In April 1945 the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion received orders to move to the West Coast for a special assignment. Members of this all African American unit hoped to finally see combat during World War II in the Pacific Theater of Operations.
The battalion had its origins in a recommendation made in December 1942 by the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies, chaired by the Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy. Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall approved the committee’s recommendation for a black parachute battalion. He decided to start with a company, which resulted in the constitution of the 555th Parachute Infantry Company on February 25, 1943. Headquarters, Army Ground Forces authorized the activation of the company as an all-black unit with black officers as well as black enlisted men on December 19, 1943. All unit members were to be volunteers from other organizations, with an enlisted cadre to be selected from personnel of the African American 92nd Infantry Division (the Buffalo Division which went on to serve with distinction in Italy in 1944 and 1945) at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The company was officially activated on December 30, 1943 at Fort Benning, Georgia. In mid-July 1944, after several months of training, the company departed for Camp Mackall, North Carolina (south of the town of Southern Pines). It was reorganized and redesignated on November 25, 1944 as Company A of the newly-activated 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. This battalion, under the command of Capt. James H. Porter, consisted of ten officers and 155 enlisted men.
In December 1944, the organization was instructed to detail to the Parachute School, Fort Benning, Georgia, for parachutist qualification training. Training took place during December and the early months of 1945.
While battalion members were undergoing training at Fort Benning during the winter of 1944-1945, the War Department was facing a new Japanese threat to the West Coast. The Japanese military had begun launching incendiary-bearing balloons from Japan, which were carried eastward by high-altitude air currents. By early December 1944, there had been several discoveries of balloons on American soil, including:
- the recovery of a rubberized-silk balloon from the ocean near the coast of California on November 4
- the recovery of a paper balloon from the water near Hawaii on November 14
- the report of a mysterious bomb explosion in Wyoming on December 6
- and the finding of a second paper balloon in Montana on December 11
Officials of the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation began an investigation of the source and purpose of the free balloons, which determined that the balloons had come from Japan and carried bombs and incendiaries. On January 29, 1945, the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 issued “General Report No. 1 on Free Balloons and Related Incidents,” in which it was noted that there had been found in the United States, Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii ten balloons believed to be of Japanese origin and that a number of other incidents and sightings possibly related, had been reported.
While the military authorities were trying to figure out how to deal with the balloon threat, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion received orders in March from higher headquarters to have some of the personnel undertake eight weeks of training for a probable combat mission.
By the spring of 1945, there was growing concern regarding the Japanese balloon threat in the American West. The Military Intelligence Service reported 17 balloon incidents in March and another ten in April. On April 7, the Commanding General, Army Service Forces (ASF) wrote the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3 (Operations Division) with proposals for combating forest incendiaries caused by Japanese balloons in the United States. The Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3 wrote the Commanding General, ASF on April 21 that the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion would be assigned to fire-fighting duty. Thus, after four weeks of a scheduled eight-week combat training program, the battalion was notified that it was being given “a security mission in the western portion of the United States.” They were not informed of the nature of the mission.
On May 2 the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3 informed the Commanding General, ASF that the request of the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service for the use of military personnel for the purpose of combating forest fires from on or about June 1 to October 30 had been approved. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion would be utilized in accordance with certain instructions, including continuing combat training when not engaged in fire-fighting. In May the War Department designated “Firefly Project” as the short title for the military assistance to Federal and State Forest Fire Protective Agencies in the control of forest and grass fires in accordance with current Service Commands Fire Fighting Plans and the Western Defense Command-Fourth Air Force-Ninth Service Command, “Joint Air and Ground Assistance Forest Fire Fighting Plan.”
The 555th was scheduled to leave Camp Mackall for the Pendleton Army Air Field, Oregon, on May 5. That same day around 5:20pm, ten miles northwest of Bly, Oregon, on Wooded Ridge (in the Quartz Pass area) Mrs. Elaine Mitchell, her husband, five children and two employees came across a balloon while on their way to Fishing Stream. The bomb attached to the balloon exploded when one person unwittingly kicked or dropped it. The explosion killed Mrs. Mitchell and the five children. An investigation determined that the balloon was grounded approximately one month before recovery.
On May 5 the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion departed for Pendleton. The battalion was assigned the mission of the recovery and destruction of Japanese balloon bombs, with the added mission of the suppression of forest fires started by the bombs, as part of the “Firefly Project.”
Parachuting civilian personnel into areas to fight forest fires was a relatively new fire-suppression technique. “Smoke jumping” had been first proposed in 1934 by a Forest Service Intermountain Regional Forester, as a means to quickly provide initial attack on forest fires. By parachuting in, self-sufficient firefighters could arrive fresh and ready for the strenuous work of fighting fires in rugged terrain. The smoke jumper program began in 1939 as an experiment in the Pacific Northwest Region, and the first fire jump was made in 1940 on Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest.
On May 7 the Secretary of War wrote the commanding generals of all the major American Commands, the commanding officers of all appropriate posts, camps and stations within the Seventh and Ninth Service Commands, and the Provost Marshal Generals that:
Japanese balloons have been appearing over the western part of the continental United States during the last several months. It is probable that these mechanisms will drop quantities of incendiary bombs in the great forest regions and the watershed areas of Alaska and western Canada and the United States. Unless controlled, the resulting fires will cause great damage to vital natural resources and impede seriously the war effort of the nation.
The Secretary of War reported that the Forest Service was fully aware of the hazardous potentialities of the balloon-dropped incendiaries and that it had informed the War Department that the most critical season for forest, brush, and grassland fires could be expected to extend from May 15 to October 30. Additionally, the various Federal, State and local forest fire protection agencies were normally prepared to cope with such fires, but during the coming fire season of 1945 these agencies would not be able to adequately discharge their responsibility, “particularly in the face of the increased hazard resulting from Japanese incendiaries.” This was due to several reasons, including the loss of personnel to the war effort and below normal precipitation in the threatened areas, which resulted in an extremely flammable condition. Thus, the Secretary of War laid out the policies and procedures for the U.S. Army to work with the Forest Service during the forthcoming fire seasons.
The 555th arrived at the Pendleton Army Air Field on May 12 and was assigned to Headquarters Ninth Service Command, Fort Douglas, Utah. From May 12 to May 22, the battalion was engaged in a minimum of military training, as the battalion’s freight arrived at Pendleton some two weeks later. In anticipation of carrying out its mission assignment, the battalion placed renewed emphasis on physical conditioning, leadership, first aid, and map reading.
The battalion was located on an army air base, and there was a severe lack of training facilities for any type of ground-troop training, such as firing ranges, training areas, and parade grounds. During this period, the 555th coordinated with other “Firefly Project” agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, Ninth Service Command, and Fourth Air Force, in an effort to establish procedures regarding the use of the battalion in fighting fires.
From May 22 to June 6, personnel were introduced by the Forest Service to the scope of the technique of foreign fire suppression and the use of Forest Service maps. From June 8 to June 15, bomb disposal personnel from the Ninth Service Command conducted a “bomb disposal school.” From June 18 onwards the battalion took part in jumps, some of which were in heavy timber. Emphasis was put on training of six officers and ninety-four enlisted men to be placed on detached service at Chico Army Air Field in California. This was accomplished and the detachment departed Pendleton via military aircraft, and arrived at Chico on July 7. The Chico Detachment (as the detachment was designated) was assigned the mission of covering California, western portions of Nevada, Arizona, and the southern portion of Oregon.
“Smoke Jump” training for the remainder of the battalion continued through July 14, by which time, the majority of the battalion was qualified as “Smoke Jumpers.” This training continued, with improvements made in “Smoke Jumping techniques.” When eighty percent of the personnel had been thoroughly trained, the members of the 555th working out of Pendleton battalion were assigned the mission of covering Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.
The first fire call for the Pendleton group came on June 21, 1945. Fifty men were sent to Deschutes National Forest and they remained there until June 25. Fifty men were sent to Wenatchee National Forest on July 3 and another fifty to Chelan National Forest on July 8. On July 13, 100 men were sent to Wenatchee National Forest and on July 20 another fifty-five men were sent to Meadow Lake National Forest. Two days later fifty-four men were sent to Colville National Forest and on July 28, 104 men were sent to Chelan National Forest. The battalion would respond during August and September to twelve more calls for help, including Bitter Root, Cabinet, Salmon, Fayette, Siskiyou, Whitman, Mt. Baker, Chelan, and Wallowa National Forests.
Reports from two August operations should give the reader a sense of the battalion’s activities. At 5pm on August 21 the battalion received a call for help with a fire at Mt. Baker National Forest. The next morning, thirty-four enlisted men and two officers, under the command of 2nd Lt. Walter Morris, dropped into a meadow, 1,000 yards from the fire. Three men were injured. After evacuating the injured men, one officer and twenty-five men departed for the fire line at noon on August 24, and returned to camp at 5:30pm. Rations arrived by pack train from the meadows. Rain that night and the next day was enough to cool the fire down. A fire line was completed on August 25 and the next day at 6pm they were relieved from their assignment. At 6:30am on August 27 the group marched out of camp. By 4pm they had marched twenty-three miles to the end of the trail, where they got on a bus that took them to Paine Field, Everett, Washington, arriving there just before 8pm. They were assigned quarters and given rations at Paine Field. They departed via a C-47 from Paine Field the next morning at 9am and arrived back at the Pendleton Army Air Field at 11am.
While the above operation was underway, another began. At 9pm on August 22, the battalion was alerted about a fire at Chelan National Forest (which then also included the Okanogan National Forest). At 3pm the next day one officer (2nd Lt. William F. Buford) and twenty-one enlisted men dropped in a drop zone some eight-hours march from the fire. Several of the men were injured in the drop. At 6am on the following morning the group marched eight hours up “impossible mountainous terrain” before arriving at a camp site. They left behind two men injured on the jump and one man suffering from acute indigestion, who were picked up two days later by a pack train.
Upon arrival, the men discovered that there was no food or bed rolls waiting for them. This food and equipment was supposed to have been dropped the morning of August 24. The men were deployed in two groups and immediately set out to curb the fire. Breakfast and supper were served in the fire camp, once food was brought up by pack train. For two nights the men were forced to sleep in the driving rain without cover. Two men were injured the evening of their arrival at the fire camp, and were sent out the following morning by pack train. The majority of the men were fighting the fire in Canada in an effort to prevent the fire from coming into U.S. territory. The fire was actually under control two days prior to their departure. However, the men were sent out every day in mopping up operations and on August 28 three men were selected to go deep into Canada along some ridges to make a ground reconnaissance of the fire. “This was an extremely hazardous and fatiguing operation.” At 8:15 on August 29, the men proceeded 15 miles on foot, accompanied by three horses, to Pasayten airport. They arrived back at Pendleton Army Air Field at 6pm that day.
The Chico Detachment answered its first fire call at Klamath National Forest on July 14 with fifty-four enlisted men and two officers. This detachment covered seventeen fire calls from July 14 to October 10 in the Klamath (July, August), Trinity (August, September, October), Modoc (August, October), and Mendocino (August, September) National Forests. Its largest operation was at Trinity National Forest from October 6 to 10, when 75 men participated.
In all the battalion completed 36 missions involving 1,255 jumps. An accident resulted in the death of one of the men, a medic, who died on August 9, while attempting a let-down from a tree at Siskiyou National Forest near Roseburg, Oregon. More than thirty suffered injuries.
Click here to view a video of the 555th Training Exercises. National Archives Identifier 14605, RG 111.
On September 2, 1945, the Western Defense Command notified the War Department that it was curtailing defensive operations against the Japanese balloons. Two weeks later, the War Department informed the Western Defense Command that activities against Japanese free balloons in areas of Seventh, Eight, and Ninth Service Commands would be limited. Future actions would involve the recovery of all balloons or parts thereof which were discovered and the disposal by qualified bomb disposal personnel of Japanese bombs and other explosive elements which had been dropped from, or landed with, the balloons.
The Forest Service greatly appreciated the help of the military in fighting fires during the summer of 1945. In his fiscal year 1946 annual report, the Chief of Forest Service noted that his agency had been severely handicapped by the fact that national forest-fire organizations were seriously weakened by the shortage of trained men and fire-fighting labor and by deterioration of equipment kept in operation during the war years beyond its normal life. He added that
Generous assistance from military forces helped to offset some of these difficulties. The ‘firefly’ project, in which the Army cooperated with Forest Service and State protection forces by assignment of parachute troops, was a valuable aid. The project was set up on the west coast to meet the threat of Japanese incendiary balloons. The Japanese abandoned their balloon barrage before the season of greatest fire danger, but the ‘firefly’ project proved invaluable in strengthening the fire-fighting forces of the west coast when fire conditions became critical. The project was disbanded late in the fall of 1945.
In his fiscal year 1945 report, he stated that the Japanese incendiary bombs had “caused no fires of consequence.” In a press release prepared early in 1946, the Army’s Bureau of Public Relations noted that of some 9,000 balloons had been released by the Japanese, the last being on April 20, 1945. A total of 191 paper balloons and three rubberized-silk balloons, all of Japanese origin, were found in the United States, Canada, Alaska, Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean area during the period from November 1944 to February 1946. In addition, there were 89 recoveries of small fragments of paper or other balloon parts, too incomplete to be classed as a balloon. The press release stated that “negligible damage was caused by the incendiaries’ the only fires resulting being one or two small grass fires,” and stressed the following:
The Japanese expected that information on damage caused by the balloons would be available from normal press channels and radio broadcasts. However, after the first mention of the original balloons found, the press and radio of the United States and Canada maintained a very complete voluntary censorship at the request of the Army and navy through the Office of Censorship, and thus denied the Japanese information as to the numbers of balloons arriving and the landing points.
The press blackout regarding the balloons also had the effect of diminishing the news about the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion’s mission and activities. Nevertheless, the battalion was proud of its accomplishments on the west coast. “We didn’t win any wars, but we did contribute,” Former 1st Sergeant Walter Morris recalled in 2000. “What we proved was that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability.”
In October 1945, the battalion returned to Camp Mackall, and was assigned to the 27th Headquarters and Headquarters Special Troops, First U. S. Army, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In December the battalion moved to Fort Bragg and was assigned to the 13th Airborne Division. The division was inactivated on February 26, 1946. The combat personnel, including the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, were transferred to the command of the elite 82nd Airborne Division, under Maj. Gen. James M. Gavin, who one former member of the battalion described as “perhaps the most ‘color-blind’ Army officer in the entire service.”
On the morning of December 15, 1947 the battalion was ordered to march to an area designated for the 82nd Airborne Division. There, according to Charles Stevens, a former member of the battalion, they were to participate in one of the most significant milestones in military history. In battalion formation they were informed that they were being inactivated and that most of its personnel would be assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Battalion, 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment. “Everybody was crying,” Stevens said. “I think we were crying for two different reasons. We were glad that segregation was leaving the Army and we were sad we were losing our Triple Nickle colors” [“Triple Nickles” was the nickname given the battalion]. It was not until seven months later that President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 (NAID 300009), establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services for people of all races, religions, or national origins.
The efforts of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion have been recognized by various means over the past two decades. In 1994, several surviving members of the battalion were honored as guests on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. during a celebration for Smokey Bear’s 50th birthday. In June 2000, at Redding, California, surviving members took part in the 60th anniversary commemoration of the establishment of the Smoke Jumpers. In 2005, when General David Petreaus became commander of the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, he proposed a tribute to the battalion. The result was a monument dedicated to the battalion, located by the Buffalo Soldier Monument. In the dedication ceremony on September 7, 2006, General Petreaus said “These great paratroopers walked point for their race and for our country, facing down discrimination by standing in the door as one and jumping into our nation’s history.” Along the sculpture’s base is that statement, along with the 17 original members’ names. In February 2013, the Forest Service honored the 555th by naming a conference room after the Triple Nickles in its newly renovated Yates Building, the agency’s national headquarters office in Washington, D.C.
The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion personnel, like most African American soldiers during World War II, faced various forms of prejudice and discrimination. The unit personnel overcame these hurdles and proved themselves to be excellent paratroopers and soldiers. This story is covered on numerous websites, including the Center of Military History; the official website of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion; and “How Black Smokejumpers Helped Save the American West,” a National Public Radio blog published January 22, 2015. An article by Don Thompson in The Seattle Times on June 25, 2000 entitled “First black paratroopers fought racism, fires” and the article “Jumping into History: The Army’s First African American Paratroopers,” in the February 3, 2014, issue of Soldiers: The Official U.S. Army Magazine.
File: Japanese Free Balloons (NAID 1410829), Subject Correspondence File 1942-1945, G-2, Section, General Staff, Records of Army Ground Forces, Record Group 337
File: INBN-555-03, Narrative, Unit Data-555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, 25 November 1944-November 1947, World War II Operations Reports, 1941-1948 (Entry 427, NAID 305275), Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1917-, Record Group 407
File: INBN-555-(1), General Orders-555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, 1944-1947, World War II Operations Reports, 1941-1948 (Entry 427, NAID 305275), Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1917-, Record Group 407.
Various files filed under the decimal AG 452.4 in the Classified Decimal File 1943-1945, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1917-, Record Group 407.
“A Report on Japanese Free Balloons,” Joint Army-Navy Release, For Release on February 9, 1946, Press Branch, Bureau of Public Relations, War Department, File: 000.7 Press Releases, Newspaper Clippings, and Releases, Vol. II, Central Correspondence, 1942-1946, Wartime Civil Control Administration and Civil Affairs Division, Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, Records of U.S. Army Defense Commands (World War II), Record Group 499.
Report of the Chief of the Forest Service 1945 (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, 1945)
Report of the Chief of the Forest Service 1946 (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, 1946)