshall (who was the Army Chief of Staff) and asked General Marshal to start a colored parachute company. General Marshal (thinking as most of the top echelon) thought that colored soldiers driving trucks and waiting tables would not have the same energy, education, nerve to jump out of a plane. It just didn't make sense [to him]. So General Marshal put a note to the Adjacent General saying, "Start a company." Normally it would have been a battalion because a battalion is the smallest unit with their own headquarters to process the morning reports, the ration breakdown. A company has to depend on someone else to do their paper work. Anyway, he said, "Start a company" and that is how the 555 Company was started. In those days when General Davis was lobbying there were also three other men lobbying, too for more colored participation in the war effort. In 1941 there were few, if any, colored people working in the defense plants. There was no colored "Molly [Rosie] the riveter" if you remember that. A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and the president of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins went to President Roosevelt and promised him that if he didn't give us some relief (us being the colored people) that they would have a march on Washington. That was one thing that President Roosevelt didn't need. This was prior to Pearl Harbor and all the defense plants were gearing up and making material for the European people, the British people who were actually in the War. So with the threat of a march on Washington President Roosevelt arranged to have more colored people employed. Now, this march on Washington actually came about twenty two years later [led] by the same three men. This is ironic, Avery Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins staged a march on Washington in August of 1963. That was when Dr. Martin Luther King did his "I have a dream" speech. I just thought of that, [it was] twenty two years later. So anyway, getting back to my story, the Army then selected nineteen additional colored soldiers, mostly from the 92nd Infantry Division in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. They got seventeen selected men from that unit and three from the Service Company (me and two more of the men). Those two other men were soldiers who had volunteered to do the Parachute School and the Army had no way to... They had no colored paratroopers so these men were put into our Service Company. That meant that twenty of us started classes in January of 1944.

Judith Kent:

So now you had some real legitimate parachute training.

Walter Morris:

Right. They selected one of the instructors who volunteered because most of them did not want to be associated with us. We went through the four weeks training. We graduated and then the Army sent six colored officers that they had selected, Brad Bigg being the first.

Judith Kent:

He talks in his book, [Triple Nickels] about meeting you. Do you remember that moment?

Walter Morris:

Yes [smiling broadly]. I remember vividly!

Judith Kent:

A proud moment?

Walter Morris:

Yes. We were... All of us were on a different planet [laughing] in those days. It was really something!

Judith Kent:

It was exciting?

Walter Morris:

Yes, because we as colored soldiers in Ft. Benning, GA in 1941 and '42 could not go into the main Post Exchange or the main theater in Ft. Benning, GA. When we passed the main Post Exchange and looked in we could see the German and Italian prisoners of war sitting down at the same table with white soldiers, drinking cokes and smoking and having a good time. So it is understandable how colored soldiers would have an inferiority complex. [We thought] There must be something wrong with us. We are in uniform...

Judith Kent:

...of your own country!

Walter Morris:

Yes, but we are not good enough to sit at the table with the prisoners of war. Anyway, once we finished our course we jumped for four days and the fifth jump was at night. Once you jumped that night jump the following morning you would graduate because now you were a paratrooper. Once that was done and the officers finished their course the Army opened the gates for all colored soldiers who wanted to volunteer to have a colored parachute company. They came by the hundreds. W had a lot of soldiers who were disqualified because of various reasons, mostly their health; they couldn't take that strenuous training.

Judith Kent:

It was very vigorous?

Walter Morris:

We had so many people coming, so many colored people were volunteering that this company was expanding so that General Gaither called me to his office. He was serving as my "Godfather". General Gaither called me to his office and said, "Morris I want you to go back to OCS because this is going to be a battalion. It is too big for a company and they are going to need more officers." So I applied and I went back to OCS and went through the course and graduated. In the meantime, the company moved from Ft. Benning to Camp McCall in North Carolina. While I was in OCS, the 555 Parachute Company was deactivated and the 555 Parachute Battalion was activated. So when I graduated from OCS and went back to my outfit, my Battalion Commander (who was a man chosen from the six original officers) he said, "Morris, I want you to go to Adjacent General School because we are going to have a Headquarters now that we are a battalion; I want you to go to school and learn how to be an Adjacent." So, I went to Ft. Sam Houston, TX which was in (I can't think of the name of it- beautiful place) San Antonio. That was a six week course and they taught you how to process morning reports, how actually to be a secretary to the Battalion Commander. I graduated from Adjacent General School and went back to Camp McCall and set up Headquarters. Fortunately, I had two of the best clerks that the Army had to help me. They actually did the work. I got the credit, but they actually did the work. We set up our headquarters and we started functioning. The Army at that time decided that they would take a group of the 555 Battalion and train them as a separate fighting unit. So they selected some men and sent them to a combat course to train them because we were going to be sent overseas. We were going to fight! Then the War ended in Europe. So, we said, "OK, MacArthur is still there, we can go to the Pacific." Sure enough, one day orders came ordering us to Camp Pendleton, Oregon. We said, "Well, this is it. We are on our way to the Pacific!" Little did we know that the Agriculture Department (the Forrest Service arm of the Agriculture Department) was having difficulty in fighting forest fires. Some of the forest fires were started by campers (not putting out their fires properly) some were caused by lightning and some were caused by the Japanese incendiary balloons floating over from Japan across the Pacific, landing in the upper regions and starting forest fires, a lot of them.

Judith Kent:

Was that generally known by the public?

Walter Morris:

No. That was a well kept secret because the Army did not want the public (nor the Japanese) to know how effective those balloons were. So it was a well kept secret and we were sent to Camp Pendleton as part of Operation Firefly (that was the code word for smokejumpers).

Judith Kent:

You needed some new skills to become smokejumpers.

Walter Morris:

Yes, because we had no idea about smokejumpers. We had never heard of them. It was a let-down, really because we thought that we were going to fight the enemy. Here we were going to learn how to jump out of a plane and land in trees (which we had been taught not to do) and fight a forest fire with picks and shovels! When we got up into the mountains on our way down to Camp Pendleton [by train] we stopped for refueling. When I tell this story to young soldiers [they say,] "refueling?" First they don't know what a train is and refueling? We had to stop for water and for coal. [laughs] It is interesting to see the expressions on their faces.

Judith Kent:

Ancient history?

Walter Morris:

While the train was refueling I asked the Battalion Commander if I could go across the railroad tracks because I saw a general store. He said, "Yeah, take a couple of men and go over there and get cigarettes and whatnot." When I walked into this general store and opened the door and went in where the white loggers were sitting around an old pot bellied stove (some were whittling) when they looked up and saw us they said, "Well, you got here at last!" I said, "You were expecting us?" They said, "Oh yes, you colored soldiers are going to fight forest fires. You are going to be smokejumpers." I said, "How did you know?" He said, "We read it in the New York Times." [laughing] The Times had published it. My Battalion Commander had never heard of it; none of us had heard of it but we had been on the train. When I got back to the train I told the Battalion Commander he scoffed at it. He said, "They don't know what the hell they are talking about! How could these hillbillies up here in the mountains know?" But sure enough, that's what we were doing. We were sent to become smokejumpers. We arrived in Camp McCall and we were met by the Forest Service people, one man in particular, Frank Derry who was a Forrest Service paratrooper. Frank Derry had designed a special chute for smokejumpers. He did that by eliminating one of the slots from the chute which enabled the paratrooper to more easily navigate [maneuver] with his chute. With the missing slot he was able to pin point his tree that he wanted to land in.

Judith Kent:

How did you get from the top of the tree?

Walter Morris:

Well, we had "let down ropes". The Army liked to designate certain positions... It was called a LDR (let down rope). We had our LDRs (fifty feet of rope). When you hit the tree you maneuvered and came down the rope. By the way, that was how we lost the only casualty in the experience. He was coming down one of those tall pines (about a hundred feet tall) and as he was coming down he slipped and fell. That was the only fatality we had. We had over 33 individual fires that we jumped on and we had over 1,200 individual jumps. We had two groups, one group was in Pendleton, Oregon and a smaller contingent was in California; I can't think of the name of the place.

Judith Kent:

There were probably other casualties, other injuries though not fatal.

Walter Morris:

Oh, we had plenty of injuries.

Judith Kent:

What would be a typical injury?

Walter Morris:

Ankles, crushed chests, back [injuries] but mostly ankles. The place that we would send all our injuries was Walla Walla, WA (there was an Army hospital in Walla Walla). Once we completed that fire season we assembled and came back to Camp McCall in late 1945. We left Camp McCall and moved to Ft. Bragg which was adjacent to Camp McCall in North Carolina. This was in January of 1946. I had enough points and a wife and a baby by that time so I decided that I would continue my apprenticeship as a bricklayer. I was offered that opportunity by my father who lived in Seattle, Washington at the time. He said, "You come out here and I will teach you." So I got out of the service in '46.

Judith Kent:

Let's stop here and take a brief pause, OK?

Walter Morris:

Uh huh. Side A ends. Side B begins.

Judith Kent:

OK. Before we go on with your post-military career, you showed me a picture of you all packed up ready to jump.

Walter Morris:

Yes, scared to death.

Judith Kent:

[laughing] You look very brave. You have a lot of gear there. What kind of gear did you have as you jumped?

Walter Morris:

[Points to object strapped to his chest] That was a reserve chute and you can't see the backpack, but the T7 [Kerry] 'chute was our main chute. For the first five jumps the student is required to pack his own 'chute.

Judith Kent:

Really?

Walter Morris:

Yes, it gives him confidence in his 'chute. After the five jumps you were a paratrooper and you go to the supply depot and pick up a 'chute; you don't know who packed it. For the first five jumps you packed your own 'chute; so you had to learn how to pack a chute and in the process you became a rigger. At the Battalion we had a group of men who were riggers and we had another group who were demolition men who had gone to school to learn how to detonate the bombs.

Judith Kent:

Some of the bombs weren't exploded?

Walter Morris:

Yes. So we were a self-contained Battalion and we had our own trucks, our own Mess Hall, our own Headquarters and we did not have to depend on the Post Headquarters to do our administrative work; we did our own.

Judith Kent:

What was an A5 container?

Walter Morris:

The A5? I don't remember.

Judith Kent:

Something that had other equipment?

Walter Morris:

Yes, I am tempted to say that was our supply 'chute. Speaking of supply 'chutes, one of the fires I went on was up on Mount Baker, Washington. I had one officer under me and twenty-four men. This was a big, big fire. We got there and jumped on the fire and we landed and our equipment was maybe 50 yards beyond where we landed, but the underbrush was so thick that we couldn't even get to it. We could see them (because the equipment 'chutes are yellow or red) and they would come down and we could see our rations and tents over there and we couldn't get to it. It turned out that the good Lord had it rain; it rained all that day and all that night and we had no tents or anything. We sat around in a circle and I had one of our men who was very good at telling jokes and I asked him to entertain us and he did. That's how we got through the night. The next morning the Forest Service people came with their mule packs and brought food. The Forrest Service is part of the Agriculture [Department] and they had all the best hams and food, you know. So we had good food once they came up with their pack mules. The leader of the group asked me if I wanted to retrieve the [supply] 'chutes. I said yes; he knew of a route to get the 'chutes. So I went with him and we went up and around and we went past a cabin up there. He said, "I bet you that this is where your 'chutes are." So we knocked and a logger came to the door and said, "Come on in, fellows!" We walked in and his cabin was lined with our 'chutes. [laughter] They were yellow and red and it was very pretty. The Forest Service guy said, "Morris, do you want me to get those 'chutes?" I said, "Now wait a minute, let me think. For two or three 'chutes is it worth antagonizing these people? We might be up here again. I tell you what, let's let him keep his 'chutes." I didn't ask for them and he thanked me for them. I didn't think that the Army would miss them.

Judith Kent:

What was your most stressful jump, the scariest one?

Walter Morris:

I can't think of any one particular one.

Judith Kent:

They were all scary? [laughing]

Walter Morris:

Yes. You are excited and you are nervous for every jump that I ever knew about. I didn't make as many as the other men because I was in the office most of the time, but we had to jump every three months to stay on jump status. During my course of the [mission] I think that I made 19 jumps. I remember once we were in Camp Pendleton and it was a lag in the forest fires and we had nothing to do so we put on a War Bond jump to raise money. We jumped twice that day; we jumped and came back and jumped again. The answer to your question is that I don't remember any one particular jump that stands out in my mind as being more hazardous than others. It is a wonderful feeling when you jump out of a plane once the 'chute opens. [laughter] Then you are up there and it is quiet and it is a wonderful experience. A lot of the guys [say] you know, you are on a high, looking down and the whole planet is yours.

Judith Kent:

You mentioned that you were married and a father. How did you work that in?

Walter Morris:

Yes. In Fort Benning at the Service Company once I became a real First Sergeant I was entitled to [living] quarters. My fiancé that I had known since Waynesboro High School days was at that time in college in Savannah, GA. It was called Georgia State in those days; it is no longer Georgia State it is called Savannah State now (it is an historic black college). Once I was given quarters then I proposed and she left school (she was in her senior year). She left school and came to Columbus and we got married. I am thinking of an incident that happened. Later when the men came from Camp Huachuca and I had a truck; I went down to pick them up at the railroad station in Columbus, GA. We got in the truck and to show that I was one of the boys I chose to ride in the back with the men rather than up front. We were approaching Ft. Benning on the main street and we stopped at a red light. This young lady walked across the street and the men whistled and said, "Oh, wow, wow! Hey Top (they called me Top) do you know who she is?" I said, "Yeah, I had breakfast with her." [laughs heartily] "I know who she is!"

Judith Kent:

Your fiancé or rather your wife!

Walter Morris:

I said, "I had breakfast with her!" We had a fine group of men and they were all focused on the same thing, proving not only to them selves but to the world, that colored troops were no different than white troops. If you had it, you had it, whether you were black, white, blue or green. They were all dedicated to prove that proposition that "...all men are created equal."

Judith Kent:

So you proved that beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Walter Morris:

Yes.

Judith Kent:

I have other questions about your life after the service. You say that you left to go back to your apprenticeship.

Walter Morris:

Yes. It was at Fort Benning that my first (I have two daughters) my first daughter was born at Fort Benning at the General Hospital in Fort Benning. In 1946 I decided to... I was scared to death to get out of the service because I went in as a kid and I had never been on my own because the Army was always there. Now I am going to get out in the real world. I was scared to death, but fortunately I had a father who I could depend on. Sometimes he was tough [laughing] he was a strict disciplinarian. I sit now and think, "Boy oh boy, that old man, my father." That old man was seventy two when he died and here I am eighty two. Anyway, when we got to Seattle I started to learn how to lay brick. The union at the time... My father went down to get me in the union and they said, "Rather than give your son an apprentice card we are going to make him a full bricklayer because he is a service man." I had my uniform on. That upset my father and all of the other bricklayers, because now my father had to pay me the union scale and I wasn't worth the union scale! I wasn't even worth... [laughter] The other bricklayers had to work next to me and I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I was making the same thing as they were making. They wouldn't help me. For a couple of weeks there it was really tough. They wouldn't eat with me, they wouldn't teach me anything. But finally they came around and everything worked out alright to the extent that I became one of the buddies. I stayed in Seattle until 1949 and my mother lived in the Bronx and she became ill and I left Seattle and came east to be with her. I brought my wife and my baby with me. I joined the union and transferred to the chapter in New York. At the time I was a pretty good brick layer. I was pretty fast. So the foreman made me a layout man. I didn't know too much about the blue print. I had an assistant foreman over me, a young Italian kid who took a liking to me. He said, "Walter, if you want to learn blueprints, instead of eating lunch (at that time we had an hour lunch instead of a half an hour) you come with me and I will teach you the plans. So every day from twelve to one I was a student learning the plans. I got to be pretty good. He was very helpful but the foreman, when he found out what was going on he didn't like it. He blasted the assistant foreman for even taking time to show me the blueprints. It was so funny, because a few years later that same foreman became ill on a job where I was his assistant. I was the first black assistant foreman in the City of New York. There were certain boroughs I could go in and certain boroughs that I couldn't. I can remember distinctly the delegate from the borough of the Bronx when he heard that I was coming up there to work, he told my boss, "Don't send Morris up here. Don't send him up here!" My boss has plans for me to be a foreman and he had to change and keep me in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Anyway, this same foreman who didn't want me to learn the blueprints became ill on a big job we had. This was a school, our company did mostly schools, libraries, municipal stuff. This was a junior high school and there were about forty or fifty brick layers in this gymnasium working. This foreman who didn't want me to learn how to read plans became ill and he was not in the gym where he should have been. With me as his assistant (I was his assistant) I walked into the gym and I saw these fifty or sixty bricklayers all around going up past the door with tile (it should have been blocks). The tile went to the door and from the head of the door it would be block, but they were going up with tile. I saw the whole thing and I stopped them before they got more than the one course. So when the superintendent came in he said, "What is going on here? Because he saw them taking tile down and cleaning tile. "What the hell is going on?" I told him what happened and he said, "Oh boy, it is a good thing you are here because that would have been a lot of wasted money." The foreman acknowledged that he was grateful that I was able to stop the waste of all that money. I am thinking of the delegate who didn't want me in the Bronx. Three years later down the road when the Civil Rights movements was going on and diversity was the thing, that same delegate came to me and said, "Morris, I am so glad that you are here in the Bronx!" I looked at him and I said, "Yeah, OK." That was so funny, people are people.

Judith Kent:

Did you join any veterans groups or keep up with your old buddies?

Walter Morris:

No, we have a 555 Parachute Association of all ex-troopers, airborne men. We have about 1100 members. We have chapters from California to Chicago to New York and I have one here in Palm Coast. The Palm Coast chapter has members in Jacksonville, Melbourne, and Daytona Beach so they all come here to Palm Coast for meetings. We meet once every three months because we don't have much to talk about. We tell the same lies over and over. [laughter] Of the original twenty members who started out as the test platoon three of the twenty washed out for various reasons: two got hurt and one refused to jump. We actually graduated seventeen men. Of those original twenty men there are only six of us alive today. We try to make every reunion. We meet once a year, usually in August. This year we were in Memphis, TN. Last year we were in New Orleans and the year before that we were in California, so we go around to different places.

Judith Kent:

Is that the main way that you have kept up with your buddies?

Walter Morris:

Oh yes. Of course we are all now around our late seventies and early eighties in age. I thought that I was the oldest one at eighty two (I will be eighty two in January) but we have some fellows who are eighty four and eighty five. I thought that I was the oldest one but they put me in my place.

Judith Kent:

How would you say that your military experience has influenced your life?

Walter Morris:

The basic training that one gets as a soldier or sailor follows them throughout his life, for an example, punctuality. It teaches you to be on time. There is no excuse; if you say ten o'clock you have got to be there. A lot of people who did not go through that training think that if it is [supposed to be] ten o'clock then ten after is no big thing. Little things like my apparel, my socks must always be folded [laughing] because you had inspection once a week. What we would do was prepare our foot lockers just right for inspection and lock it. We wouldn't go in there. Every inspection you would open it and you had a pair of boots all shined (you never wore those). The answer to your question is... I think what it did was to instill in me certain good habits and that has carried me through for the last sixty years.

Judith Kent:

In the book, the Triple Nickels, the author [Bradley Biggs] says that Major General James Gavin was "color blind". Would you comment on that?

Walter Morris:

Yes, General Gavin was the Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division and he got his reputation in the Battle of the Bulge. He and the 82nd performed admirably in that engagement. So when he came back when the War [in Europe] was over he came back to Fort Bragg which was the home of the Airborne. The 555 came back from Pendleton and was transferred from McCall to Fort Bragg. The Commanding Officer at Fort Bragg had put us (the 555) in a section of Fort Bragg that was deplorable. It was called Spring Lake. There was nothing springy about it and there was no lake, either. It was in the back woods of Fort Bragg, a terrible place. It was adjacent to the community of Spring Lake which is a Black community adjacent to Fort Bragg. It was not a part of the Fort but it was adjacent to it. When General Gavin made his rounds and saw where they had put us he went to Washington and asked the Adjutant General if he could bring the 555 back on the main post and put them and include them in his division. That had never been done. No one had ever even given it a thought. This was integration! This was a year before Truman's letter of proclamation integrating the service. It was a year before that! So the Adjutant General had to give in (so to speak) because Gavin was so popular. He was a Major General at the time. The Adjutant General said, "But General if you brought the colored troops into your division and you were on parade or something they would have to wear the same medals and gear that you earned in Europe." He said, "Yes they would but they will earn it." So he said, "OK, you got it." So he came back to Fort Bragg ordered us onto the main post and deactivated the 555 and activated a third battalion 505 Infantry of the 82nd Division. He took our black officers and took white officers and put them together. He put a white officer as the Battalion Commander of the 505 and a Black officer as the Executive of 505 and had black and white officers throughout the chain of command. White soldiers and black soldiers moved into the same barracks and that was historic! It had never been done and there was not one incident of racism. Not one! I think one of the reasons was that airborne troops feel that they have something special whether you are Black or white or yellow or red. If you are airborne, you are airborne and that is what happened. General Gavin was the first keynote speaker that we asked to speak when we organized in 1979 at Fort Bragg. Some of our members wrote letters and we all got together and went to Fort Bragg and organized the 555 Parachute Association. General Gavin was our keynote speaker. His daughter is now a lifetime member of our organization. She is always invited where ever we go for our reunions. When she was like this [gestures the height of a small child] we gave her a party. She is a member of our organization. General Gavin died about eight or nine years ago. He left the service as a Lt. General. The thinking on our part is that if he had not done what he did in getting us integrated he might have gotten that fourth star. We think that because of his action that fourth star was withheld because there is still a segment of the military that is not, shall we say, open about desegregation and discrimination. But the military is by far ahead of society in diversity, in forcing diversity. I look out in the [military] audience and see men and women, Chinese, white, black, Puerto Rican, they are all there working together.

Judith Kent:

You have done a good bit of public speaking about your military experience. What motivated you to do that?

Walter Morris:

The desire to get a message to them; the desire to let them know how it was, because they don't know. Our adventure as smoke jumpers and the Japanese incendiary bombs, that is part of history. The average person will look at you and say, "Japanese bombs? What are you talking about?" When people say that 9/11 (the attack on the Twin Towers) was the first [enemy attack on mainland USA] it was not the first. The Japanese were hoping that these balloons would fall in cities and start fires in cities.

Judith Kent:

They might well have.

Walter Morris:

Yes, they might well have. What really woke the Army up was when one of the balloons fell near the Hanford Plant (the atomic [bomb] plant).

Judith Kent:

That got their attention!

Walter Morris:

That got everybody's attention! It could have been... They sent so many because they were so inexpensive. The rice paper, hang some bombs on it, let it go and the trade winds (at that time trade winds, now it is the jet stream) did all the work.

Judith Kent:

Really "low tech" but very dangerous.

Walter Morris:

Yes. So it was a real danger. We did our little bit; we didn't storm the hills, we didn't do any of that, but what we did should have been somewhere mentioned.

Judith Kent:

Well, I hope that we have remedied that and thank you so much for sharing your memories with us.

Walter Morris:

It was my pleasure. I've told this story so many time [laughing] that if you were to wake me up at three o'clock in the morning and say. "Walter, what..." [he would tell the story] Like I said, it is a mission; it has got to be told. I have a grandson now who is an officer in the Army, stationed in Korea. I talked to him the other day (I'm not calling any more, I found out that it cost me $40 dollars to call him). I said, "Next time I talk to you I am going to get a plane and go over there." Anyway, he is coming home in January for two weeks and then he has to go back to Korea for another three months. Once he does that (unless there is a war) he can pick (I didn't know this) he can pick the installation that he wants to go to. I said, "Boy oh boy, the [present] Army is something else!"

Judith Kent:

Times have changed?

Walter Morris:

Yes. Once I was at some camp (I don't know which one it was) the Post Commander who was escorting me around said, "Before we speak to the troops we want to go to the D-FAC." I said, "Go to where? What is a D-FAC?" He said, "That is Dining Room Facility." It used to be the Mess Hall. [laughter] I said, "Well then, you don't have a Mess Sergeant?" He said, "Oh no, we have a D-FAC manager who is a civilian." All of the KP that we had to do is now done by civilians! If you are policing up the area (that is picking up cigarette buts and all) and you pass the mess hall (or the D-FAC) you walk in and there is a big bin there with popsicles and all. You go right there take one and go back to work. [laughter] I said, "Boy, can I re-up [re-enlist]? The girls are in the barracks with the boys. They are on this side of the hall and the boys are on that side. I said to the First Sergeant, "Sergeant, what happens if a soldier crosses this threshold? He said, "When I leave here at five o'clock, they are on their own. If they mess up, they are on their own. They are not supposed to cross the threshold." Oh boy, there is such a difference, I am telling you. It is wonderful! They still have a problem and they haven't really solved it with the homosexuals. That is a real problem; I don't know how they will actually solve that problem because "Don't ask, don't tell" doesn't always work. We will see.

Judith Kent:

It sounds as though your military experience was a very positive part of your life, a very proud part.

Walter Morris:

Uh huh. Oh yes. The President of our organization [National Smokejumpers Association], Joe Murchison who lives in Tampa, he is a wonderful leader. He is the one that got a website [www.smokejumpers.com] for us and he is very dynamic. He is a pain in the neck, too, like all leaders are.

Judith Kent:

I am glad that you mentioned the website because it is a wonderful resource.

Walter Morris:

We have had many presidents but he is the only one who had the foresight to pick us up. That is how Tom Brokaw got in touch with me, because of the website. When his first book came out and was a success he had enough material for another book. He decided that he wanted to include some black African Americans in it. He went to the website and found that and called Joe Murchinson. Joe said, "If you want to really get the history you have to call Walter Morris." They did and they came down from New York, the producer and his aide. A camera man came from Atlanta and I had four or five people in my house here in Palm Coast for two days. They were interviewing me and had me walking up and down in front of the camera and they said, "We will let you know when this will be on." One day I got the call, "This is it!" I turned it on and Tom Brokaw came on and he talked about the 555 and there was about four minutes [air time]. I called them and said, "You were in my house for two days and you got me on for ... They said, "Morris, four minutes, we don't even get the President on for four minutes! Four minutes is a long time when you think about it." I said, "Yes, you are right." They get you on and get you off. I had a good relationship with him [Brokaw] He asked me to come to New York to help him sell his book. He had me on the Today Show. I met Katie Couric (she is about the cutest little thing, she is so small and so nice) they all are, Al Roker and... I had a good time.

Judith Kent:

I am glad that you are getting the credit that you deserve.

Walter Morris:

Well, I don't know about that, but I feel good to be able to tell this [story] to the young people, black and white; none of them know. They just don't know and I think that they should know.

Judith Kent:

Thank you again.

Walter Morris:

It is a pleasure. If you have any questions you just give me a ring and I will try to take care of it. Side B ends.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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