It’s a story that seemingly has it all: A classified mission, dashing young men in uniform, leaping out of flying airplanes, stray bombs, plus some wildfires and a side of racial prejudice.
The little-known slice of Pacific Northwest history featuring an all-Black Army battalion is less likely to be overlooked now that the state of Oregon and people at the city of Pendleton, Ore. have put up a historical marker, reports OPB.org.
Eastern Washington University sociologist Bob Bartlett had a big hand in reviving regional interest in the veterans of Operation Firefly, which he only heard about five years ago.
“I see this picture of these paratroopers, these all-Black paratroopers, boarding a plane. I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’” Bartlett recalled in an interview. “It says 1945. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know.’ I read the story. Immediately I was drawn in. Wait a minute. How did I not know this story?”
Bartlett has been hooked ever since on the history of the Triple Nickles. That’s the nickname of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the nation’s first Black paratroopers. The U.S. military was segregated back then. Bartlett’s own father and uncle served in other segregated Army units in World War II, which seeded his interest in military history.
Bartlett said the Triple Nickles thought they were destined for Japan when they stopped at Pendleton Army Airfield in the spring of 1945. But no, they were about to be converted into smoke-jumpers for Operation Firefly. Professional smoke jumping started in 1939 in Washington’s Methow Valley.
“They had two missions: to find Japanese balloon bombs and to dismantle or destroy them, and to fight forest fires,” Bartlett said. “At the time, the military thought those two things were connected.”
In the final years of WWII, Japan launched thousands of bomb-carrying hydrogen balloons drift across the Pacific on the jet stream. Most probably fell harmlessly into the ocean, but hundreds reached North America. “They dropped all over including Spokane and Boise, and Mexico and Alaska,” Bartlett explained. “As far away as Michigan and Iowa.”
The partial success of the enemy’s incendiary balloon barrage was kept hush-hush on the home front to prevent panic. Bartlett said he is motivated to make sure the soldiers’ story doesn’t get lost to the winds of time. That’s how his path crossed with the Oregon agency in charge of historical markers.
The Oregon Travel Information Council wants to “fill in gaps” in whose history is recognized, heritage manager Annie von Domitz said. It took several years of planning and fundraising before a diverse crowd could gather in the late summer heat for a dedication on Pendleton’s Main Street. Bartlett, who hails from Spokane, Wash., got the honor of cutting the ribbon for Oregon’s newest historical marker.
“Are the scissors sharp?” he asked as he hefted the oversized ceremonial shears. A sizable audience of onlookers and history buffs let out a big cheer when three vigorous snips severed the red ribbon. The interpretive panel succinctly describes Operation Firefly, the Triple Nickles and the Japanese balloon bomb barrage. The marker also is forthright in acknowledging the discrimination that 300 or so Black soldiers experienced in Pendleton during that era.