Sixty years ago, during the summer of 1945, America faced an ongoing
battle for freedom overseas as well as the annual fight against forest
fires in the Mountain West. Fire officials knew, however, that
lightning was not the only threat to the woods—the Japanese had been
launching incendiary devices, or “balloon bombs,” on the trade winds
since late 1944, aimed at the forests of the West. And America’s first
African-American paratroopers, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion,
nicknamed the “Triple Nickles,” would pull double duty that summer as
both soldiers and aerial firefighters.
On the 60th anniversary of their firefighting mission and the end of
World War II, I caught up with two members of the Triple Nickles and
asked them about fighting fires in 1945. From their homes in Florida,
84-year-old Walter Morris and 82-year-old Jordon “J.J.” Corbett stepped
back in time for a while to share their experiences.
The 555th had
to train for two months on a variety of tasks inherent to smokejumper
operations, along with one task not practiced by today’s jumpers:
demolition of balloon bombs.
Below - Army paratroopers of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion stand at ease with their
smokejumper gear during inspection. The men were issued the usual “let-down” ropes
and football helmets with wire face masks, but wore sheepskin outer garments rather
than canvas smokejumper suits.
The Bomb Scare
As the New Year arrived, two young paratroopers from the 555th, Walter
Morris of Waynesboro, Ga., and Jordon “J.J.” Corbett of Bartow, Fla.,
were training to fight the Nazis and Japanese as members of an elite
aerial attack unit. At the same time, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and
military officials feared more balloon bomb explosions and potentially catastrophic fires
at the height of the fire season. An estimated 9,000 balloon bombs were
launched, but initially, they had little effect during the winter of
1944–45. The one exception: An Oregon woman and her five children were
killed by an exploding balloon bomb, which consisted of a 35-foot
hydrogen-filled balloon with a ballast system and a bomb beneath. It
exploded upon striking the ground, once the hydrogen had dissipated.
One bomb traveled as far east as Kalispell, Mont.
With smokejumper staffing reduced because of the war, the USFS
requested assistance from the U.S. Army, which, just a few years
earlier, had developed its paratrooper program and modeled it after the
USFS’s new smokejumper operations. The Army assigned the aerial
firefighting task to the soldiers of the 555th. The plan for dealing
with the forest fire threat was named “Operation Firefly.” In early
May, 160 paratroopers and eight officers traveled to Pendleton, Ore.,
to establish a new smokejumper base. Eventually, the unit split into
two groups, with the second staffing a base in Chico, Calif. Over the
next six months, the Triple Nickles jumped 36 different fires with more
than 1,200 individual parachute jumps.
Triple Nickle Training
Before they performed their first jump, the 555th had to train for two
months on a variety of new tasks inherent to smokejumper operations,
along with one task not practiced by today’s jumpers: demolition of
balloon bombs. “The Forest Service firefighters and rangers were so
helpful to us, teaching us how to deal with forest fires and jumping in
the mountains and timber,” Morris recalls.
The Triple Nickle Smokejumpers also received training from one of
the pioneers of smokejumping, Frank Derry, who showed them how to use
the parachute he had designed for jumping in heavily forested areas.
“Frank was also very helpful and introduced the T-7 parachute, which
had steering ability thanks to a panel being removed,” Morris says.
Derry’s chute allowed jumpers to turn 360 degrees, choose landing sites
and avoid hazards, such as hanging up in a tall tree.
Go Ahead & Jump
first fire jump occurred in Washington. “We jumped a very large fire on
Mt. Baker,” he explains. “I was a second lieutenant in charge of 24
enlisted men, and it was very windy.” The area winds wreaked havoc on
the Triple Nickle jumpers as well as their cargo chutes. “We landed
about a mile from the fire and 25 miles from the nearest road. Some of
us went into trees, [but] I found a good clearing and landed safely.
“Our cargo chutes blew very far away and hung up with our shovels
and gear,” Morris continues. “But the good Lord provided rain for us
later that night. It rained all night and part of the next day.” The
jumpers’ tents and camp gear were also missing with the cargo loads,
which made for a long night.
The Triple Nickle Smokejumpers learned quickly about the challenges
of working in the mountains. “After we wrapped that fire, our crew
faced a 25-mile hike out,” Morris recalls. “At 21 years old, I thought
I could conquer the world. It was a memorable hike—we realized that
going down a mountain was actually tougher than going up.”
Corbett’s team worked fires in northern Washington, near the
Canadian border. “Jumping and flying in the mountains opened our
eyes—the C-47 jump plane would hit air pockets and drop suddenly,” he
says. “And during a couple of jumps, I hit air currents that held me up
and pushed me sideways. You had to be really strong in the upper body
to steer and ‘slip’ the chute toward your landing zone in those winds.
We learned to avoid the green clearings, full of rocks, and go into the
A leather helmet with a wire facemask and a sheepskin suit protected
Corbett and the other jumpers, but tall timber made for dangerous
situations after tree landings. “Our first few jumps showed us that the
50' let-down rope we’d been issued was inadequate,” Corbett explains.
“Sometimes you thought you were closer to the ground in that mountain
timber. That’s what we think happened when we lost our one man.”
Malvin L. Brown, a medic, died following a fire jump on the Siskiyou
National Forest near Roseberg, Ore., on Aug. 6, 1945.
Below: Side view of the ballast-dropping device on a balloon bomb. Proving Their Worth
Parachuting and fighting forest fires were challenges for the men of
the 555th, but their discipline, training and dedication to their unit
and their country helped them overcome and master these tasks. They
could never understand, however, the ongoing segregation they
encountered in the military and society in 1945. “At our base in
Georgia, we could not even go in the main theater or the post exchange
[PX],” Morris recalls. “Yet the German and Italian prisoners of war
were allowed into these areas and could interact with the white
soldiers in the Army. So there they were, men with ‘PW’ [prisoner of
war] stenciled on their backs, smoking and visiting in the PX, while we
African-American soldiers were kept out.”
But out on the firelines, the Nickles proved their mettle time and
again, working side by side with USFS firefighters, who were assigned
as liaisons. “Fighting a fire was really an experience. It might be
smoldering [and] innocent looking, then all of a sudden, it could seem
[like] someone had thrown gasoline on the forest around you, taking the
oxygen away,” Corbett says. “It’s good to be young and agile in those
situations, but having the regular firefighters with us was a really
good thing. They kept us operating more safely with their knowledge of
the woods and fires.”
Below: Balloon portion of a Japanese balloon bomb.
The jet stream carried the bombs across the Pacific
to Northwest forests during 1944 and 1945.
Corbett and his crew used their demolition training in addition to
their firefighting skills on one blaze. “We found a bomb that had not
detonated—it was still hanging in the brush on its balloon. So we were
trained in dealing [with] and disposing of the bombs.” Although the
majority of fires they handled were, like today, lightning-caused,
Corbett says officials told them at least two blazes had ignited from
Triple Nickles Today
Following the war, Morris became a bricklayer in New York City, and
despite two knee replacements, he goes to the gym three times a week.
Corbett went on to graduate from the University of North Carolina and
made a 30-year career teaching math in his hometown as well as coaching
football and track and field. He currently serves as a director of the
Citrus and Chemical Bank of Polk County.
The recollections of these two men are as vivid as the flames faced
by firefighters each season, and their memories of operations and
teamwork reflect pride in their unit and their mission. “We were very
proud and wanted to prove we could do the job in spite of the very
segregated situation of the times,” says Corbett. “I don’t think any
group trained harder. We were a well disciplined and closeknit unit. It
was a good outfit with smart, motivated men who I respected.”
Morris agrees: “It’s very important for people to realize how
important that feeling of being an equal, a soldier, was to us. We were
drivers, cooks or other service-type [workers],” he says. “The 555th
took a group of men who had an inferiority complex because of their
skin color and gave them the chance to succeed and contribute as
Corbett adds that doing their jobs was their top priority. “After
all our paratrooper and combat training, we wanted to fight the Germans
or Japanese, but the Army sent us to do something else—protect the
forests,” he says. “So we went, and we did it well.”
And on the 60th anniversary of the Triple Nickles Smokejumper
assignment, it seems fitting to thank these men for a job well done and
for serving their country.
For more information on the Triple Nickles, visit the 555th
Parachute Infantry Regiment Association Web site at
www.triplenickles.com or by calling Association President Joe Murchison
Above: A group of Triple Nickle loadmasters heft fire gear into an Army Air Corps C-47 at the Pendleton, Ore., smokejumper base.
Paul M. Ross, Jr. is a Firefighter/Helitack Squad Leader and
professional writer with 14 years experience in both Western U.S.
wildland firefighting and urban fire-rescue. He lives in St. Louis,
Mo., where he is a firefighter/EMT for the Eureka Fire Protection
District. Contact him at
This article originally ran in Wildland Firefighter magazine, June 2005.
All photos used courtesy of the 555th PIA