The Army's First Black Paratrooper

 

Name any veteran of World War II and you’ve got someone who made a difference, as The Christophers always advise. Just by being part of the Armed Forces in that brutal conflict, those brave men and women made it possible for the rest of us to enjoy all the freedoms we have today. And as we pay special tribute to their sacrifices this month, I invite you to remember one man who made an enormous difference—although I doubt that he knew it at the time.
His name was Walter Morris, and he was a bricklayer from Waynesboro, Ga., when he joined the Army in 1940. Not much of a background, I guess, but before long he stood out as a leader and had become his group’s first sergeant. Oh—he was a black man, too. That would turn out to be an important part of his story, which Melba Newsome told in a recent issue of Parade.
In those days the Army mirrored the strict segregationist policy of the general population, with black soldiers relegated to menial tasks. Morris’ men, stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., were no exception, and were thus barred from joining an elite unit just forming and beginning their training as paratroopers there. But there was no way that was going to stop Sgt. Morris. 
The "colored barracks" adjoined the paratroopers’ training field, and he was able to observe and learn the routines. Each afternoon as the white trainees called it a day, Morris assembled his men and gave them the same paratrooper training. "They loved it," Morris recalled. "They wanted to be soldiers, not servants."
The Army being the Army, an officer heard about it—and wasn’t too happy. He turned out to be the paratroopers’ commandant, and called in Morris for an explanation. "Who gave you permission to use my calisthenics field?" he asked. "No one, sir," Morris replied. "I just wanted to create a bit of morale and self-esteem for the men."
To Sgt. Morris’ surprise, his answer impressed the commandant. Not only did the officer give his permission for Morris to continue what he’d been doing, but eventually authorized formation of the first all-black paratroop unit—with Morris in charge. That took training, of course, and when it was finished Morris was the first man to receive the coveted "wings" insignia—and thus became the Army’s first black paratrooper.
The group went on to glory as part of Operation Firefly, a secret stateside mission in which the "smoke jumpers" doused fires caused by Japanese-released balloons in the Pacific Northwest. In all the men flew in to 36 fires, making more than 1,200 individual jumps. Eventually that would lead to the group’s inclusion in the famed 82nd Airborne Division, making it the first black unit to be permanently integrated into the U.S. Army.
The undeniable highlight of Morris’ career came in 2004, when he pinned his original paratrooper’s wings on his grandson, Army Maj. Michael Fowles, after Fowles graduated from jump school and continued the family tradition. It was a full six decades after Sgt. Morris had taken over a field "to create a bit of morale and self-esteem" for the troops under his command. In the process, he himself had created a bit of history—and, in the finest tradition of The Christophers, had made a real difference in the world.
For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, YOUR GOD-GIVEN PURPOSE, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org

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