Category Archives: Paratrooper for Life

Equal in All Ways; Fighting the Firefly

“There was a terrible explosion. Twigs flew through the air, pine needles began to fall, dead branches and dust, and dead logs went up” said Richard Barnhouse to Oregon’s Mail Tribune, describing the detonation of a Japanese bomb.

However, Barnhouse not talking about combat in the Pacific Theater; World War II Japan was attacking the United States.

The Japanese fire balloon campaign, known as Fu-Go, involved hydrogen-filled balloons carried across the ocean by the Jet Stream to the US’ West Coast, where they would drop their payload of explosives.

This screen grab from a Navy training film features an elaborate balloon bomb.

The men of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment answered the nation’s call to fight back. Never reaching the necessary manning to fight in the European Theater, the 555th PIR received orders on May 5th, 1945 to report to Oregon and be assigned to the 9th Services Command.

Their primary mission; recovery and destruction of Japanese balloon-bombs; firefighting was their secondary mission according to a report published by the U.S. Army War College.

Arriving at Pendleton Field, Oregon a week later, the men of the 555th PIR conducted more training in land navigation, medical aid and physical endurance while waiting for their equipment to arrive.

A Japanese Fu-Go balloon with its payload of charges suspended below.

Even there, the all African American unit faced discrimination much like that of the deep South when training at Fort Benning. The paratroopers found it difficult to buy a drink or a meal in the town of Pendleton and the commander of the base did not want them mixing with the base’s population. Undaunted, the paratroopers continued taking pride in their skills and staged demonstration jumps for local civilians.

By that time, however, the Fu-Go campaign was tapering off, the Japanese reportedly having used it as an effort to improve morale among factory workers, telling them the balloons were causing havoc in Los Angeles or Seattle.

They soon received training by the U.S. Forest Service to parachute into heavily wooded areas and fight fires caused by the Fu-Go balloons, careless campers and lightning. Specially equipped and trained, the “Triple Nickle” paratroopers became the forefathers of modern-day Smokejumpers.

Based at Pendleton Field, Oregon with a detachment at Chico, the 555th PIR responded to 36 fire calls, making more than 1,200 individual jumps.

More than thirty paratroopers sustained injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to broken legs and even crushed chests. Tragically, Malvin L. Brown, a medic assigned to Headquarters Company, died August 6, 1945 after falling while trying to descend from a tree.

While at Camp Pendleton, the 555th PIR would establish another historic landmark. On July 25, 1945, fifty-four men conducted a full combat-equipment jump with live ammunition. After their initial assault on their objective, they marked it and called in Naval aircraft piloted by trainees to bomb and strafe it. This marked the first time African-American paratroopers to conduct a joint operation with the Navy.

Even with the accomplishment of these tremendous feats, their most important footsteps were yet to come.

Headquarters, Cobalt Paratroopers Conduct Sunset Jump

Fort Bragg-based paratroopers conducted a static-line jump Friday, February 1, 2019 to maintain their proficiency at airborne operations and follow-on missions.

Paratroopers from Headquarters, Headquarters Company and the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion conducted a combat-equipment static-line airborne operation onto Fort Bragg’s Normandy Drop Zone and rehearsed their roles as part of an Assault Command Post afterwards.

Equal in All Ways but Not Treated Equal

“When I got my (paratrooper) wings, MPs stopped me and said ‘You are out of uniform soldier.’  The paratrooper uniform was distinct with special insignia on the cap, the pants bloused into jump boots (instead of regular dress shoes).  I think a lot of it was the Army didn’t put out that it had black paratroopers,” said Sgt. Jordan J. Corbett, a member of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment, in a 2010 interview with Bill Rufty of The Ledger.[1]

Sgt. Jordan J. Corbett

Though paratroopers in every way, men of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment faced fierce discrimination in 1944 as they trained at Fort Benning’s Jump School and conducted drills at Camp Mackall and Fort Bragg in anticipation of WWII combat missions.

“We as colored soldiers in Ft. Benning could not go into the main Post Exchange. We looked in [and] could see the German and Italian prisoners of war sitting down at the same table with white soldiers.” said 2nd Lt. Walter Morris.[2]

On Mar. 4, 1944, the first officers of the all African American unit graduated parachute school where, due to the comradery of the airborne community, they faced a measure of equality from the all-white cadre. In a review before Brig. Gen. Gaither, 1st Lt. Jasper Ross, 2nd Lt. Bradley Biggs, 2nd Lt. Clifford Allen, 2nd Lt. Edward Baker, 2nd Lt. Warren Cornelius and 2nd Lt. Edin Wills, along with the enlisted African-American paratroops who graduated before them, would form the cadre in charge of receiving and training the men of the “Triple Nickles.[3]

Then-1st. Sgt. Walter Morris, right, prepares for his first jump with the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

The African-American paratroopers had to use separate facilities for “Colored” people and had to use extreme caution whenever they went off-post; police would incarcerate them at the slightest provocation instead of fining them. Racism was also present on-post; the paratroopers could use the theater in the airborne area on Fort Bragg, but they were not welcome in the non-commissioned or officer’s clubs said a Mar. 1990 study published by the U.S. Army War College.[4]

However, the all-volunteer 555th PIR faced problems trying to grow to its authorized strength of 29 officers, one warrant officer and 600 enlisted. With many of the recruits not meeting the demanding expectations or vigorous physical requirements of the four-week long parachute school, the battalion never reached more than sixty-six percent of its authorized strength.

It was this reason why the “Triple Nickles” would receive orders for a top-secret mission on America’s West Coast.

Author’s Note: “Equal in All Ways” is a multi-part history of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment. You can find previous stories here.

[1] Rufty, Bill. “Paratrooper Fought Two Foes: Enemy, Racism,” The Ledger.

(accessed February 2, 2019).

[2]“Walter Morris,” Veteran’s History Project. (accessed February 2, 2019).

[3] Colonel Jordan, James F. “The Triple Nickles, A Genesis for Change,” U.S. Army War College. (accessed February 2, 2019.)

[4] ibid