First African-American smokejumpers take their last jump

Deidra L. McGee
Office of Communication, U.S. Forest Service
October 23rd, 2013 at 2:15PM

In the summer of 1945, a group of African-American paratroopers for the U.S. Army became smokejumpers assigned to a special Forest Service mission known as “Operation Firefly.” Also known as the Triple Nickles, they represented the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion for colored soldiers who set out to make a jump for change.

Two of these valiant, pioneering men recently passed away or “took their last jump” as the Triple Nickles Association likes to say.

Lt. Col. Roger S. Walden, 91, took his last jump on Sept. 17. Walden will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery at a later date. Second Lt. Walter Morris, 92, took his last jump on Oct. 13 and was memorialized on Oct. 19 in Palm Coast, Fla.

The Forest Service honored Morris, Walden and Clarence Beavers—the last surviving member of the Triple Nickles— during a March 2010 ceremony in Washington, D.C. 

“These highly skilled paratroopers used their military training in a different kind of combat few people were aware of,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in 2010. “Fighting the fires that had the potential to do great harm to the nation in a time of war was dangerous, important work.”

The Triple Nickles’ original role was to minimize damage caused by balloon bombs launched by the Japanese across the Pacific Ocean with the intent to start forest fires in the western U.S. In the end, few of the incendiary devices reached U.S. soil, but the Triple Nickles were instrumental in helping the Forest Service fight naturally-caused fires.

“The Army kept Operation Firefly quiet because they didn't want the Japanese to know that the balloon bombs had actually reached the U.S. coastline,” Morris said.

Prior to his death, Morris was to receive the prestigious ONYX Lifetime Achievement Award and the Legion of Merit Award on Oct. 26 during the 10th Annual ONYX Awards. The honors will be awarded posthumously. The Onyx awards recognize the accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans and those of the African Diaspora.

Both Morris and Walden hold a very special place in Forest Service history.  They will always be remembered for their bravery, sacrifice and groundbreaking achievements in wildland firefighting. We praise them for their courage and heroic service to the Nation with dignity, grace and valor. During a time of war and social prejudices, the commitment to serve their country through wildland firefighting was challenging and unique.

The Triple Nickles served in more airborne units, in peace and war, than any other parachute group in history. The 555th paved the way for African-American soldiers to become part of the prestigious 82nd Airborne Division, when the Triple Nickles were absorbed into that division after the integration of the military in 1947. The 555th Parachute Infantry Association, located in Tampa, Fla., was founded in 1979 to keep alive the legacy of the Triple Nickles. There are more than 1,000 members in 28 Triple Nickles’ chapters across the country.