ODVA Black History Month 2023: The Triple Nickles

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In honor of Black History Month, the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs is spotlighting the military service of Black service members through history and profiling the many contributions they made to preserve our nation’s democracy and keep the United States safe and free.

The series will include historical articles recounting the achievements of several extraordinary Black military units who served before the United States Armed Forces was desegregated by presidential order in 1948, as well as profiles of Black service members who served during more recent eras of conflict.

In November 1944, a group of 300 black soldiers stationed at Fort Mackall in North Carolina made military history when their unit was reorganized and redesignated as the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

They would be nicknamed the “Triple Nickles” (the spelling derives from Old English), because of their numerical designation and the fact that 17 of the original 20 members came from 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division. (This was a time when “buffalo nickels” were still in circulation.)

Because of their work, they would also come to be known by a different name: The Smoke Jumpers.

It was the first all-Black airborne unit in the history of the United States military. Like other airborne units, they were all volunteers. And, like other airborne units, they expected to play a critical role overseas in the Second World War.

When the call finally came, the only order they were given was to get on a train to Pendleton. They assumed they were on their way overseas to join the battle on the European theater. But they had a different, highly classified mission in store: one that would keep them quite busy here on the home front.

When they finally arrived at Pendleton Air Field (where the Doolittle Raiders had been trained and stationed several years earlier), they were assigned to a classified mission: Operation Firefly.

During the winter of 1945, the Japanese sent an estimated 9,300 “balloon bombs” toward North America. More sophisticated than they may sound, each hydrogen balloon carried over 70 pounds worth of explosives and incendiaries.

Japan’s goal was to set the entire West Coast ablaze. The Triple Nickles’ job was to stop them, to find the bombs and dismantle them, and to keep it all quiet. (The government feared a panic if the public knew about the bombs.)

They were not merely firefighters. More than half their missions in the summer and fall of 1945 would require them to put their airborne training to use: parachuting into burning forests, also known as “smoke jumping.”

It was a job that required ingenuity, adaptability, specialized skills and extreme courage. And, during a time when the military — like much of the United States — was still deeply segregated, it also required a deep and unusual patriotism.

Whatever it took to preserve the freedoms of their home, they were willing to do it.

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