The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB), SMOKE JUMPERS

Let us travel back to the origins of this unit, its conversion from a highly trained and combat ready parachute unit to the extremely dangerous role of "smoke jumping" and their performance in one of the best kept secret operations in World War II.

Through December 1944 and January 1945, the Triple Nickles had continued to jump, maneuver, and grow to a strength of over four hundred battle-ready officers and men. During that same period a far more deadly action was taking place on the battlefields of Belgium - the Battle of the Bulge - the massive German counterattack in the Ardennes that began on 16 December 1944. It lasted more than a month and before the Germans were turned around, the American army had suffered some 77,000 casualties. Many of them had been paratroopers - men from General Jim Gavin's 82nd Airborne Division and General Maxwell Taylor’s 101st who had made the heroic stand at Bastogne. The cry was out for replacements, not only in paratroopers ranks but throughout the European Theater of Operation (ETO) combat command.

cptbradb.jpg 186.6 K "At last we thought we were going to tangle with Hitler, whose embarrassment at the 1936 Olympics of a Black American named Jesse Owens was fresh in our minds. We eagerly anticipated pitting the Nazis against another group of black champions - men like Walter Morris, "Tiger Ted" Lowry, Jab Allen, Edwin Wills, Jim Bridges, Roger Walden, the list goes on." Biggs recalls in his book THE TRIPLE NICKLES. He goes on to say that:

"We soon that we would not go as a battalion but rather as a "reinforced company". The reason was simple, we had not trained or maneuvered as a battalion. The original orders authorizing the 555th said we would not begin such training until we had reached a strength of twenty-nine officers and six hundred enlisted men. This could have been achieved if commanders army-wide had released volunteers and approved scores of requests for parachute duty."

Eventually, the Triple Nickles would grow to more than thirteen hundred for duty, six hundred in jump training at Fort Benning and nineteen hundred on the morning report rosters. But for now the smaller number had some advantages. It had enabled them to concentrate on intensive individual and small-unit training. Riflemen, machine gunners and mortar men had sharpened their aim to perfection. Training in judo and other forms of hand-to-hand combat were intensified. They had time and opportunity to become superb combat men. No goof-offs were allowed.

Moreover, men could be sent to schools for special training as riggers, jumpmasters, pathfinders. demolition experts, and communications men. Jump demonstrations and small unit maneuvers had helped them to perfect the tactics and logistics essential to many paratrooper combat missions, especially those requiring no more than a company-size force, such as an attack on an enemy communications center, bridge, enemy headquarters or road junction.

So when the order came to "skeletonize" to one reinforced company of eight officers and 160 men, the battalion had a pool of the best from which to choose the super-best. It began with a downward shift of command, a move for which everyone was fully prepared. The battalion executive officer, for example Captain Richard W. Williams became the company commander. Williams, the eleventh to join the Triple Nickles, had come to the organization as a first lieutenant from the 92nd Infantry Division. A well-built, muscular man, he was known as a tough, aggressive officer, filled with imaginative ideas and a sense of adventure.

The battalion S3 (Plans and Training), lst Lt. Edwin Wills, the real "brains" of the training program, became the company executive officer. The commanders of A, B, and C rifle companies became platoon leaders, with each given his choice of an assistant platoon leader. Each former company commander chose his executive officer. First sergeants became platoon sergeants and platoon sergeants became squad leaders.

This special company was ready to take on anybody. But suddenly midway through the rigorous combat training, their destiny changed. By, April 1945, the German armies were collapsing. Americans were on the Elbe River - and would stay there. From the east the Russians were moving on Berlin, and the fall of the German capital was only weeks away. It seemed unlikely that any more paratroopers would be needed. In late April 1945, the battalion received new orders - a "permanent change of station" to Pendleton Air Base, Pendleton, Oregon for duty with the U.S. Ninth Service Command on a 'highly classified" mission in the U.S. northwest. No one had any idea of what the mission would be.

On 5 May 1945, the battalion left Camp Hackall for Oregon. The move was made in about six days. Ninety-eight percent of it by rail the rest by battalion motor vehicle or private auto - including Graphite. Sergeant Lowry and two other NCO’s brought the faithful old Ford cross-country. (Graphite was a two-door, 1937 Ford (Lt. Julius F. Lane and Lt. Bradley Biggs). It was the battalion’s service vehicle.

Apparently no one had noticed a brief Associated Press item that had appeared in the New York Times of 10 September 1944. With a Portland, Oregon dateline headed "Fire FightersUse Parachutes", the story reported that: "Crews have been dropped by parachute to fight forest fire in many areas of the Northwest. A blistering summer sun indirectly caused fire in six areas in Idaho in the last 48 hours. An eight man unit crew was dropped to fight a blaze in the Lost Horse Pass Country of Idaho. Other parachutists were into the back woods of Chelan National Forest to battle 300 acre Fire".

On 6 May, while the battalion was still en route west, a woman named Elsie Mitchell and five children were on a Fishing trip near Bly, Oregon. One of them found a strange object on the ground and the others went to investigate. Suddenly the object exploded, killing all six. First news reports said it was a blast of "unannounced cause".

Actually, the object had been a Japanese bomb that had traveled across the Pacific on a hydrogen-filled balloon. Though it remained a tightly-guarded secret for a time, the Mitchell's had been the victims of the first intercontinental air attack on this country. Since early November, 1944 the Japanese had been launching these "balloon bombs" - layered silk-like bags with clusters of incendiary bombs and explosives attached to them.

The secrecy continued even after one balloon caused a near calamity at the Hanford Engineering Works in Washington state, then turning out uranium slugs for the atomic bomb that would destroy Nagasaki. One of the balloons descending in the Hanford area became tangled in electical transmission lines causing a temporary short circuit in the power for the nuclear reactor cooling pumps. Backup safety devices restored power almost immediately, but if the cooling system had been off a few minutes longer a reactor might have collapsed or exploded and this country could have had a Chernobyl for which it was totally unprepared. The havoc would have been unimaginable.

By January, 1945, however, both Time and Newsweek magazines had told of two woodchoppers near Kalispell, Montana who had found a balloon with Japanese markings on it. By the time the battalion arrived in Oregon the veil of secrecy was partially lifted. The War and Navy Departments had issued statements to the local populace describing the bombs and -warning people not to tamper with anything resembling them.

Captains Williams & Allen watching jumpers over Oregon

The balloons, we learned, were made of silk paper and were thirty-five feet in diameter. Filled with hydrogen, they would rise to a height of 25,000 to 35,000 feet. Then they would pick up prevailing air currents (latter called the "jet stream") from west to east across the Pacific.

Each time a balloon descended below 25,000 feet from loss of gas and cooling, a pressureswitch automatically dropped a sandbag. This caused the balloon to rise again toward the 33,000 foot level. The balloons traveled up to 123 miles an hour, and took from 80 to 120 hours to reach the U.S., depending on weather. If the Japanese have it figured right the last sandbag has been dropped only after the balloon has reached this country. At that time a second automatic switch takes over.

When the balloon dropped to 27,000 feet a bomb was released. The balloon rose up and then down again and another bomb is released. and so on. When the last incendiary or bomb was dropped, a fuse ignited automatically and set off a demolition charge which destroyed the balloon. Fortunately, all of the demolition charges didn't work and some balloons we recovered intact. As part of this joint operation the U.S. Air Corps was increasing its air patrols flown by P-51 aircraft to try to sight the balloons and shoot them down before they reached the coast. Watchers along the coast also gave sighting warnings for air patrol action.

Not mentioned publicly at the time was the possibility that Japan might equip the balloons with the capability to carry out some form of chemical-biological warfare. Their experiments with prisoners of war in the notorious unit 731 were not known until much later - but they began in 1937 and point to existence of a Japanese program to develop for use deadly biological agents. Such agents quite possibly could have been delivered in quantity to the United States mailand by balloons.

Also notmentioned was the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. By now they knew that they had acquired a new, temporary nickname, the "Smoke Jumpers", and that it would be part of the highly secret project known more officially as "Operation Firefly".

It was clear that the white people of Umatilla County were not used to seeing many black faces in their midst. Clearly there would be few of the joys of the service clubs and homes of Atlanta or Fayetteville. A few of the troopers and a handful of officers would finally be able to find passable living quarters in town where their families could join them. But these were few indeed.

When we arrived however, we had more pressing things than social life on our minds. We were assigned quarters in the center of the post garrison area, close to the airfield and operations shed. Once settled, Captain Porter, our commanding officer, and Lieutenant Wills, his S3, set out to get more details in our mission and operations plan.

The mission was soon clear enough. Working in teams out of Pendleton and Chica, California, we would be on emergency call to rush to forest fires in any of several western states and join with the forest service men in suppressing the blaze. At the same time, we would be prepared to move into areas where there were suspected Japanese bombs, cordon off the area, locate the bombs, and dispose of them.

But this, we found, would call for an entirely new training program. We knew how to jump from airplanes. But the heavily-forested areas of the northwest presented drop zones that were more difficult and more dangerous than any we had faced before. We knew, how to handle parachute lines. But here we would be using a new type of chute - one with special "shroud lines" for circling maneuvers. We knew how to read military maps, but the forestry service maps were something new. We were used to explosives, but we had little, if any, experience in the disarming of bombs - particularly any of Japanese origin.

Fire fighting was an entirely new experience.

All of this and our past "jumper" experience, was a prelude to the great experience of integration. Our mind mind sets, individually and collective outlooks gave a new and different meaning to our lives.

Our new station, Pendleton Air Base, lay in Umatilla County, in northeastern Oregon. It was located on a plateau overlooking the town of Pendleton. The base at one time had accommodated B-29 bomber air corps training units. Now, with the war winding down, it had been skeletonized into "caretaker" status. The area was barren. We were the only unit except for control tower personnel and a small engineer maintenance contingent. A consolidated mess would feed the 555th officers and men together. It was, however, still commanded by a full colonel, a man who would quickly make it clear that he disliked having an all-black unit at his station. He was careful that we did not mix with his officers, that our area was inspected with undue meticulousness, and that the atmosphere of his office was "cool" to us. We didn't give a damn about all of that because we enjoyed eating with our men and our areas were always clean and well-policed. But we disliked the fact that we had to serve again under a prejudiced post commander. We had just left one at Mackall. And before that at Benning. Such was the 555th’s lot.

The colonel's views were shared by the white civilian population in the area. In Pendleton, then a town of about twelve thousand and famous as the home of the Pendleton Rodeo, the black soldiers, who were helping Oregon save its forests, and possibly some of its people, found it difficult to buy a drink or a meal. Only two bars and one restaurant would serve them anything.

Oregon had a long history of tensions over minority groups. First, in the nineteenth century, the Chinese had suffered not only discrimination but out right violence. In the early twentieth century the Japanese had been the targets. And in the 1920's, during a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, Oregon and Indiana were the two northern state where the "invisible empire" seemed to find its most avid supporters. No doubt the Klan in Oregon had been motivated by anti-Catholic, anti-"foreign" nativism than by a fear of blacks who were a small target indeed. The 1930 census showed the black population of Oregon to have been 0.2 percent. It had hardly changed by 1940.

Clyde Thomas boarding a C-47 on his way to battle forest fires

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Copyright 1996 Patrick O'Donnell