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By Bill Rufty THE LEDGER Published: Friday, June 11, 2010 at 10:34 p.m. Last Modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 at 10:34 p.m. Editor’s Note: As the anniversaries of World War II roll by, many veterans who fought so valiantly are dying, succumbing to old age. They are men and women in their 80s and 90s, and only 2.3 million remain nationwide out of 16.1 million who served America in uniform in those years. The Ledger will periodically profile some of these veterans, in print and online video, in this series, “Our Heroes: The Stories of Polk’s WWII Veterans.” BARTOW: Sgt. Jordan J. Corbett stepped off the train at a little station in Texas on the way home to Polk County. It was late 1945, and the war was over. Resplendent in his paratrooper uniform, starched pants bloused into jump boots so bright you could actually see your face in them, paratrooper’s hat and wings, he still had the college football player physique. Although never deployed overseas, he and a fellow paratrooper with him that day had just finished a secret mission that many Americans are not aware of even today. The two paratroopers eagerly walked toward the station café and were told they could not go in. Blacks had to go around the back door to be served. Neither man went to the back, but instead stepped back on the train and made do with snacks. They observed military police escorting German prisoners of war through the front door, however. “A lot of us went through quite a bit. We were patriotic. We wanted to serve our country, but we wanted the same rights,” he said. Today, J.J. Corbett, 87, retired teacher, school board member, former bank director for Citrus & Chemical Bank, twice named as Florida Track Coach of the Year and a member of the Florida High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame, looks back on his military service with pride. As historians have said of most black service members from World War II, Corbett had to fight on two fronts, one against the foreign enemy and one against racism at home. He was in one of the most elite professions in the army: Airborne. A native of Pierce, 19-year-old Corbett had just finished a semester of college at Bethune Cookman College on a football scholarship when he was drafted in January 1943. After going through induction at Camp Blanding, he was sent to Camp Tyson, near Paris, Tenn., primarily a barrage balloon training base. Many of the soldiers trained there went to Normand on D-Day and set up the barrage balloons to prevent German aerial attacks. But Corbett was sent to Fort Bragg for Artillery training and then to Fort Bliss, Texas, for anti-aircraft training. SIGNING UP FOR AIRBORNE “Most of the training there (at Fort Bliss) was in the New Mexico deserts,” he said. “And I found out there that they were looking for volunteers to from a black paratrooper unit. I signed up.” Corbett and other volunteers then went to Fort Benning, Ga., where they trained with the all-white 82 nd Airborne Division. “A lot of the men in the 82 nd had been killed or injured in the Battle of the Bulge and the fighting in December, and we thought we were going there, but we didn’t,” he said. After training ended in January 1945, the black paratroopers were formed into the 555 th Parachute Infantry Battalion. It was difficult finding enough men to staff the battalion because many commanders refused to let their best soldiers volunteer. The requirements, both physical and in intellectually, were very high for entrance into the airborne training, Corbett sail. It is the irony of segregation in those times that while making excuses on one hand why black soldiers couldn’t do the job. White commanders on the other hand kept their best black soldiers from joining. “A large number of us were from the South, and we knew about segregation. But a lot didn’t, and it was more difficult for them. You’d get on a bus and there would be plenty of empty seats, and the driver would still make you go to the back anyway,” he said. “When they showed movies on the base the white troops were seated first and we marched in last and had to sit in the balcony.” After graduation and the presentation of their ju8mp wings, commanders of the black paratroopers warned them to carry their papers and documentation with them at all times to prove they were paratroopers, Corbett said. “When I got my (paratrooper) wings, MPs stopped me and said ‘You are out of uniform soldier.’ The paratrooper uniform was distinct with special insignia on the cap, the pants bloused into jump boots (instead of regular dress shoes). I think a lot of it was the Army didn’t put out that it had black paratroopers,” Corbett said. THE TRIPLE NICKLES The 555 th , nicknamed the “Triple Nickles,” was one of the few all-black units that had black officers. Because of segregation and concern that there might be friction between white and black combat soldiers, the 555 th didn’t go to Europe, Corbett said. The majority of the 555 th were sent to Pendleton Field in Oregon with a small detachment to Chico, Calif., for one of the most dangerous – and most secret- operations within the United States during the war. The Japanese were working to find new weapons and developed Fu-Go, fire balloons, and launched 9,300 into the upper west-to-east wind currents toward the United States. A little more than 300 struck the Western states of California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho with one reported as far east as Indiana, Corbett said, and some in Canada. In addition to causing numerous forest fires, the fire bombs were responsible for six deaths when members of a church picnic tried to move one that had landed nearby. According to the Seattle Times, the balloon killed the five children and one adult when it exploded, but few Americans ever knew of the incident. “They didn’t want the Japanese to know that any of them had made it to the United States,” Corbett said of the balloons. When the balloons landed in the thick forests, the 555 th members became the first “smoke jumpers,” jumping out of planes to extinguish the fires. Since forest fires were often caused by other factors, such as lightening, the Army was able to keep the dangerous missions secret. “Some of those trees could be 200 feet high. They gave us rope to rappel down to the ground, but on the first jumps the rope was only 50 feet,” he said. “We ran into some real experiences; of course, we were young and strong. The rangers worked with us. It was a different type of training, even the jumps, and we had to learn demolition, too,” he said. “You could have a fire almost put out and it would spark and then all of a sudden, zoom! A big fire would start back up,” he said. During one jump Corbett hit the treetops hard and was slammed into a tree, hurting his back. The injury still flares up from time to time. HOME AGAIN When they returned to their homes after the war, black soldiers found the South still steeped in segregation; in cases even more so because of the disciplined training black soldiers had achieved. “There were a couple of police around here who made it a point to stop black soldiers,” Corbett said. “One in particular would stop the car and shine a flashlight in the car with his other hand on the holster. Then he’s say, ‘You have a good night,’ and try to act like everything was OK,” he said. But the message was clear: mind your place, Corbett said. With so many new veterans clamoring for college under the GI Bill, Corbett was unable to get back to Bethune Cookman or other all-black colleges in Florida. He was given a football scholarship to North Carolina A&T College by a coach he knew. After two football seasons, the back injury acted up and ended his college football career. He graduated with a degree in mathematics and began teaching at Union Academy, where he met Eva, who also taught there. They were married in 1954 and have a son, Jerome, who is a senior director in the school district. A CHAMPIONSHIP COACH Corbett began coaching football and track and field and coached track teams to state championships. In 1968 and 1969, Corbett coached the Union High School track team to state championships and later began coaching and teaching at Bartow High School, where he is listed in the Hall of Fame. He taught at BHS and coached teams until his retirement in 1980. Each year the high school hosts the J.J. Corbett invitational Track Meet. But it was hardly a retirement of sitting on the porch. As an early founder of the Mid- Florida Credit Union (“My membership number is 14,” he said), a school board member for 12 years and on the board of Citrus & Chemical for 14 years, Corbett had plenty to do. Few knew of his service record. He attends the reunions of the 555 th almost every year and plans to go this year’s reunion planned for Minneapolis in September. In April, Corbett attended the 82 nd Airborne Awards where he was named 555 th Parachute Battalion Man of the Year. “(His military service) probably means more now than it did then,” Corbett said. “Everybody had a story when they came back. We were disappointed that we didn’t get into the action, but I realize now that what we did was important, and I’m proud that we helped our country.”
OUR HEROES J.J. Corbett poses for
a photo with General David Petraeus.
J.J. Corbett can be seen second from right in
this photo from his Army days during WWII
Members of J.J. Corbett's all black 555th
Parachute Regiment during WWII.
OUR HEROES J.J. Corbett talks about
his days serving in the U.S. Army
during WWII as his home in Bartow,
Florida, June 3, 2010.
J.J. Corbett during WWII.