The Herald-Dispatch
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) _ Linden King is one of Huntington’s hidden stories, a tale that crosses from military history to black history and back again.
Eighty-two years old with a mind sharp as a tack, King recalls the day he skipped second period at Douglass High School, running down the alley toward the C&O rail station, the first steps in his journey toward making history.
“There were four of us. I was 14, the other three were 15, and we went to the Selective Service office to register to join the military. We decided we weren’t going to wait for the draft; we’d volunteer. So, we did,” said King, who enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a forerunner to the modern-day Air Force.
“They told us we had seven days to get our business together before shipping out, but we didn’t have no business.”
King said when his father was drafted for military service in 1943, things at home got “out of hand,” which prompted him and three friends to lie about being 18 in order to qualify as soldiers.
“It was Oct. 16, 1945, at 10:52 in the morning. We made our first class at Douglass, but skipped our second and took off running down the alley to get to the railroad,” King recalled. “When we got there, they gave us a slip with a serial number on it and told us we had to have that number memorized before we got to Camp Atterbury, Ind. I didn’t even know where that was.”
King went through basic training in Texas, taken under a superior’s wing and given special assignments over his peers.
Upon graduation, when everyone else became “private first class,” King was already christened a corporal. His initial orders were delayed, but he later met up with his unit in Greensboro, N.C.; then, it was on to Fort Dix, N.J., and Naples, Italy.
Overseas, King’s all-black unit ran into problems with white officers in the still¡segregated U.S. military. It wouldn’t be the last time.
“When they shipped us back, we reported to Florida, and they gave us a weekend pass to Pensacola. We went to board a Trailways bus that said `Pensacola’ on the front, and they wouldn’t let us on. The next bus said `Negro troops,”’ said King, who also reminisced that the black troops were housed in a swampy area, while white troops were barracked on a hill. “That really got to me. I told the guys I was with, `If I have to crawl to Pensacola, I’m not getting on that bus.”’
It was in Florida that King was introduced to a unit that he said has long been relegated to the basement of American history: the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, also known as the Triple Nickles (spelling derived from old English).
The Triple Nickles was the United States’ first all-black parachute platoon, company and battalion formation. Even more unusual for the segregated military was the incorporation of black commanders, a job typically reserved only for the enlisted white.
Despite signing up to serve as paratroopers, the black unit was jostled back and forth and given menial tasks to perform, a unit without a home. It would be several years _ and three years following military desegregation in 1948, when the Triple Nickles became the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment _ before King’s unit was allowed to jump.
“We were developed around the same time as the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation’s first black military airmen, and we were attached to the 82nd, but we were never allowed out of the states,” King said. “We did demonstration jumps, but we were never allowed to jump in a battle zone.” It wasn’t until Good Friday 1951 in Korea that a black paratrooper ever jumped in combat for the first time in history.
“It was like something you can’t really describe. That first jump kind of blows your mind, it takes you to a place of `We made it.’ It was a pride thing,” King said. “When we did demonstration jumps for the cadets at West Point, we showed proper jump technique, but in Tuskegee, the commander told the unit that instead of dropping and rolling, he wanted us to stand tall when we hit the ground. It made our chests three times bigger.”
King went on to participate in 33 more jumps in Korea until 1954 when he returned to the states. He worked for several years in Toledo, Ohio, married and fathered seven children.
In 2011, he moved back to Huntington and has made it his mission to draw attention to the oft-forgotten Triple Nickles, a unit many have described as an example of empowerment by men who not only kicked open the door for blacks in the military, but took the door off its hinges.
“I want to make sure the Triple Nickles are not pushed to the side. It’s a dying story, and there aren’t many of us left,” King said. “If I don’t tell it, who will?”
King said the legacy of the Triple Nickles is to show that black troops are just as equal as any others.
“My skin tone doesn’t make me who I am,” he said. “My character does.”
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch,