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May 5, 1945
Guest post by Daniel Obren, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.
On May 5, 1945, the Baltimore Afro American published “Paratroopers in Advance Training at Mackall”; this series of articles depicts two sides of a coin. The first side is one that shows how much experience, precision, and readiness the 555th Battalion (Bn.) had. The second side is one that loosely shows how mistreated the soldiers were (click to view PDF).
The 555th Battalion was pieced together from multiple army bases and soldiers on duty ranging from soldiers here in the U.S. to Hawaii, the South Pacific, the Aleutian Islands, and even Europe. A large group of the men came from the 92nd Division from Fort Benning after they graduated jump school and endured five weeks of advanced combat training. After these five weeks they were transferred to Camp Mackall. The 555th Battalion had over 3,000 individual jumps varying from training jumps to demonstration jumps for war bond rallies. These soldiers showed high morale at this point in their training and waited to get orders for combat. The experience, precision, and readiness of the 555th was indescribable. The battalion still had very few kinks to fix, but someone without experience would not know.
The 555th Battalion was highly respected by their officers and even the commanding general of the Army Air Forces, General H. H. Arnold. The 555th commanding officer, Captain James H. Porter, and his fellow high-ranked officers could not speak ill of their battalion. These officers held all their soldiers, enlisted and drafted, in high regard. After General Arnold observed a practice jump, he proceeded with inspection of the team including questioning each soldier about his background, experience, and individual view of being a paratrooper. This excellence of the battalion resulted in General Arnold assigning a jump group to Syracuse, New York, to instruct the 2nd Combat Cargo Group pilots in airborne operations. The commanding officer from Camp Mackall commended the group for conducting the familiarization course in a splendid manner. He added that this first experience helped further the group’s experience even though it was short.
Despite the high praises from the 555th Battalion officers and General Arnold, the battalion were still faced with racial segregation. In the area around Camp Mackall, there was only one movie theater in use. This theater segregated the colored men to one side of the theater, except the high-ranked officers. This issue, “jim crow is imposed on enlisted men in the post theatre located in their area,” was contrary to a War Department memorandum. The commanding officer of the post, Colonel L. L. Hathaway’s reaction to this discriminatory policy was not appropriate, and he believed it did not affect the training of the men. Despite this reaction, the morale of the men wavered little as they still had recreation facilities to keep active.
From my view the discrimination was not fully shown or addressed fully in these articles. These articles briefly mention the fact that to lead a paratrooper battalion, an officer of no lower than lieutenant colonel had to be in command, yet the highest ranking officer was a captain. The article briefly describes the difficulty to find a colored lieutenant colonel-ranked officer because none had fulfilled this ranking yet. I feel that the 555th Battalion was created as an all-colored paratrooper battalion to segregate the Army Air Forces. The fact that this battalion was exceptional at their duties and had the combat experience, the airborne precision, the readiness, and approval from the general of the Army Air Forces to see combat, yet not being dispatched doesn’t seem right. After multiple transfers and changes of the battalion and moving all across the United States, this group of men never saw combat and were disbanded in 1950.