Transcript Number 020

February 10, 1999

INTERVIEWER: We're at Randall Library at UNC Wilmington. With us today is Mr.Fred Farmer, a World War II Veteran who served with the 555th Paratroop Infantry Battalion, also known as the Triple Nickels. Welcome to Wilmington Mr. Farmer. 
MR. FARMER: Thank you.
INTERVIEWER: We're glad to hear your story today. Tell us a little bit about your background. Tell us where you're from originally. 
MR. FARMER: I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. I want to correct one little thing that you said in the Intro -- that is, that I came into the military really right at the end of WWII, but I did join a parachute infantry battalion that did exist during the time of WWII. I thought this was fairly unique from my perspective because at the time when I learned about the 555th, I was a high school student. They came to Chicago to parade. For the first time, I saw people that looked like me that were paratroopers. I was about to finish high school and I was just in awe with these black paratroopers that looked really sharp. At the time, there was nothing in the Army that looked like them. So I said, "That's what I've got to do." 
INTERVIEWER: This was in Chicago. After high school, did you join right up?

MR. FARMER: Yes, I did. I went down to the recruiting office immediately. My parents really wanted me to go on to college. My father had the idea that I was going to be a lawyer, but I had no aspirations in that direction. When I went to the recruiting office to join the Army, they told me that I couldn't select the paratroopers if I was only going to join for eighteen months of service. Being the kind of young man that I was, I wanted to get in and get out and go back to school and make my own decisions. So, it was three years that I had to enlist for, in order to select the paratroopers, and that's what I did. Of course, I went to basic training at Ft. McClellan, Alabama and as quickly as I could get out of there, I came to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where paratroopers were being trained. Then I started my training to become a paratrooper candidate. 

INTERVIEWER: What year was this?
MR. FARMER: This was 1946. I'd like to comment just a little bit about why that was important. You have to put these things in perspective. In 1946, you've got to keep in mind that very few people were parachuting at that time, so this was sort of a unique thing to do. There was a lot of macho associated with being a paratrooper, because lets face it, they were supposed to be stronger, they were supposed to be able to fight longer, and they were meaner than anyone else at the time. So, this was something that I certainly wanted to be. I wanted to be a macho youngster, so in order to be a paratrooper, you had to be strong. You had to be able to run and you had to be physically fit. I didn't think I was any of those things, but I was determined that I could become a paratrooper if anybody else could, so I started training.
INTERVIEWER: What was the training like?
MR. FARMER: Training was mean and it was ugly. One of the things that happened to me, that I remember vividly, was when I arrived at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. It was early in the morning and it was dark and I didn't know where I was or where I was going. They showed me a bunk and said you get some sleep. It didn't seem like I'd been in that bunk very long when some Sergeant was kicking me and said, "Get up and get out," and it was still dark! So, they ran me down the road and I didn't know where I was going, but I said, "Well I'm with these paratroopers now, I'm gonna go where they go." We ran down the road and finally we got some breakfast. Well, by that time, I was so tired and sore that I didn't feel like eating. This went on for the first month, until such time, that I felt the pain didn't bother me anymore. They had a system that if you could run and if you were the last person left, you went to jump school. They didn't really care whether you were there or not. If they had a class, lets say of fifteen vacancies or slots for fifteen soldiers to go, they ran a group of a hundred people till they had fifteen left and those were the ones that went to jump school. I did this for about a month, until finally, I was one of those last persons standing and then I was off to Ft. Benning for jump school. 
INTERVIEWER: Ft. Benning, Georgia.
MR. FARMER: Ft. Benning, Georgia. Yes. That was the way that the candidates were selected. You just had to be physically fit or you weren't selected. 
INTERVIEWER: Were you selected into the 555th then?

MR. FARMER: No, I was already in the 555th. You've got to keep in mind again---let's go back and realize that is 1946. In 1946, we had two armies. We had a white army and a black army. The 555th was the only parachute unit in the world that were blacks. At that time, we had the 11th Airborne, the 101st Airborne, and we had the 82nd Airborne, but no black could be a member of those units. So, if you were to become a paratrooper and if you were an Afro-American, you had to go to the 555th. 
That was another unique thing that I observed. I think it's important to point out that African Americans have always had a great deal of dedication and devotion to be American citizens and to do a full measure of whatever was required for citizenship. I know that we had young men who wanted to do their part for the war effort any way that they could. When you looked around, you maybe had something like fifteen hundred men trying to become paratroopers. Although the size of the unit was only about 750, but at any given time, there was more than that number trying to compete for those small spaces. Of course, many times, they didn't qualify and they were eliminated and only those best were kept and, of course, I was a seventeen year old youngster and I was just determined to be one of those.
INTERVIEWER: What happened when you got to Ft. Benning? What kind of additional training was involved? 
MR. FARMER: Well, you started off right away with some of the same things that you got at Ft. Bragg, and that was physical fitness training. One of the things that the Army had at that time, was gliders. I don't know if you've ever seen a glider, but a glider is a bicycle tubing, canvas covered aircraft without any motors on it and is towed by a fixed wing airplane. When they get to the target area, they cut it loose and it just glides down into the landing zone. So, at that time, you had to become both a glider man and a parachutist. You started off your training at Ft. Benning, learning to be a glider man. I'll tell you, looking back on it, I think the glider training and the glider operations were worse than the parachuting, because there was very little opportunity to make a mistake with the glider. You know, once you were committed, things had to be right. So, you had to learn how to tie down cargo and do the weight and balance to be sure that the aircraft was going to be airworthy once it took off. That was the essential part of the training. All along, you were doing physical fitness. 
After you completed that, you went right into your parachute training, which meant you had to simulate jumping out of the aircraft from the 34- foot tower. Later on, there were two fifty- foot towers, where you were simulating jumping out of an aircraft door. They drilled you on those techniques until you had it right. Again, as I point out, if you didn't get it right, you didn't stay. The other thing that we had to do, which was unique at the time, was to pack your own parachutes. Now, today's paratroopers don't have to do that. They have riggers that do that for them. At that time we were trained to pack our parachutes and so we learned about parachute packing. We didn't learn about repair or maintenance of parachutes, but you did learn how to pack them. So you'd pair off with another person who was in your class and you'd pack ten parachutes. That was five for him and five for you. To qualify as a paratrooper, you had to make five jumps from an aircraft in flight. We used to tease each other and say it was, "An aircraft in fright." You know, I'm often asked, "What did you feel like when you first jumped?" The fact of the matter is you don't know what to expect on your first jump and you know you're scared, and of course, you have a lot of anxiety built up. You're in the aircraft and the motor is running and there's this jump master -- this big guy standing at the door shouting at you. You know, you really don't know what's going on even though you've gone through the training. You stood at the door, he hit you on the bottom and said, "GO." You knew you were looking out this aircraft door from twelve hundred feet, and this was something, normally, that most people didn't do and particularly in 1946. When he said, "GO", he expected you to go or otherwise he had this big parachute boot that he pushed you out with. 
INTERVIEWER: These were attached to lines?
MR. FARMER: Yes, you had a static line. There was an anchor line cable in the aircraft that ran from the forward end to the aft end. There were commands -- "Get ready, " and you'd sit there and look to see that you had everything on like it was supposed to be. Then he'd say, "Stand up, " and everybody would stand up. Then he would shout at you, "Check your equipment". Well now, each paratrooper was checking his parachute being sure that it's rigged properly and that he was in his harness, like he should be. The paratrooper behind you checked the equipment to your rear. You checked the rear of the equipment of the paratrooper in front of you. Then he would command, "Stand in the door". The first paratrooper, in what we called the stick (It's a line of paratroopers in the aircraft, all standing up, hooked up on the anchor line cable.) moved to the door. Initially, they jumped you one at a time. You stood at the door and you had a real good panoramic view of what was going on outside. You didn't really want to look down, but you wanted to look out. So he hit you on the bottom and said, "GO". You stepped out of that aircraft and you didn't really jump, as often times we say you do. You more or less just walked out, but you walked out with a vigorous motion so you cleared the aircraft. Then as you started to descend, at the end of that anchor line cable, which is about 15 to 20 feet, and then it starts to pull the parachute out. Hopefully, the parachute was rigged properly and it would completely deploy and fully inflate like an umbrella. Now if that didn't happen, then you had a parachute on the front, called a reserve. So, you had a second chance at it. Now part of the training was the technique of exiting the aircraft so that you didn't foul up the canopy in the suspension lines that attach it to the harness that you were wearing. If you exited the aircraft properly, it would deploy like it was supposed to -- just like putting up an umbrella. The rest of it was to ride it to the ground and then you had to make a proper landing -- what we called a parachute landing fall or a PLF, so you didn't injure yourself more than you were going to do just by impacting the ground. 
INTERVIEWER: How was your first jump?
MR. FARMER: The first jump worked successfully. I was extremely fortunate all through the training that I didn't sustain any injury. I did twist my ankle a little bit -- not on jumping from the aircraft, but from the tower. So, I sort of hobbled around a little bit, but I wasn't going to let anybody know that I had a lame ankle until after I had finished.
INTERVIEWER: You said you had to make five jumps to earn your wings. What was the fifth one like?
MR. FARMER: The fifth one was what they call a mass exit. Now, a mass exit means that instead of the tapping out of the jumpers individually like I described earlier, the stick was lined up and first jumper was standing in the door. Once he was commanded to go, the others just fell out behind him on their own. They took a position in the door and jumped out. There was very little hesitation between jumpers. You know, each man moved to the door and got to a safe and satisfactory position and exited on his own. It continued until the last person was gone. 
INTERVIEWER: During your training, did you have any night jumps?
MR. FARMER: Yes, the training was only with one night jump. So, you had essentially, four day jumps. One, of which, was the mass exit I just described as the last one. Then, you had to three jumps during the daytime. 
INTERVIEWER: After you earned your wings, where did you go?
MR. FARMER: We returned here to Ft. Bragg and joined the 555th. Well, then you were a full-fledged paratrooper ready to do your infantry training. After all, we were an infantry unit, and our mission was to travel to the hostile enemy. We were to vertically envelope the ground forces and to engage an enemy from a parachute and fight as infantry once we were on the ground. 

INTERVIEWER: After your infantry training, what did you do?
MR. FARMER: Well, at that particular time, the 555th had just returned from Oregon. Again, I have to go back to the fact that in our country we had two armies at that time, and so we had a political and social situation that meant it was very difficult for African Americans oftentimes, to show fully their potential as fighting men in the military. So, the 555th had been sent to Oregon and Washington state. Their mission there, was to fight forest fires. So, the forest service today, is using many of the techniques and things that the 555th developed while they were out on the west coast as forest fire fighters. 
INTERVIEWER: Why fight forest fires? 
MR. FARMER: The reason was that there was a threat, at least there was a perceived threat, that the Japanese were going to launch balloons with incendiary bombs on it to destroy the forest industry on the west coast. There was some good reason to suspect this because some balloons had been seen. Now, whether there was a major effort by the Japanese to do this or not, I don't know. That was the mission that the 555th had early on. What all of us wanted to do, was to go to Europe, go to the Pacific, and fight what we felt was the real enemy of this country, and of course, we were not allowed to do that. 
Now, I've got to tell you, although the 555th as a unit, did not go to combat in World War II, they were the cadre that fought all of the wars and all of the engagements that the country had after that. For example, they were the ones that went to Panama. They were the ones that cadre the rest of the Army once integration took place. They were the ones that trained young paratroopers, white or black, that came into the Army after that. 

INTERVIEWER: Wasn't the 555th the first unit to integrate fully?
MR. FARMER: Yes, we're given credit for that because the 82nd really had a commander at the time who was a forward thinking person. He was James Gavin, Major General Gavin. General Gavin was a war hero of the 82nd in WWII in Europe. When he returned to the United States, he was a real friend of the 555th and he admired all of us. He would come down to our units and he would jump with us. We had a great deal of respect for him because he respected us. So, when he had an opportunity to integrate the 555th into the 82nd, we believed that he was more than pleased to do that. Prior to his leaving the 82nd, that integration took place in the fall of 1947. 
INTERVIEWER: Were you stationed anywhere other than Ft. Bragg after you earned your wings?
MR. FARMER: I, personally, was not, but the 555th had a detachment at Ft. Benning. They also had been stationed, as I told you about, on the west coast and at Camp MacKall, North Carolina, at various times. So, they moved about the United States performing various operations. 
INTERVIEWER: What else did you do at Ft. Bragg or during your three years in the service?

MR. FARMER: Well, those initial three years, I was very eager to advance as quickly as I could. Initially, I thought I was going to leave the military and go back to school. I didn't know whether I was going to honor my dad's wish that I become a lawyer or not, but I certainly wanted to go back to civilian life and go back to school. I was able to go to school while on active duty and that was very satisfying. One of the things that happened, was that I met a North Carolina girl that I feel in love with and got married, so that changed a lot of plans for me. I was very fortunate that I did go up through the ranks very quickly. You've got to keep in mind, that I was in junior ROTC as a high school youngster. It wasn't just happenstance that I chose the Army. I knew what the Army was like, to some degree, prior to enlisting. I had a pretty good military education in ROTC with a lot of the basic things. The only thing that I didn't learn from ROTC was how to be miserable by staying out in the weather overnight and jumping out of airplanes. Basic subjects about the military such as marksmanship, map reading, drilling ceremonies, and all of those kinds of things, I already knew. So it was very easy for me to advance fairly rapidly through the ranks. My first three years, I had already attained the rank of Sergeant First Class, which was moving pretty good. Many young soldiers today, when I tell them that, say, "We don't believe that, you just couldn't do that. That would not be possible today." During WWII, it was certainly possible. 
INTERVIEWER: Lets go back to your training. Coming from Chicago, a large city and coming to the rural south at that time in an all black unit in the military, did you encounter any problems with the regular military?
MR. FARMER: Yes, first of all, the regular military African American troops that were not paratroopers, they somewhat resented us because we were paratroopers and we felt we were the elite of the Army. The Army felt that way. We called all non-paratroopers "Straight- legs." This was a reference to the fact that in our uniform it was required that we wear paratrooper boots and our trousers were bloused into these boots. Other soldiers did not blouse their trousers in their boots and they wore their trousers straight and they wore low quarter shoes when they dressed in their uniforms. So, hence, the phrase "Straight- leg" was sort of a derogatory way of us putting down the non-airborne troops of the Army. 
INTERVIEWER: How about when you were stationed in Ft. Bragg? Did you have any problems with the people in the community? 

MR. FARMER: There were some problems. You've got to keep in mind that I grew up in Chicago where schools were integrated. When I came south, segregation was somewhat of a culture shock for me. I guess I should have realized that even in Chicago, there was some defacto segregation, but generally you had open public accommodations. So, if you wanted to go to a movie or a restaurant, you were certainly free to go to a movie or restaurant of your choice. Certainly, you could sit anywhere on public transportation that you wanted to. The shock I got, was when I came south and I had to sit at the back of the bus. I had to drink from the black fountain or the colored fountain, as I think it was called. I was restricted in my freedom, as to the kinds of things that I did as a matter of course in Chicago. So I quickly adapted to that, because I realized that if I didn't, I was going to get in trouble and I didn't want any trouble. Laws in the south, at the time, required me to be segregated from white persons and I had to become accustomed to that. Even in training at Ft. Benning, when we went to class, our formation went to class with the white soldiers and we were on the rear or their formation. We never felt we were inferior to other men, and we also felt that not only were we just as good as those white paratroopers, but we felt in many respects, we were better. The reason for this was we had the best athletes and we knew that. When we had an opportunity to play against them in sports, we always won. We'd beat them in basketball, at football, and they dare not step in the boxing ring, because we were going to let all our frustrations out and they were going to get whipped. 
INTERVIEWER: After your first three years there, did you stay in the Army? 
MR. FARMER: Yes, I did. By this time, I had started a family and I re-enlisted because it was a good job. I was then at about the top of my enlisted grade, so when I re-enlisted, I did get to the top enlisted grade and I became a Sgt. Major of Corp. Engineers -- that was 18th Airborne Corps of Engineers. I was a young man. I became a First Sgt. first of all, in the 82nd. The Army was integrated and the 82nd Airborne Division was integrated. For the first time, I was leading white troops in addition to the black troops that were in my unit. I was the first Sergeant of a weapons company, which was an integrated company. So I left there and went on to become a Sergeant Major of Corp. of Engineers in the 18th Airborne Corps of Engineers. 
While there, I saw a circular that came across my desk about flight training. I read the thing and said, "Hum, I'm qualified for this". Most people that I served with didn't realize that my orientation into the military was total and complete. I had a real dedication to be a soldier and part of that was that I had joined the Civil Air Patrol while I was in ROTC. While in Civil Air Patrol, I had done some flying and had a student pilots license. So, when I applied for flight training, all of the officers in the headquarters where I worked, were really happy to endorse my application. I went off to become a candidate at the Army Aviation School as a student pilot. I later graduated as an Army helicopter pilot.

INTERVIEWER: How long did you stay in the Army?
MR. FARMER: I stayed in active duty for twenty- one years, retiring as a Master parachutist and as a Senior Army Aviator. I was just about twelve months away from becoming a Master Aviator. I had all of the prerequisite qualifications for it, but I had to have that additional year. By that time, I had gone to Vietnam twice. I had fought in the war and got thirty four air medals and been shot down twice. My oldest daughter was getting ready for college and I decided I was having fun doing all of the things that I wanted to do in the military, but I loved flying. I strongly felt that I really wanted to spend some time with my children. After twenty years, I said, "Fred, you ought to go home and help your wife raise those kids." I retired, but I didn't stay away from the military very long. After a month, I applied for a civil service job and went to work in civil service doing pretty much the same time that I was doing on active duty. I was a civil aviation safety officer. I was flying military aircraft as a civilian and I stayed twenty- nine years.
INTERVIEWER: Was that at Ft. Bragg?
MR. FARMER: Yes, so I retired with fifty years of federal service. 
INTERVIEWER: What was the Army like? Can you talk about the differences from when you went in to when you retired. 

MR. FARMER: Yes. You know, I began to observe changes in the military, of course, after my retirement from active duty that I was very pleased to see. One of the things that I want to point out, was that early in my career, it was men that were paratroopers jumping out of aircraft. Then we began to get young women into airborne, and they were doing an extremely great job as airborne soldiers. They had all of the enthusiasm of being paratroopers that the men had. I really admired the young women that I met. Many of them became commanders. They were officers and enlisted women that served really well in the airborne. I was extremely proud of being a paratrooper and these women were really a credit to us and I was just really proud and happy to see that. Of course, I had four daughters too, so I was just really happy to see these young women doing the job they were doing. The other thing that I noticed, was that the facilities that the Army was providing for service men and women was greatly improved. When I first came on active duty, we had coal fired furnaces and you were often times breathing coal dust in these wooden barracks. Now, if you look around Army installations, you see barracks that look like dormitories. The living conditions are excellent. The fact of the matter is that often times, I had to eat green eggs because of the way the cooks had prepared them. Now you have cooks that are professionally trained on active duty in the military. They no longer call it a mess hall, it's a dining facility. So, if you don't like eggs, you don't have to eat eggs and you can have pancakes or you can have the cereal of your choice. You can have a variety of different meals whether it's breakfast, lunch, or dinner. If you just want a salad, you can have a salad, now. So, the food, the quality of the food service, and preparation is greatly improved. The other thing is that the pay is certainly improved. It may not have kept pace with the civilian industry, but the pay is really great. The other thing is families. When my wife was having children, we had to find ways to take care of our families the best way that we could. There are family support groups now, and commanders that are concerned about their married soldiers and their families. So, that's a great deal of change, difference, and an improvement. The other thing that I'm extremely impressed with is the education level of soldiers today. The education of all soldiers in the military today, is really exceptional and all of the armed forces stress education. So, if you are to be successful in the military today, and to deal with all the sophisticated equipment that the military has, you must get an education. If you don't succeed at that, your career is going to be extremely limited in the military. 
INTERVIEWER: You said you were educated while you were in the Army?
MR. FARMER: Well, what happen was I did go to college in my spare time. Had I been just a little bit later, I could have gone on to bootstrap where the Army allows you to just leave the military for a period of time and work on a degree and still be on active duty. A number of soldiers did that while on active duty. I just continued to take college courses and got as much education as I could during the time that I was on active duty and to take those courses that would assist me in the job I had. 

INTERVIEWER: Can you talk about your hat and the pins on your hat.
MR. FARMER: Yes, certainly. I'd like to tell you a little bit about some of these pins. Starting over here, that is the shoulder insignia of the 555th Infantry Battalion. Now that's a replica of the shoulder patch that we wore on our uniform at the time, and it's been put into a pin form so I can wear it on my hat B sort of symbolic. The next pin is a century pin. That's a Master parachutists badge in gold. Normally, the master parachute badge is in silver, but that particular pin is awarded to those parachutists who have over 100 parachute jumps and I'm a master parachutist. Of course, my cap is just the cap that the 555th Association wears when they're at social events and when they're out in parades and in the community. It has the 555th Airborne on it, which symbolizes the kinds of things that we're all about. This pin over here, is really the pin of the shoulder patch of the Association. That pin is what we would liked to have had while we were on active duty as the 555th. Unfortunately, the Heraldry Department of the Army would not permit us to have that patch. That patch would have been more distinctive of the 555th than this one, which was really the airborne command and not distinctive of the 555th. The other pin is the 505 Parachute Infantry Battalion pin. Once we integrated into the 82nd Airborne Division, the 555th became an integral part of the 505 and I went into the 505 Airborne Infantry Regiment. That is the pin that we wore during those times. I'm equally proud of being a part of the 82nd as I was the 555th. There's a little different type of pride that is associated with that. Over here is the 50th Anniversary pin, which is significant of 50 years since the time that we became integrated. That was what that pin was all about. We just feel like we made a contribution to the Army and to the country because of the things that we did while on active duty as military people. In the Association, we are trying to continue that tradition by providing scholarships, mentoring young people in military careers, or just in life in general. Also, we go onto the military installations and talk to young officers, particularly those right out of the academics, right out of college, or out of ROTC. We go to tell them about our experiences and what it really takes to become successful in their career in the military, so that they don't have the same pitfalls that we had. 
INTERVIEWER: Anything else you'd like to add?

MR. FARMER: It was a fun journey and a really challenging one. I owe a great deal to my life in the military because it has provided for me, personally, an opportunity to do some great things for my family. It was a good career for me. There were a lot worse things I could have done. I like to think that I made a contribution, not only as a paratrooper, but as a citizen, as a husband, and as a father. I'm just extremely grateful for the opportunity I had. I also, was able to follow my second passion. I think I mentioned that I was in aviation. I started flying when I was fifteen years old in the Civil Air Patrol. When the Army gave me an opportunity to do some of those things that I enjoyed doing, I was able to pursue aviation. I flew for the Army for fourteen years as a professional aviator. I just thoroughly enjoyed that. I flew helicopters, cargo aircraft, and combat. I didn't particularly enjoy getting shot at, but you know, this was part of my job to serve the Army and to protect those soldiers that I had in the back end of my aircraft. I had two tours in Vietnam. I taught as a flight instructor down at the Army Aviation School at Ft. Rucker, Alabama and spent three years doing that. That was another one of those challenges that was thoroughly enjoyable. I can't say enough about the opportunities I had in the Army and that I really enjoyed. It provided an opportunity for me in later life, to pursue another career in civil service for twenty- nine years, so I had a total of 50 years of federal service. There were a lot of challenges both socially and professionally, but I'd like to think that I did the very best I could in being a credit to my family and the Army. I was just really pleased and overjoyed with that opportunity. 
INTERVIEWER: Thank you very much, Mr. Farmer.