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Operation Firefly-Triple Nickles/Myth, Fact and Common Sense

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction ’59) |

Over the years Mark Corbet (LGD-72) has sent me information on the Triple Nickles and Operation Firefly that he has obtained by doing good, basic research. I consider Mark to be the NSA Triple Nickles expert. At the same time, I’ve come up with more information on Firefly.

With the recent release of two books (information covered in my editorial) on the Triple Nickles, I feel it is very important to do a piece on Operation Firefly. Not just the Triple Nickles (TN) involvement but the whole program. There is just too much history being changed. The efforts of our Pioneer Smokejumpers are being forgotten. We’re losing our roots. The USFS can lose or change its history, but it is important that we, as smokejumpers, stay knowledgeable and true to “the best job we ever had.”

This article is not meant to downplay the historic actions of the Triple Nickles and never would have been written without the release of books that portray our “Pioneers” in a negative light. Operation Firefly was a political smokescreen over which the TN had no control. They were asked to do a job for which they received little smokejumping and firefighting training. However, when history is changed, someone needs to challenge those changes.

Some statements are being used in the current books about the Triple Nickles (TN) that are not based on fact:

1. Smokejumping was relatively new in 1945. Smokejumping was actually well established and in its 6th year of operation by that season.

2. Triple Nickles were on the cutting edge of learning this new method of fighting fires. You will see that their training in smokejumping was marginal at best and that their operational techniques were standard military, not USFS, procedures.

3. The TN played an integral part in pioneering the field of smokejumping. Refer to reports below. They were military Airborne pioneers, not pioneer smokejumpers.

4. They (TN) tested equipment and techniques that are now standard in smokejumping. Completely false! You will see it was the lack of using standard smokejumper techniques (cooperative jumper/pilot work, small sticks, low cargo drops, quick response to fire calls, small number of men on a fire), through little fault of their own, that was the biggest detriment to their efforts.

5. The TN used football helmets with facemasks and the USFS adopted the practice. The helmets with facemasks were developed in the 1939 experimental program.

6. The TN learned new techniques that “actually hadn’t been tried yet.” I can find no evidence of any smokejumping techniques developed by the TN that were used by smokejumpers.

7. USFS had been using steerable parachutes for “about a year now (1945).” Frank Derry invented the Derry-slotted parachute in 1942 and even the 1940 chutes were steerable.

In this piece I’m using information from: Final Report Firefly Project (2/5/46 by Neal Rahm, Liaison Officer USFS), Fire Control Narrative Report R-6 1945 (Guy B. Johnson, Admin. Assistant R-6), Summary of Fire Suppression Activities 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion-1945, Silent Siege III by Bert Webber,nSilver Lake Firefly Project Log-1945, Trimotor and Trail by Earl Cooley, and The Triple Nickles by Bradley Biggs.

Fires Jumped By The Triple Nickles

Here’s where fact and history have a real problem. Books and written articles have listed the TN for jumping 32 fires and 1220 fire jumps. I, also, have been using those numbers for years. In reading the books and fire reports for this article, I noticed that the TN did not jump all their fires. They were driven to a number of fires. I cross-checked some of those references and these fires were listed as jump fires.

Going back to the Final Report Firefly Project, we have the actual number of fires involving 555th personnel as totaling 28; 10 by the Chico group and 18 by the Pendleton soldiers. Out of the 28 fires, the number jumped was 15. The number of jumps was 444 by enlisted men. They had been averaging an officer for each 25 men, so that would add 18 for a total of approximately 462 fire jumps.

Without some fire reports from 1945, it is impossible to total the exact number of fire jumps, but 460-470 is reasonably accurate. I have the fires, dates, and number of personnel but do not know which fires were jumped and which ones were pounded.

I’m going to outline Operation Firefly, list some of the myths, state the facts, look for reasons for problems and, by using some common sense, see if we can’t come up with answers not found in the data.


Between November 1944 and April 1945, the Japanese launched approximately 9,300 balloons into the Jet Stream. These paper balloons carried one 33-pound high-explosive bomb and four 11-pound incendiary bombs. The balloons would take about three days to reach the continent and landed in all the western states, Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and as far east as Michigan. Only 297 of these balloons were known to have reached North America. Our forests were wet and snow-covered during these months. The Japanese did not consider the project successful and abandoned the balloon attacks on April 20, 1945. No fires were attributed the
balloon incendiaries during the period Firefly was activated. Actually, no fires were attributed to the balloon bomb program at any time.

Myth or questionable: The USFS requested the help of the military for the 1945 fire season in order to combat the balloon bomb program.

From Firefly Summary:

1. Army Intelligence was aware that no new balloons had arrived over the continent since the middle of April (1945); this fact being later verified by information reaching this country from Japan since the war.

2. The offer of the Army to assist in the protection…

3. The military plan was designed to provide Army assistance to civil agencies……

4. As a supplement to the Ninth Service Command Plan for Fighting Forest Fires, a Joint Air and General Assistance Forest Fire
Fighting Plan was formulated by the Fourth Air Force, Western Defense Command, and designated as the Fire Fly Project….

Conclusion: I see no evidence that supports the USFS claim that the USFS requested help from the military. The above indicates it as a military plan.

Common Sense: The Triple Nickles (TN) had been active since December 1943. However, the military was not integrated and there was a strong resistance to having African-American troops in combat positions. It has been stated in other publications that the military leaders in Europe feared racial tensions would disrupt operations. Would it be any different in the Pacific Theater? Of course not! Since the war in Europe was almost over (VE Day 5/8/45) and the Pacific was nearing the end (Manhattan Project), what better way to avoid this issue than to assign the TN to an operation of “national importance.” I don’t think the USFS had much choice in the acceptance of “the offer.”

We were not short of manpower to fight forest fires. The reports say that many loggers did not like the military coming in and taking their jobs. We had over 425,000 German and Italian POWs in the U.S. at that time. POWs were used to fight fires. We had Italian POWs on the military base where I grew up. They were actually issued passes to visit relatives on weekends in a town 40 miles away.
Mexican crews were also used. A shortage of manpower? That thinking is one step short of a yard.

Organization of Firefly

Plan: Facilitate close coordination with the military forces and the United States Forest Service. To facilitate such movement a rather centralized system of control was believed necessary. Basically, control was vested in two fire control sections – one stationed in San Francisco, California, and the other at Silver Lake, Washington.
Dispatching of ground troops for all agencies within a region was done by the USFS. The Fire Control Section held highly centralized control of Air and Paratroop dispatching.

…Fact: Sounds good, but there were many problems with coordination between military and civilian organizations. Civilian control over the military was a dream and not a reality. I get a bad feeling each time I read the Silver Lake Firefly Project Log-1945.

Common Sense: Can you really picture military taking orders from civilians or vise versa? Do you think the USFS guys, who had been doing the job for four war years, appreciated the inference that they needed military help to do their job?


Ground Troops: 317lst Engineering Battalion
Ten units of 273 men, four officers per unit, stationed from Chico, CA, to Fort Missoula, Montana.

Paratroops: 200 at Pendleton, Oregon, and 100 at Chico, CA.

Air: C-47s at Walla Walla, WA, Chico and Hamilton Field (CA)

Fact: There were close to 3,000 military personnel involved.

Common Sense: Do you see a problem with aircraft not being
located at the same place as the Paratroops?


Nine days with a minimum of 16 hours in the fundamentals of fire. Additional course given in smokejumping, but no days or hours listed. Documents say three practice jumps were taken on flat ground, none into timber or in the mountains.

From the Project Report: “The principal difficulty in training these troops was weaning them away from Army methods which are not always adapted to our conditions. There appeared to be a tendency to disregard civilian instruction. It is strongly recommended that paratroopers for fire duty be given more training in jumping in
mountainous country.”

Common Sense: With bomb disposal training and other aspects of being military, how much actual training did these troops get in wildland firefighting and smokejumping? Only two USFS personnel were listed as training these men: Frank Derry (MSO-40) and Jack Allen (MSO-44). Realistically, how much effective smokejumper training could two men give 300 paratroopers in such a short period of time?

Pilot Training

The C-47 pilots were given no special training. These officers had
little prior training in reading USFS maps, which were in section, township and range, and they were unable to read the latter to the nearest mile.

Common Sense: The success of any smokejumper operation is tied into the working relationship between the jumpers and our pilots. We have to be a tight knit team. Skilled mountain pilots are rare and essential to the smokejumper program.

Results: Cargo was dropped first and from the same altitude as the jumpers. It seems that, in many cases, the pilots determined when the jumpers were to jump. They did not slow the aircraft and cargo was separated from the parachutes and spread over the mountainside. Jumpers did not jump one or two at a time, as normal smokejumper procedures. I’m guessing, that at best, there were sticks of five or more jumpers.

Paratroops - Value and Use

This part of the report shows evaluations at either end of the scale. Region 1 was very critical and did not have good results. Region 5 rated these men right up at the top. Read the report—food for thought.

From the Firefly Report:

“Value in Region 6 (Oregon/Wash) varied from very good to very poor. On some fires action was prompt, without accidents, and suppression work effective. On other fires everything went wrong. As a whole, benefits outweighed liabilities by a narrow margin.

“Region 1 was extremely critical. Training and instruction given were nullified, on the two occasions when jumpers were used, by the pilot and jumpmaster disregarding instructions, resulting in scattering which caused injuries and required extra hours to assemble. Effectiveness on the fire line was very poor.

“In Region 5 (California) the colored paratroopers, both officers and men, were considered superior in morale, physical condition, efficiency and officer leadership to the other troops. Forests using them could not speak too highly of their services, in some cases maintaining that this unit was superior to any trained group they had ever used. The officers were interested and cooperative, maintained fine discipline and were out on the line with their men every minute. Effectiveness on the few fires in Region 5, where jumps were made, was hampered by injuries. Paratroopers would have been more widely used in several instances had C-47 planes been available.
To increase the efficiency of initial attack, it is strongly recommended that a Forest Officer jump with troops.

“Their greatest value results when used in the control of remote fires, providing men are better trained and jumps more carefully made.

“The value of making jumps in force is difficult to measure. Two such jumps were made in Region 6. One hundred troopers were used as follow-up on a 300-acre fire in the Chelan National Forest where the initial attack by 10 Forest Service smoke jumpers failed to hold the fire. For the first time in the Region's history, a large fire in the inaccessible area was controlled within the first work period.

“The other mass jumps by 50 paratroopers in the rough, inaccessible Mt. Baker area proved unsuccessful because of injuries,
scattered jumpers, lost equipment and low morale. The size of the landing area should determine the number of passes necessary to assure placing the jumpers in the desired location.”

From the R-6 Report: “The paratroopers were not well equipped in all respects, poor jumping techniques were used, and jumpmasters and pilots had different ideas as to when and where to jump. In several cases actual or assumed accidents resulted in more man hours being given to taking care of the injured than man hours spent on fires. Jumping equipment was often so badly scattered that an inordinate amount of time was required to find and gather the items together.”

Thoughts: I need to get more records from R-5 but leadership seems to be the difference between the two groups (Pendleton/Chico). As you will see further in this article, injuries are much higher than normal smokejumper operations. Available aircraft is again a problem. You can read between the lines to see that they (TN) were dropped in much larger sticks than USFS smokejumpers, resulting in scattering of jumpers and equipment.


From the Firefly Report: “No accurate accident record is available. Some reports listed only serious accidents and others included those of both a serious and minor nature. A number of accidents occurred and consisted of wrenches, sprains and broken limbs. One fatality was recorded when a paratrooper slipped as he was lowering himself by rope from the tree in which he landed. Many of the accidents were attributed to tree landings and could have been avoided had the men availed themselves of the guiding apparatus on the Derry Chutes. Additional training is the solution for reduction in accidents.”


I’m not convinced that the Triple Nickle used USFS chutes with Derry slots that often and widely. The FS smokejumpers were having problems obtaining enough parachutes for their operation. There would be a tremendous amount of time involved for the extensive modification to install Derry slots and guidelines. With this in mind, does it seem logical that the USFS modified 600 parachutes for the TN? Impossible! The USFS and the military did not even give the TN regulation smokejumper jump suits. The TN used military flight suits with no leg pockets and the letdown rope was tied to their harness or PG bags. I doubt if D-rings were sewed inside the flight suits for letdowns. If the TN could not be provided regulation smokejumper gear, how could they be provided Derry-slotted parachutes?

Let’s go to the visual evidence. One of the most viewed photos of the TN shows them standing in front of a C-47 at Pendleton. They are wearing a military T-7 parachute assembly. Look at the straps, webbing and three-point clip attachments, one at each leg and one at the chest. More identifiably, look at the way the cover is closed with break cord going down the outside grommets. Compare that with the USFS chutes. The final evidence is from a photo from Courage Has No Color, page 80. A great shot of the parachute loft at Pendleton. Note all of the camouflage parachutes.

If you have evidence to show the TN was using USFS Derry-slotted parachutes, please step forward.

From Fire Suppression Training Plan for Specially Designated Army Personnel (Triple Nickles) 1945: “from 8 June to 15 June were oriented in the use of the T-7 assembly** after jumping three jumps, one of which was in heavy timber.”

**T-7 Parachute: Replacement of the Military T-5 model parachute. Static line operated with break cord.

I can’t find any record that the timber jump was actually made. The T-7 designation indicates that USFS Derry-slotted chutes were not used in training.

From Fire Report Aug. 21, 1945, Mt. Baker N.F.: “13 T-7 parachutes, 11 G-canopies (cargo chutes) and 5 helmets with masks lost in mountains.” The T-7 is a military chute and does not have Derry Slots.

General Problems

From the Firefly Report:

(1) “Jump masters were not sufficiently familiar with mountainous and timbered country to properly judge safe landings and have a greater familiarity with ground cover in the back country.”

Cooley: Jumpmaster did not have ANY drift chutes. Would use a man to test the wind. Told Cooley that he (Cooley) was along to tell them WHERE to jump, NOT HOW. “I was just to stay out of the way.” Pilot determined when to jump by rigging a bell and using a red signal light. First stick landed beyond the jump spot into dense small pines. Second stick landed in crags near the edge of a cliff. Third stick had problems and fourth stick decided to stay in the plane.

(2) “Principal Army training had been on flat terrain; boys were timid to jump in mountainous country; need thorough practice jumps in areas of this nature.”

From R-6 Report: “Plane radioed to McCall that territory too rough for jumping and will bring the Paratroopers back to Boise.”

From Silver Lake Report: “Aug. 21,1945, Mt Baker N.F - 34 enlisted men and two officers, dropped. Casualties (read injuries): 3 by parachute, 1 from letdown procedure, 1 enlisted man broken leg above knee, 1 enlisted man knee out of place, 1 enlisted man crushed chest.13 T-7 parachutes, 11 G-canopies and 5 helmets with masks lost in mountains.” (36 jumpers, 24 parachutes lost, 7 serious injuries)

Chelan N.F.-22 men dropped, eight serious injuries.

(3) “Lack of confidence in the Derry Chute. Paratroops should have considerable practice and observation of the successful use of this chute.” (I question the availability of this chute-see above)

(4) “Tendency existed for the Army to jump too many men at a
time, frequently resulting in scattering, especially in fast ships. More passes should be made over areas where suitable landing areas are limited.”

Pilots - (Big Problems)

From the Firefly Report: Many of the criticisms from the field involved C-47 ships secured from whatever source available to meet emergency situations. Pilots not connected with the project had no great interest in these jobs; they were impatient to complete the tasks and rapidly and return to their bases.

“Cargo dropping efficiency varied from 60-90 percent. Better results could have been secured had the crews been trained in precision dropping prior to the fire season.”

Kenneth Diller (CJ-43-45) July 28, 1945, Bunker Hill Fire:

“About sunup, five DC-3s flew over. One started dropping equipment about a mile from us and the fire before we were able to direct their attention to the landing area near the fire. By this time the wind had died down providing ideal conditions for the 100 all-black airborne group from Camp Pendleton to land.”

From the Firefly Report: “Dropping efficiency during an emergency situation on any one Forest did not improve because of the practice of continually replacing pilots and crews.

“In some cases pilots insisted on dropping a large number of chutes at a single pass. This created serious difficulties, for ground crews necessarily had to retrieve the scattered cargo in rough, heavily timbered terrain.

“Many failures in Region 5 can be attributed to the small burlap chute which was used. They cannot withstand the strain of drops from fast planes. It is recommended that the large commercial parachute be adopted.

“Pilots should be alerted at all times. Considerable time was lost in trying to contact pilots after 5 p.m.

“Of the seven C-47 planes assigned to the project, 50-70% were normally out of commission. Dispatching was frequently delayed because of lack of project planes and need to secure ships from other sources and inability to contact flight officers at night.”

The report continues: “Paratroops and troop carrier planes should be stationed at the same base.”

From the R-6 Report: “losses of equipment (from Army airplanes) were higher than usual in dropping.”


From the Firefly Report: “Of the seven C-47 planes assigned to the project, 50-70% were normally out of commission. In August four additional ships were received but were so badly in need of major overhauls that no relief to the project resulted.

“Dispatching was frequently delayed because of lack of project planes and inability to contact section or flight officers at night.”

From the Firefly Report: “The pilots of the L-5 (Stinson used for observation and patrol) planes are to be commended for their interest and fine cooperation. Of the 32 ships assigned, 19 were surveyed for condemnation during the middle of July. Of the remaining planes, an average of 46% were usually grounded.”

Thoughts: The failure of this part of the program was easy to pick up early on. Pilots were obtained from any available source and had no connection to the Triple Nickles. They certainly were not trained in mountain flying and dropped the cargo and men from the same altitude and at a high speed. It was noted that the pilots seemed to be in a hurry to complete the mission and return to base.

In one report I read, the military pilot said he would fly any place the FS smokejumper pilot would fly. When he saw the FS pilot go down into canyon to drop his cargo, the military pilot went home.

Racism was evident in Pendleton and the military. The TN officers were not allowed in the Officers Club at Pendleton. It seems logical, that under these conditions, the pilots in the front would have little or no connection to the men in the back. Note the mention of their impatience to complete the task and return to base. This translates, in my opinion, to dropping men in large sticks and at a fast rate of speed with little or no concern about their safety.

Fire Control Sections

From the Firefly Report: “Regions 1 and 6 were critical of the Fire Control’s place in the organization. Excessive time (was) required for coordination and the many time-consuming long distance telephone calls. Region 5 had unusually fine success with the San Francisco Fire Control. The Section was staffed by top-flight project officers with overall authority. The headquarters was within walking distance of the Regional Office. The officers were direct actionists, impatient with delay and, when emergencies were severe, flew the ships on long night flights and on difficult dropping jobs.”


I think that we can see that Operation Firefly was an intent by the military to put armed forces, and, in particular the Triple Nickles, to use in something of “National Importance.” This type of an operation required a tremendous amount of planning and cooperation between the USFS and the military. That did not happen.

As far as the Triple Nickles go, I would make the following

Their involvement in Firefly was totally an effort to keep them from being integrated into combat units in the Pacific Theater.

Operation Firefly was not an idea thought up by the USFS.

The TN were rushed into a job (smokejumping) for which they were given little and insufficient training. They had to be trained in bomb disposal plus wildland firefighting plus smokejumping. They were trained paratroopers.

They did not have proper smokejumper equipment. Film and photos show Army A.F. flight suits with no leg pockets. Information on letdown ropes vary from 100’ to 33’ (100’ cut into three pieces for the R-5 group). Film shows individuals popping a reserve and sliding down the suspension lines to the ground instead of using USFS letdown techniques.

Their aircraft and parachute availability was such that quickly answering a fire call took a matter of a day or so. They were not off the ground in a short period of time.

The availability of parachutes was also another problem. For reasons as stated in the text, I don’t believe that they had more than a few USFS Derry-slotted parachutes. Dispatches were delayed for lack of parachutes. In a time where the USFS jumpers were operating with a slim number of parachutes, many TN chutes were left hanging in the trees.

The lack of willingness to take advice from civilian (USFS) spotters shows that it is tough to give suggestions to the military. “You are here to show us where to jump, not when.”

Being a trained paratrooper does not make a person qualified physically and mentally to be a smokejumper. Jumping into timber, mountains, rocks and cliffs is a very different situation.

The coordination between the pilots and the Triple Nickles was so poor that it almost doomed them to failure. Pilots should not determine when the jumper leaves the plane or where the jump spot is located. If they are not skilled enough to drop the cargo at a lower level, equipment will be scattered over miles. Miles in the mountains translates into days recovering that equipment.

There is so much documentation that I did not put into this article as it is running too long at this point. I’ve tried to present an overall picture of Operation Firefly. To call it a success, a person would have to be wildly optimistic.

What we do need to do as smokejumpers is to keep this in perspective. The Triple Nickles were involved in five months of the 75 years of smokejumping. They were not “Pioneer” smokejumpers and did not develop or test new equipment and smokejumper techniques.

We should also recognize that they 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. They are Pioneer Airborne Troops and have established their place in military and U.S. history.

There will continue to be books written on this subject based on myth and inaccuracies and the USFS will continue with press releases based on sources 70 years removed. I hope some of us can set the record straight.

The USFS needs to recognize this and honor those who were the Pioneer Smokejumpers. Do not forget Francis Lufkin, Frank Derry, Earl Cooley, Glenn Smith and the others. They are our roots.