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The Triple Nickles-An Update

by Chuck Sheley |

Recently "Parade Magazine" came out with an article on the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. This unit was called the Triple Nickles and an all African-American unit. The first smokejumper fatality of Malvin Brown, a member of the Triple Nickles.

Mark Corbet (LGD-74) has done extensive research into Triple Nickle history and I think it is time to re-read his article from Smokejumper magazine in 2006.

The Death of PFC Malvin L. Brown:
“In The Interest of Public Welfare”
Smokejumper Magazine
By MARK CORBET(LaGrande ’74)

Throughout 2003, each of the nation’s nine smokejumper bases was presented with a plaque honoring the 30 smokejumpers whom have died in the line of duty since the program’s inception in 1939. At that time little was known about Army PFC Malvin L. Brown, the first name on each of these plaques. Since the plaques were presented, additional information about Malvin’s life has been found in period newspapers, the National Archives, Army records, U.S. Census reports and interviews with those who worked with him.

The 1920 National Census places Malvin’s family in Baltimore, Md., nine months prior to his birth on Oct. 11, 1920. His “Enlistment Card” confirms his place of birth as Maryland. He was the fifth child of Steve and Ethel Brown. According to Army documents, Malvin joined the U.S. Army in Philadelphia, Pa., on Nov. 9, 1942, at the age of 22. He listed his home address at that time as Haverford, Pa.. From his military “Emergency Contact” form, we know that shortly after joining the Army he married Edna L. Brown, and that during World War III she was living in Narberth, Pa., about three miles east of Haverford. She was also listed as his primary beneficiary, followed by his sister, Dorothy Atley, of Haverford, Pa., and his mother, Ethel Green, of York, Pa.

At that time, few African Americans were allowed in combat positions. Most were assigned to service units working in supply, transportation, security or food service. At some time after taking Army basic training, Malvin heard about an all-volunteer African American paratrooper unit made up of transfers recruited from other Army units.

Paratrooper volunteers were required to be 18 to 32 years old, not over six feet tall, and not over 185 pounds. Malvin met these requirements, volunteered and was accepted by the newly formed 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. At first he was stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga., for paratrooper and infantry training. Then in July of 1944, he was relocated to Camp Mackall, N.C., for combat training. From there he entered training as an Army Medic.

Some military brass doubted that African American soldiers had the ability, intelligence and fortitude to be paratroopers. Malvin was one of hundreds who would prove them wrong that year. Once trained, the 555th could not be deployed until they reached battalion strength. For a variety of reasons, this did not or was not allowed to happen.

Then on May 5, 1945, orders were received. The 555th’s new permanent duty station would soon be Pendleton, Ore. They traveled by train across the U.S. in just a few days. Segregation was the norm in parts of the country at that time. Many restaurants, restrooms, rail cars and drinking fountains were unavailable to these soldiers as they traveled west. Even German POWs were allowed more access to facilities.

Their reception in Pendleton, Ore., was similarly cool. A community of only a few thousand people, it was known for its rodeos and cowboy traditions. The locals were unprepared for the arrival of nearly 200 African-American men in their town. The fact that a large percentage of their own men were away fighting in Europe and the Pacific only fueled the concerns of some locals. It is said that only two bars and one Chinese restaurant in town would serve them.

The attitude between the locals and the men of the 555th was said to be distant, but not hostile. The 555th had orders to avoid going into town. The Base Commander tried to provide on-post entertainment for them in the form of baseball, basketball and handball activities. The 555th even made a demonstration jump for the people of Pendleton. When leave was granted, it often included transportation to one of the larger West Coast cities.

Known as the second best kept secret of World War II, next to the Manhattan Project, Japanese balloon bombs had begun arriving in North America during 1944 by way of high altitude winds that would eventually be called the jet stream. These mostly-paper balloons, filled with hydrogen, carried four incendiary bombs and one antipersonnel explosive charge.

Japan launched more than 9,000 balloons in all, and it is known that over 300 of them reached North America. As the 555th moved operations to Oregon, a woman and five children on a church picnic happened upon a downed balloon in south-central Oregon near the town of Bly. They were all killed when one of them tried to move it and it exploded.

As the war closed in on their homeland, Tokyo Radio announced that Japan had launched attacks on the North American continent by means of a new secret weapon. The report read in part, “Explosions and fires caused by Japanese balloon bombs have struck terror in the hearts of the people of the central and western districts of North America. Since last fall, fires have raged in the cities and forests of the United States and Canada.”

Even though the report was vastly over stated, U.S. war planners were concerned that balloon bombs might ignite massive forest fires during the coming summer of 1945, diverting manpower and resources away from the war effort. Intelligence reports suggested that future balloons might also be used to carry chemical or biological agents, such as those used by Japan in China. A massive civilian and military effort was put into motion to combat the threat. One of several ways the war planners addressed this “unusual risk” was to cross-train paratroopers as smokejumpers and bomb disposal experts and make them available to western forest fire managers.

Since 1940, the Forest Service had been using airplanes and parachutes to deliver men and equipment to remote backcountry fires throughout the West. The Forest Service would put the soldiers of the 555th through intensive training. It began on May 22, 1945, with two weeks of fire suppression training. During the third week, they were trained in bomb disposal.

Then, starting June 15, group after group of them entered a new kind of jump training. They learned to land in and remove themselves from trees and to recover their equipment and parachutes from those trees. They each made two jumps into clearings and one into heavy forest.

Their parachute was a new maneuverable type designed by civilian trainer Frank Derry (MSO-40). It made circling turns possible giving them a wider and safer choice of where they landed. Now these paratroopers would also be known as “Smokejumpers.” They would deliberately be doing something paratroopers usually try very hard to avoid, landing in trees. Their mission would be highly classified, a top secret plan for the recovery and destruction of Japanese balloon bombs with the added mission of suppressing forest fires started by those bombs or by lightning.

The arriving balloon bombs and use of Army troops was to be kept secret in order to prevent the Japanese from gauging how effective the balloons had been during the previous months. If these African American Paratroopers were not allowed to fight elsewhere, parachuting into rugged mountainous terrain and forests to battle forest fires would be a way they could do their part for the war effort and demonstrate their willingness to face danger when given the chance.

In a recent interview, one member of the 555th indicated that Malvin Brown was a late arrival at the Pendleton base and was just beginning his smokejumper training. He arrived late due to taking training as a medic.

The 555th’s medics were probably kept very busy. In the six months the Battalion spent as smokejumpers, more than 30 men suffered injuries. One report from the Mt. Baker National Forest listed the following injuries — one broken leg above knee, one knee out of place, and one crushed chest. Another from the Chelan National Forest reported one broken leg between hip and knee, one internal injury, and two sprained ankles.

This may seem excessive by today’s standards but was in fact quite remarkable when one realizes that on average they jumped 37 men per fire. Factoring in their rudimentary parachutes, minimal training and that spotters sometimes judged wind speed and direction solely by looking at the smoke, their low injury rate was nothing short of extraordinary.

One member of the Pendleton-based 555th put it this way: “These were no easy jumps. The purpose of the jump was landing in a tree, because if you didn’t land on a tree and you landed on the ground, God knows what you were going to hit.”

Offering another viewpoint, Base Commander Bradley Biggs recalled in his book “The Triple Nickles,” “While we were trained to handle ourselves if we landed in trees, most of us went for the clearings from force of habit and past experience.”

On Monday, Aug. 6, 1945, a call came to Pendleton for 15 military smokejumpers to fly to Medford, pick up a guide and jump fires near there. According to a dispatcher’s logbook, “All of the Forest Service jumpers (at the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base) have jumped and there are still lots of fires unattended.”

This initial direction to go to Medford and back up the Siskiyou jumpers probably led military commanders to assume that the fires this planeload of men would jump was on the Siskiyou. In fact, their mission took them north from Medford for 85 miles to the Umpqua National Forest.

The medic normally assigned to this group was sick. Malvin volunteered to fill in for him on this particular day, even though he had not yet completed all of his smokejumper training.

The Umpqua had several fires on which they wanted to use smokejumpers. Six men jumped two fires north of Diamond Lake, near the crest of the Cascade Mountains. The rest of the planeload then headed for another fire further west near Steamboat Creek.

Nine jumpers, including Malvin, would jump this fire. Six more would jump the next morning. The fire was located near Lemon Butte, 38 miles northeast of Roseburg, Ore., in Lane County. At a much lower elevation than the first two fires, this one was burning in the tall timber of western Oregon, where 200-foot tall trees are common.

According to Forest Service records, the fire was located south of the summit of Lemon Butte on a small side ridge. With the help of a 1946 air photo, it can be seen that a spotter, looking for a good jump spot near the fire, would likely select a circular two-acre opening located about halfway up the south slope of the butte.

Just to the southeast and downhill from this opening, a small drainage forms and falls away steeply to the bottom of the canyon. This drainage is filled with old-growth trees. Jumping for the opening from the usual 1,200 feet, it would not have taken much wind on that summer afternoon for one or more of the nine jumpers to end up in this nearby drainage and its massive trees.

The reports say Malvin landed in the top of a very tall, leaning fir tree. Normal procedure to get out of a tree would be to attach a rope to himself and his parachute, then one at a time, disconnect the metal fasteners that connected him to his parachute and slide down his rope to the ground. No one knows for sure what went wrong, but on Aug. 6, Malvin began to slide down his rope but somehow lost his hold on it. Reports say he fell approximately 150 feet into a rocky creek bed far below. Death was believed to be instantaneous. Cause of death was officially listed as basal skull fracture and cerebral hemorrhage.

Malvin Brown’s 150-foot fall was probably due in part to the length of rope he had been given and in part to the fact that he had not yet completed all of his smokejumper training. The Triple Nickle Web site and Lt. Col. Bradley Biggs’ book “The Triple Nickles” both indicate that the 555th’s letdown ropes were 50-feet long.

Missoula, the source of the 555th’s equipment during 1945, also used 50-foot ropes through 1947, according to sources. The combined length of his parachute and the distance he fell indicates the tree in which he landed must have been nearly 180-feet tall. When Malvin landed in that tree, he would have been suspended among its green branches and unable to see the ground.

Threading his way through the limbs as he descended in that leaning tree, Malvin would have eventually emerged from the canopy on the downhill side of the tree due to its lean. At this point, an awful reality would have presented itself. The rope from which he was hanging came nowhere near the ground, and he could not climb back up the rope into the tree’s stronger branches.

Having not yet completed all of his training, he may not have learned how to tie a knot in his rope so he could hang there until help arrived. With the extreme stress he was now under, clear thinking would be difficult. We can only guess what happened next. Did he lose hold of his rope while trying to grab a nearby branch? Did he fail to see the end of his rope coming in time and slid off the end of it? Or did he hold onto the rope until his strength gave out? The end results were the same regardless of why or how it happened.

Headlines in the “Roseburg News Review” on Wednesday, Aug. 8, read, “Paratrooper Dies in Forest Fire Fight…One Army Negro paratrooper was killed and another critically injured.” One of the officers who had jumped the Lemon Butte Fire with Malvin had suffered a spinal fracture. Newspapers in seven of Oregon’s major cities each reported Malvin’s death in their Aug. 8, 1945 issues. That same day, each of those newspapers also reported the first-ever use of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

One of those newspaper articles suggests that someone may have tried to cover up the fact that the paratroopers’ letdown ropes were inadequate for the tall timber of the lower Umpqua. As stated previously, the paratroopers’ ropes were reported by multiple sources to be 50 feet long.

There is, however, one exception. The “Roseburg News Review” newspaper story dated Aug. 8, 1945, reads in part “…Each jumper is equipped with 200 feet of rope…” It is unlikely that a reporter would make up the 200-foot rope length on his own, and none of the Forest Service smokejumper bases elsewhere in the country were using 200-foot ropes.

Did the U.S. Army, who held tight control over the press during World War II, provide the newspaper with false information in an attempt to cover up the fact that the paratroopers’ ropes were inadequate for the tall timber they had parachuted into? If a newspaper reported paratroopers were given 50-foot ropes while jumping into or near 200-foot trees, the public might well have demanded an explanation.

According to newspaper reports, his fellow paratroopers carried the body of Malvin Brown down to the trailhead. They arrived the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 8, two days after he had jumped. Topographic maps and old air photos show that they would have traveled through timber and brush, down an 80-percent slope for 1,000 feet to the North Fork of Cedar Creek.

Next, they would have had to carry him three and one half miles down that creek, without the aid of a trail, to the Steamboat Creek trail. Finally, he was carried the remaining 12 miles to the nearest road. The commanding officer at Pendleton announced to the Battalion, on that same day, that PFC Malvin L. Brown had died “in the execution of a special mission in the interests of the public welfare and the Army.”

On Aug. 9, an investigator for the Forest Service arrived in Roseburg, Ore., to look into the cause of Malvin’s death. His name was Frank Derry, the man who had designed the parachute the 555th was jumping and the person in charge of training all parachutists employed by the Forest Service.

No copy of his report has been located.
According to the Army Inspecting Surgeon’s Report, Malvin’s remains arrived in Walla Walla, Wash., on Aug. 8 at 1600. Two days later, on Aug. 10, a military escort departed Pendleton, Ore., with orders to accompany his body back to Narberth, Pa., for a military service and internment. It was recommended that the family not be allowed to view the remains.

The Army paid for his casket, a hearse and transport to Pennsylvania. His wife, Edna, paid the cost of his internment. The U.S Army paid her back by government voucher nearly two months later on Oct. 4, 1945. No information has been found to indicate where he was buried.

To date, no records have been found which indicate that his wife ever received any kind of a pension or compensation. He made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, yet the U.S. Army and the Veterans Administration have no record of where he is buried, so he receives no recognition as a veteran.

Malvin left behind, in Pennsylvania, his mother and father, at least two brothers and two sisters, and a wife. Due to the secrecy of the mission he was on, they may never have learned anything about the work he was doing and how he died. Efforts to locate even one of those family members continue but have been unsuccessful.

Private First Class Malvin L. Brown holds a significant place in the history of smokejumping and the 555th. He was the first smokejumper to perish in the line of duty and the only member of the 555th to die while they were assigned to the western states.