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The Triple Nickles: A history of service, an enduring legacy

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As part of our observance of Black History Month in the USDA Forest Service, we want to acknowledge and celebrate groups and individuals who have contributed to enriching and improving our history as a public serving agency. We are also here to celebrate America’s history of ethnic and cultural diversity, a history that has contributed so much to our vibrancy as a nation.

Our mission at the Forest Service revolves around protecting our American heritage. Part of that heritage is the forests and rangelands, the lands and waters that provide us with so many values and benefits. And the men of the Triple Nickles are an integral part of that heritage.

The brave men of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion confronted some of the greatest challenges our nation has ever faced: our greatest economic challenge, the Great Depression … followed by our greatest foreign war, World War II. In both endeavors, they prevailed.

These brave men also triumphed against the deep-seated racism, segregation and discrimination prevalent throughout the country in the midst of all the geopolitical and social turmoil. These men serve as models for Americans of every background.

Memebers of the Triple Nickles
The first 17 men, graduating class of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

 

Triple Nickle members
The officers of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

 

The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was nicknamed the Triple Nickles because of its numerical designation and because 17 of the original 20-member "colored test platoon" came from the 92nd Infantry Division, or Buffalo Division. Hence, the nickname Buffalo Nickles, symbolized by three buffalo nickels joined in a triangle.
At a time when the Army traditionally relegated black service members to menial jobs, the Triple Nickles succeeded in becoming the nation's first all-black parachute infantry test platoon, company and battalion.

The Triple Nickles test platoon was made up of exceptional men specially selected for the task. They were former university students, top-notch professional athletes and veteran non-commissioned officers.

The Triple Nickles, trained as elite airborne soldiers, were combat-ready for duty in Europe by late 1944, when the allied armies were still pushing German forces out of France. Over time, the Triple Nickles served in more airborne units, in peace and war, than any other parachute group in history.

But the changing tides of the war brought a different assignment during World War II. The Japanese were floating balloon bombs across the Pacific. Although the bombs didn’t do much damage to population centers, they were pretty good at starting forest fires. The Forest Service needed help.

As a result, in early 1945 the Triple Nickles received secret orders for a permanent change of station. This special assignment, called Operation Firefly, saw them transferred in May 1945 to Pendleton, Oregon. There, they were assigned to the 9th Services Command and trained by the Forest Service.

The Triple Nickles answered some 36 fire calls and made more than 1,200 individual jumps during the summer of 1945, operating out of Oregon and California. They did a job that requires great skill and courage, and they operated in all of the northwestern states, including Montana.

During fire operations, the battalion suffered numerous injuries, but only one fatality. Malvin L. Brown, a medic assigned to the battalion’s headquarters company, died on Aug. 6, 1945, after falling during a letdown from a tree on what was then Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon. It later became Umpqua National Forest when boundaries between the two forests changed. Brown’s death is the first recorded smokejumper fatality during a fire jump.

After Germany surrendered, the Triple Nickles continued their smokejumping mission for six more months. The battalion was finally deactivated in 1947, but its success was undeniable.

General James Gavin, then commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, recommended that the Triple Nickles be integrated and reborn as the 3rd Battalion of the 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment. This decision eventually paved the way for African American soldiers to become part of the 82nd Airborne Division, one of the most prestigious units in the U.S. Army.

The Forest Service is proud to help in keeping the legacy of the Triple Nickles alive. Their story is one of service to the nation on behalf of conservation in a time of dire need.

Members of the Triple Nickles out on the flight deck
Members of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion at Pendleton Army Airfield getting briefed before taking off to drop on a wildfire in the summer of 1945. Photograph courtesy of the National Archives via Eastern Washington University.
Paratroopers jumping
555th Parachute Infantry Battalion parachuting into a forest in Oregon to fight a wilderness fire caused by Japanese balloon bombs. Smoke from the fire can be seen in the lower right. May 1945. USDA Forest Service photo.
Paratroopers jumping
555th Parachute Infantry Battalion conducting some of their first test jumps as smokejumpers. Circa 1945. USDA Forest Service photo.
Smokejumoers getting ready
555th Parachute Infantry Battalion prepping on board a C-47 as they conduct some of their first test jumps as smokejumpers. Circa 1945. USDA Forest Service photo.
Smokejumers getting ready
Two more members of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion getting ready to jump out of a C-47. Circa 1945. USDA Forest Service photo.
Smokejumpers out the door of the plane
A member of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion heads out the door of a C-47 as part of the first test jumps as smokejumpers. Circa 1945. USDA Forest Service photo.
Sitting on the tarmac
A trooper in full gear waits for the order to board ship at Pendleton Army Airfield in summer 1945. Photo courtesy of National Archives via Eastern Washington University.

 

Smokejummpers putting out fires
Once on the ground, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion wielded shovels and other standard firefighting equipment in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service. Photo courtesy of National Archives via Eastern Washington University.

 

https://www.fs.usda.gov/inside-fs/delivering-mission/excel/triple-nickles-historyof-service-enduring-legacy