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Black Paratroopers Where WWII Smokejumpers

by Carl Gidlund (MSO 1958) |

Few associated with the aerial fire suppression program know that our ranks include a group of Black smokejumpers.

In 1945, they helped save millions of acres of Northwest forests from fires ignited by lightning and balloon bombs launched by our Japanese adversaries.

During that last year of World War II, authorities feared that the enemy incendiary devices and lightning would spark a fire storm that would blacken the forests of the Western United States and Canada.

Indeed, the crackling hot spring produced thunder storms, and with most trained fire fighters under arms, the Forest Service asked the Army for help.

The War Department responded by assigning the job to the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the world's first all-Black -- and only -- paratrooper unit.

A unit officer, now-retired Lt. Col. Bradley Biggs, recalls the mission, dubbed by the War Department "Operation Firefly." In a unit history, "The Triple Nickles," he writes:

"Working in teams... 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."

That duty required special training and equipment.

"We knew how to jump from airplanes," Col. Biggs writes. "But the heavily forested areas of the Northwest presented drop zones that were more difficult and 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 Forest Service maps were something new. We were used to explosives, but we had little, if any, experience in the disarming of bombs.

"Fire fighting, of course, was an entirely new experience."

Training included demolitions, timber jumping, let downs and fire fighting. The Forest Service issued the men football helmets with wire face masks, however, the new smokejumpers had to don fleece-lined flying jackets and trousers rather than canvas jump suits.

After three training jumps, battalion members were dispatched to two bases. The largest contingent was stationed in Pendleton, Oregon, for deployment in Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho.

The other group worked out of Chico, California, to provide coverage for nearby forests.

From mid-July to early October 1945, the Black smokejumpers participated in 36 missions and amassed more than 1,200 jumps.

They suffered casualties.

One man was killed while lowering himself from a 15O-foot tree with a let-down rope. He slipped or lost his grip and plunged to the rocks below.

Thirty others suffered injuries that included a crushed chest, broken legs and a fractured spine.

"By late autumn 1945, it became apparent that Operation Firefly was nearing its end," writes Col. Biggs. "The hot dry season would soon be over. More important, a rapid demobilization of the military was underway. Civilians would resume many operations that had been assigned to military units, including ours."

The battalion was shipped to North Carolina where it was initially assigned to the 13th Airborne Division, and then to the 82nd Airborne Division.

Nearly a half-century later, the Forest Service will honor the men of the 555th Parachute Infantry during a ceremony on the Mall in Washington, D.C. to celebrate Smokey Bear's 50th birthday.

If you're on the Mall that day, look for a knot of aged, Black vets, standing mighty tall. Then say, "howdy." They're our kind of people.