JJ Corbett is a hero of World War II, but, more importantly, he is a hero of the human spirit. He served on a mission kept so secret that only in the last decade or two have the American citizens known of it. And he was injured on that mission.
But Corbett, now 92, from Bartow, was never allowed to fight overseas because of his color and the political climate of the time.
He was a member of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the “Triple Nickles,” an all-black parachute unit.
Jordan J. Corbett was drafted January 1943 after completing his first semester on a football scholarship at Bethune-Cookman College.
As has been said of many African-American soldiers of that war, they had to fight on two fronts; the enemy and the racial bias at home.
In a fight for its life, most would assume the United States was brought together against the enemy with all of its soldiers treated equally, but it wouldn’t be until 1948 that President Harry S. Truman ordered all services integrated.
Keeping African-Americans in segregated units in WWII was politically expedient for President Franklin Roosevelt with so many bases in the South, though at the urging of his wife and advisors, he had agreed to the creation of some black combat units.
After basic training, Corbett was stationed in Texas and learned that an all-black parachute unit was being formed. He volunteered.
Members of the “Triple Nickles” were unique. More highly trained than many black units that were made to serve menial tasks in non-combat roles, they were the only unit outside the aviation unit that had black officers. And they were resplendent in a paratrooper’s uniform: starched pants bloused inside brilliantly shined jump boots with special hat insignia and paratrooper wings.
They were the envy of many and the target of many a racist officer and military policeman; the black paratroopers were told upon completion of jump school to always carry their orders with them to avoid being detained and accused of pretending to be paratroopers.
Graduation was early January in 1945, and members of the 555th talked excitedly about finally “getting in the fight,” Corbett said.
The 82nd Airborne, stationed at Fort Benning, had casualties in Europe the month before and the Triple Nickles paratroopers thought they might be headed there to shore up the depleted ranks after the Battle of the Bulge.
Instead, the 555th was sent to Oregon and California to fight forest fires…not just any forest fires, but ones started by the Japanese.
Near the end of the war, Japan developed Fu-G0, fire balloons, launched into the upper east-west wind currents. Several landed on the West Coast in California, Oregon, and Washington, setting off forest fires and killing an adult and five children on a church picnic.
The paratroopers of the 555th became the original smokejumpers working with forest rangers. But the operation was top-secret so as not to alert the Japanese Much of what they had learned and techniques that they developed are still in use by smoke jumpers today.
Many times when the fires ignited, the 555th paratroopers would be flown in and jump into forests with trees often 200 feet high, Corbett said. Corbett was injured in one jump when his parachute caught on the branches and slammed him into a tree. He has had back trouble to this day, he said.
When the war ended, Corbett, now a sergeant, returned home by train. At a Texas stop with soldiers going into the railside cafe, Corbett and a fellow paratrooper were told they had to go to the rear of the building to be served.
Neither man, after their bitter experiences, would put up with that and returned to the train, noticing that German prisoners of war were being led in through the front door of the cafe.
During last summer’s forest fires, Corbett said he thinks back about his mission and feels for those on the fire line today, but the racism he tries not to bother remembering.
“When you see those tragedies and remember, but we were young and able to move fast,” he said with a laugh. “We were in some pretty bog fires and you would have them down and then get a flare up.”
Segregation was something to be endured, but not beaten by.
Back home in Florida, Corbett and fellow African-American veterans found the nation had not yet changed.
“When we’d go out with our friends on the weekend, there was one deputy sheriff who always managed to pull us over. He’d come to the window, hand resting on his gun and say, ‘How you boys doing? Where you going?” Corbett recalled.
The message was clear.
“During that time, we did what we could. But my mother and dad constantly watched over us and told us we had to learn not to get in conflicts. (The nation’s) leaders did little to nothing, but we kept positive attitudes,” he said.
Corbett went to North Carolina A&T College, but his injury made him give up football.
He graduated with a degree in mathematics, taught at the all-black Union Academy in Bartow and coached track and field teams to winning state championships.
He is a member of the Florida High School Athletics Association’s Hall of Fame and the Bartow High School Hall of Fame, where the JJ Corbett Invitational Track Meet is held annually.
Corbett was one of the founders of Mid-Florida Credit Union, served 12 years on the Polk County School Board and 14 years on the board of Citrus and Chemical Bank.
“He is a mild-tempered man who doesn’t hold a grudge because he was always looking ahead to the future,” said Doris Moore Bailey of Lakeland, president and CEO of The Bailey Group, a business consulting firm. “JJ has made significant contributions to this county and this nation and we felt it important to let him know.”
In 2010, Corbett was named 555th Parachute Battalion Man of the Year receiving the honor from Gen. David Petraeus. In his quiet, persistent manner, Corbett bested anything the deputy (or some white soldiers) likely ever did. And he did it all without bravado.
Corbett was honored earlier this week in Tallahassee by veterans of the 555; he will be honored by a group of friends with a ceremony and reception at 3 p.m., Sunday at the Bartow Civic Center, 2250 S. Florida Ave. in Bartow.