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How Black Smokejumpers Helped Save The American West

Smokejumper Jesse Mayes preparing to jump from a C-47. (U.S. Army Air Force)

As part of the back-and-forth attacks of World War II, the Imperial Japanese army launched balloon bombs — silent wind-borne devices designed to wreak havoc on the cities and woodlands of the American West.

The U.S. government discouraged news organizations from reporting on the bombs — which some call the first intercontinental weapons — that successfully landed in North America.

One group was charged with dismantling — and, if necessary, battling the forest fires caused by — the incendiary balloon bombs: the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, known as the Triple Nickels or Triple Nickles. Like the Tuskegee Airmen and others, the Triple Nickles were pioneers in a severely segregated U.S. military.

"We were the first and only paratroopers of color in 1944," says Triple Nickle Association President Joseph Murchison, 84, from his home in Tampa, Fla. "It was the proudest period of my life, being in the Triple Nickles and doing something that nobody else was doing."

Steep Challenges

In her 2013 book, Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, Tanya Lee Stone tells the story this way: In early 1944, some 20 African-American enlisted men were brought together for paratrooper training — first in Georgia, then in North Carolina.

Eventually 17 of these young men became the 555th Parachute Infantry Company. And a half-dozen black officers were added to the team. The original core included 1st Sgt. Walter J. Morris and 2nd Lt. Bradley Biggs, who came from the 92nd Infantry Division, an all-black unit that traced its origins to the legendary Buffalo Soldiers.

Over time, more black soldiers joined and the group became the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

The African-American paratroopers faced steep challenges in their training regimen — which sometimes included demolitions and communications, as well as parachute practice. And they faced even steeper challenges in the social milieu of the segregated American military. Prisoners of war were allowed to mingle with white soldiers and buy provisions at the post exchange, but black soldiers could not.

"That hurt the living blazes out of us," Stone reports that Biggs said. "Why should we be treated as second-class citizens when ... prisoners of war can come here and get service and treatment that we're denied?"

As Stone observes in her book, "What is courage? What is strength? Perhaps it is being ready to fight for your nation even when your nation isn't ready to fight for you."

The black paratroopers told tales of being denied live ammunition for rifle practice, Stone writes. There were stories of sleeping in segregated barracks and of not being included at troop entertainment shows. Nevertheless, the soldiers continued to train as elite fighters for overseas combat — combat for which they were never called.

Guardians Of The Forests

Instead the paratroopers were ordered westward. On the day the men boarded the train headed to Oregon, Stone writes, a pregnant woman and five children — on a church picnic — were killed in that state by a balloon bomb.

Because of its bomb-dismantling training and parachute acumen, the 555th was tasked with assisting the U.S. Forest Service — and scores of white smokejumpers already deployed. The African-American paratroopers received special firefighting instruction in Pendleton, Ore.

The vast forests of the American West were seen as strategic natural resources. "The biggest single wood use was packing crates to ship military supplies, but other important uses were for bridges, railroad ties, gunstocks, ships, docks, barracks, other buildings and aircraft," according to the Forest History Society.

"The Triple Nickles became an integral part of the U.S. Forest Service's effort to manage the threat of the Japanese balloon bombs being sent across the jet stream to explode on continental U.S. soil," Stone tells NPR.

"Week after week," she writes in her book, the black firefighters "put out fires. They searched for balloon bombs to dismantle." Between July and October, 1945, the 555th made 1,200 jumps and fought 36 fires. They also found a few bombs.

According to Bradley Biggs, writing in his 1986 book The Triple Nickles, "Not mentioned publicly at the time, was the possibility that Japan might equip the balloons with the capacity to carry out some form of chemical-biological warfare. Also not mentioned was the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. By now we had acquired the nickname 'the Smoke Jumpers.' "

A Place In History

These days folks in Oregon are wrestling with the black paratroopers' place in the state's history. Kimberly Moreland of the Oregon Black Pioneers tells NPR that her group is working with the State Historic Preservation Office on a project called Preserving Oregon's African American Historic Places. It is, she says, "a data gathering, crowd-sourced project ... to receive information about historic buildings associated with Oregon's African American history. We hope to utilize this information in the future to identify five potential sites for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places."

The East Oregonian recently reported that one obstacle to honoring the 555th is that researchers cannot find any extant buildings that were associated with the battalion.

But the memories, and the stories, are still standing.

Mediography

555th Parachute Infantry

U.S. Forest Service Smokejumpers

Parachute Battalion Unit First for Army Integration

National Smokejumper Association

"Jumping Into History", Soldiers: The Official U.S. Army Magazine

Oregon Heritage Exchange

History of Smokejumping

(This post has been updated.)

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