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A Tale of Two Coins

by Robert “Bob” Bartlett (Associate) |

Challenge coins or medallions bear an organization’s insignia or emblem and are carried by its members. They are given to prove membership or association and to enhance morale. I now carry two medallions, two similar, yet different, silver Challenge Coins. One coin would be familiar to members of the National Smokejumpers Association (NSA) and many current jumpers, especially those who attended the 75th Anniversary Reunion this past summer in Missoula, Montana. The other one I purchased while attending the 36th Annual Reunion of the Triple Nickle Association in Washington, D.C. two months after the event in Missoula.
Heads and Tails

Both Challenge coins speak volumes to those who carry them. The one coin boldly proclaims, SMOKEJUMPERS 75 YEARS 1940-2015, on the heads side, where the other reads, AIRBORNE 555th PARACHUTE INFANTRY ASSOCIATION, THE TRIPLE NICKLES. On the tails side the first medallion reads, NATIONAL SMOKEJUMPERS ASSOCIATION, while on the other there is the image of three buffalo nickels (with the buffaloes showing) forming a pyramid and the dates 1944-1947. The coins of both organizations have similar wings and an open parachute on them and, like their members, share a common experience, they are jumpers. In addition, they share a brief joined moment in history in the Pacific Northwest near where I live. Back east and in the southeast, the Army and the United States Forest Service (USFS) have long since recognized the contribution and sacrifices of the Triple Nickle. However, outside of a few smokejumper bases in the West and Pacific Northwest and a few smokejumper history buffs, little to nothing is known about them and the fire season of 1945.

Summer 2015 travels

I had the opportunity to attend the reunions of both organizations and was asked by
the editor of this magazine to put my experiences into writing. As an African
American, a university professor, a researcher, a traveling speaker, and an Army veteran, the summer of 2015 was one for the highlight reels, so I jumped (no pun intended) at the chance.

First, I am forever grateful to those who invited me to attend their events. I owe a great deal of gratitude to NSA’s Chuck Sheley (CJ-59) for including me this past summer and for providing time during the NSA reunion for me to tell the Triple Nickle story. Thank you, Chuck, for the kind words concerning my presentation mentioned in the October issue. I also owe a great deal of gratitude to Triple Nickle lifetime members, Liane Young, author of Operation Firefly, and Triple Nickle president, Joe Murchison, for their invitation to join them in D.C.

Both reunions were full of youthful stories of the glory days and of people talking about “the best jobs they ever had.” Both groups have their sacred stories and their heroes. Like their Challenge coins, their stories are similar, yet their experiences during and after the summer of 1945 were and are uniquely different. Both were new reunions for me—the researcher, the non-jumper, the outsider—and both histories, smokejumping and the Triple Nickle, were new to me prior to February 2014.
Smokejumper History 101

In brief—it began in March 2014 with a few back and forth emails with Jim Rabideau (NCSB-49) of Pasco, Washington. I then followed a lead to the Missoula Smokejumper Base Visitors Center Director Dan Cottrell (MSO-01). That phone conversation with Dan led to Liane Young’s 2014 book, Operation Firefly that she had recently sent to the Visitors Center. And, as one might expect, that lead to Chuck Sheley. From then until now I have continued to immerse myself in smokejumper and Triple Nickle history and on occasion have been caught in the cross-fire. Chuck Sheley and this magazine remain my primary go-to sources for smokejumper history. Chuck is a passionate researcher, magazine editor and writer, as well as a tireless guardian of smokejumper history. Thanks to him I was introduced to the story of the first black smokejumper, Wardell “Knuckles” Davis (MSO-45), whose jumping days predate the arrival of the Triple Nickles.
Missoula

At the reunion and at the Missoula Smokejumper Base, I met many wonderful NSA folks and current jumpers. My focus was to do more listening than talking, and I heard plenty of stories of the good old days—jumping a “two manner,” jumping out of the Ford Trimotor, the DC-3, the Twin Beach, the Twin Otter, and now the Sherpa. I learned the difference between jumping fires in the Alaskan tundra and windy New Mexico. Jumpers talked about their favorite planes, the loads and gear they carried. And, as reunions go, there was the occasional story of those who made their last jump. It was a humbling experience to be a part of it and especially to share the Triple Nickle story in front of a standing-room-only, cross-generational crowd of “jumper bros.”

Missoula SJ Base

I intentionally arrived in Missoula from my home in Spokane, WA a few days early and went straight to the base. I especially want to thank the staff at the Visitors Center and the jumpers at the base for giving me so much of their time, for showing me around, and for answering a million and one questions. While at the base I was introduced to a young, white jumper outside the Ready Room who happened to be wearing a Triple Nickle t-shirt! On permanent display in the loft, I was shown three large, framed pictures of members of the Triple Nickles geared up and ready to board the familiar Army C-47. The pictures were accompanied by a brief history. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn of retired Missoula jumper, Wayne Williams (MSO-77), aka WW, who since 1990 has had a long affiliation with the Triple Nickles, and who, since 1995, continues to tell the Triple Nickle story to every rookie class of jumpers in Missoula. It was a week of stories and amazing people.

After a week spent with past and current jumpers in Missoula, I am convinced more than ever that smokejumpers, once known as smoke chasers, are a certain breed. Their history and their continued commitment to jumping fires is indeed an American treasure. Although there was never an uncomfortable moment for me while in Missoula, I did feel like an outsider looking in. The most common question people asked me was, “So, what year did you rookie?”

In contrast, at the second reunion I felt like an insider looking out. Although I share a similar lived experience and DNA with 99 percent of the attending members of the 555th, I felt like a previously unknown in-law showing up at a family reunion. One huge difference was that I felt my deceased father’s presence when I was with the Nickles.

A More Familiar Story

The Triple Nickle story was unknown to me until February 2014, even though my hero, my father, and his brother both served in segregated Army units during World War II. Both were combat medics. I grew up in a small, backwoods West Virginia town with black men who had served with the Tuskegee Airmen and with other all-black units that fought their way across Europe and North Africa. I grew up knowing that both the nation and the military were harshly racially divided during and after the war. I grew up with stories of the unimaginable treatment my father and others like him had to endure while in uniform, as they trained and waited for orders to ship out to fight an enemy overseas.

I stumbled across the story of the Triple Nickle in our local newspaper during Black History Month, and it immediately stirred a fire and a curiosity in me. The fact that the only Triple Nickle fatality during the fire season of 1945 was a combat-trained medic and a volunteer on the mission that cost him his life was not lost on me. I am positive that my medic father or his brother would have reacted the same way.

My father and the other black men I grew up around were all proud Army volunteers who fought the doubters and the racists at home, as well as an enemy overseas. When they returned after the war, they were forced to establish their own Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) Chapter because of racism. The all white VFW Chapter in our hometown did not accept black veterans, their stories or their heroes. And, when these brave black men died, they were buried in an all-black cemetery. The stories of blatant racism endured by the Triple Nickles were also not lost on me, nor why the Triple Nickles have their own passionate guardians of their stories and their place in history.

Triple Nickle 101

In brief—Young’s Operation Firefly led me to the 555th Triple Nickle website, then to Walter Morris and Bradley Biggs 1986 book, The Triple Nickles: America’s first all-black paratrooper unit, to Tanya Stone’s 2013 book, Courage has no color: The true story of the Triple Nickles and to the 2000 DVD, Nickles from heaven.

The Reunion

My summer travel ended in Washington, D.C. at the 36th National Reunion of the Triple Nickles. Although born and raised only a short distance south of D.C. the summer heat and humidity always come as a shock to my system. Like the smokejumpers I have come to know, the group of men I met in D.C. have gone by many names since their origin in 1944: Triple Nickles, Winged Warriors, Sky Soldiers, Troopers, Smokejumpers, Airborne firefighters, Buffalo Rangers, and, occasionally, “hot rods.” Their members are active duty and retired, mostly black men and women, proud Americans, and past and present combat veterans. Members of the association have served in every conflict and war since WWII-Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some served in three or four wars.

Much like the smokejumper community, they are a family made up of folks who share a common experience and history. One of the first Triple Nickles I met was Life Member, Lt. Thomas McFadden (PNOR-45), who jumped out of Triple Nickle bases in Pendleton, Oregon, and Chico, California, and at 92 still looks fit enough to jump.

Proud Guardians

Much like Chuck Sheley and other NSA members, Triple Nickles are extremely protective of their history, their stories, and their heroes. Above all else, they are Airborne! All the way and then some! Much like smokejumpers, they told stories about the C-47 and the C-119 Flying Box Car. They talked about jumping in a Stick of 4-9 or a Chalk of 28 on one pass. They talked about packing their own chutes in Pendleton and being told to land in trees, rather than to avoid them during their smokejumper orientation. There are only a handful of the original three hundred Triple Nickles left who jumped out here in the West that fire season. They were the first and the last all-black Airborne Infantry Firefighters--“smokejumpers.”

For many years the men of the Triple Nickle hosted informal gatherings in their own homes. They formally established themselves as an association in 1979, and now have a membership of approximately 1,000 with several Chapters scattered across the country. It was interesting, but not surprising, to learn that their current president, Joe Murchison, and many other Triple Nickles are also Life Members of the 82nd Airborne Association.

Other attendees at the reunion included members of the National Buffalo Soldiers Association, the 2nd Buffalo Ranger Company, formed at Fort Benning to fight in Korea, and members of the United States Forestry Service. The grandson of Walter Morris (PNOR-45), Army Major Michael Fowles, was also there. Walter Morris was the first First Sergeant of the Triple Nickle Test Platoon at Fort Benning, Georgia. He made his last jump October 13th, 2013 at 92. Major Fowles graduated from paratrooper school at Benning in 2004 — 50 years after his grandfather.
Malvin Brown Remembered

The Triple Nickles Reunion began in Baltimore at the gravesite of PFC Malvin Brown. It began there thanks to the tireless efforts of NSA members Mark Corbet (LGD-74) and Fred Donner (MSO-59), along with Philadelphia reporter Tony Woods, Baltimore Triple Nickle Bob Matthews and Deidra McGee from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). PFC Brown’s gravesite was lost for 70 years and only found in 2014 in a remote, all-black cemetery in a Baltimore City neighborhood.

Mark Corbet initiated the search with his magazine article titled “In the Interest of Public Welfare,” which appeared in Smokejumper magazine in 2006, also see Fred Donner’s article titled, “The Search for Malvin L. Brown’s Grave,” Smokejumper magazine, 2014. Thanks to Deidra McGee, several of Brown’s family members were located and present for the unveiling of a new headstone and plaque that proudly displays the official brands of the USFS, the NSA, and the Triple Nickle. The plaque reads in part:

In Memoriam
PFC Malvin L. Brown
October 11, 1920
August 6, 1945

Recognized as the first smokejumper fatality with heartfelt appreciation we salute PFC Malvin Brown an honorable US Army soldier and paratrooper. While serving in the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion Triple Nickles on a secret mission “Operation Firefly” PFC Brown died on a fire jump.
Good men must die, but death cannot kill their names.
AIRBORNE ALL THE WAY.

1945 Circumstances beyond Their Control

For a brief moment in history in 1945, the smokejumper community, the USFS and the Triple Nickles (the Army) were brought together by circumstances beyond the control of either group. And, like most blended families, they each have their share of warts from the experience. Given the little cross-training the Triple Nickles received in Pendleton, the Army pilots and planes that delivered them to fires, jumpers stationed in Pendleton and their planes stationed in Walla Walla, WA, forty ground miles away, the standard Army gear they used or modified, the parachutes they jumped, the number of fires they jumped or pounded, and the way they jumped—Army style, makes their story, their survival and their success that much more incredible.

As one might expect, written accounts and stories of ’45 do not always match. With time and interpretation the distance between fact and fiction blurs, feelings sometimes get hurt and guardians of their histories, of their storytellers and of their scared stories retrench—that’s when warts take root.

The Assessment

Lest we forget, in the end, military leaders, whether assessing a combat or peace mission initially ask one question of its troops, “Was the mission you were given accomplished?”

Unlike civilian organizations, causalities and even death are anticipated. I believe Chuck Sheley said it best concerning the Triple Nickles in a past edition of this magazine:

“We should recognize that they (Triple Nickles) were put into a very difficult situation with little or no help. None of us would have been able to do the job of smokejumping if we were placed in the same circumstances.” Smokejumper magazine, April 2015

From the Forest Service official report card on the Triple Nickle, “The Final Report on the Fire Fly Project,” filed by Liaison Officer Neal M. Palm, San Francisco, CA, January 31, 1946:

“The offer of the Army to assist in the protection of our timber, grazing, and watershed resources was greatly appreciated, without which our fire record of 1945 would have been much less satisfactory. . . Many of the problems encountered and the criticisms thereof were undoubtedly unavoidable and inherent in any wartime administration, especially during a transition period from war to peace, and would never be encountered under normal conditions.”

The Nature of Stories

The fire season of 1945 was dry and dangerous with an added wartime threat of more Japanese balloon bombs and a shortage of young men, real or imagined. Reunions are about telling stories, renewing old relationships and making new ones, and that was true for both of the reunions I was privileged to attend. The reunions were the tale of two similar, yet quite different, Challenge coins and those who carry them. I am extremely proud to be associated with both the past and the present smokejumper and Army Airborne communities, warts and all. For a brief moment in history the lives and the worlds of these proud, dedicated jumpers, both serving their country during wartime, crossed paths and the rest, as they say, is history. In my view, we could take a page out of the sports record books for the fire season of ’45. That year in smokejumper history deserves an asterisk and a footnote, CPS/Triple Nickles.

Since this journey began I have heard a number of conflicting stories and continue to read conflicting accounts of what happened during the fire season of ’45. I still find myself, at times, caught in the cross-fire. As a researcher I know that history is not always kind to those on the margins, that stories, written or otherwise, can take on a life of their own, and that even eye-witness accounts vary. Stories, written or otherwise, are not always flattering across groups.

Most importantly, there never is one story: the one and only story does not exist. In this case all groups involved are trying to tell and carry forward the best story they know about the fire season of 1945.
*1945

At the very least, CPS jumpers, aka Conscientious Objectors (CO’s), and Triple Nickles deserve special recognition in smokejumper history. They both had their detractors while serving their country during wartime. The records show both groups jumped into the same rugged mountains and fought fires together, side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder. How ironic is that?

Truly, 1940-47 and beyond is a tale of two historically important groups, one civilian and the other Army. Their similar Challenge coins are symbolic of their member’s true grit and unflinching service as jumpers—I choose to carry both coins and with the blessings of both groups will continue to seek written records and stories about the fire season of 1945.

SMOKEJUMPER HISTORY

1940-42 Pioneer Years
1943-45 Civilian Public Service (CPS) Years
*1945 CPS/Triple Nickles
1946-51 WW II Veteran Years
1952-75 College Years
1975-Present Professional Years