This monument is part of the Buffalo Soldier Commemorative Area located at 290 Stimson Ave, Fort Leavenworth, KS 66027
The 555th, also known as “Triple Nickles” and “Smokejumpers,” was an all-Black Parachute Infantry Battalion. It was the first of its kind in the regular Army and was founded in Fort Benning, Georgia in late 1943. One of the features that distinguished the 555th from preceding designated Black units was that not only were its enlisted soldiers Black, so were all the officers. Buffalo Soldier units were previously predominantly commanded by white officers, so the 555th represented a step forward in granting high-ranking leadership positions to Black service members while segregation persisted. Furthermore, the 555th was committed to the underappreciated and little-known task of defending the U.S. internally, a mission that certainly differs from what one might first imagine when picturing what fighting in the Second World War looked like. Although the 555th did not directly fight a human enemy, they did fight fire. Fire proved to be an equally formidable opponent, and the paratroopers accomplished this task with all the same valor of units engaged overseas. For its dedication and triumphs, the 555th was honored at Fort Leavenworth with this monument carved by Eddie Dixon in 2006.
The 555th met with controversy as soon as it came into being, with many people questioning the ability of a unit to function properly when led by solely Black officers. The suggestion of introducing Black paratroopers to the Army also met with suspicion. Black service members at Fort Benning were primarily assigned to support roles such as truck driving, and their relation to parachute units extended only so far as to offer “service” to them. The 555th turned these assumptions on their head during its year of intensive preparation in 1944 prior to their expected deployment to Europe. However, the 555th would not actually make it there. Some members guessed they would instead be sent to the Pacific, which was technically partly true, but not what anyone expected. The 555th, originally trained specifically for combat in the European theater, found itself fighting forest fires in the Pacific Northwest in 1945. This was another first for the U.S. Army which had up to this point never provided paratroopers to the U.S. Forest Service for smokejumper training. The Army officially stated the reason for keeping the 555th home was that it was too small and untrained to provide the requisite strength on the battlefield. Members of the 555th contested this excuse, and their actions on the frontlines of firefighting prove their competence. Lieutenant Colonel Bradley Biggs, a 555th officer himself, believed that the true reason the battalion was sent to Pendleton, Oregon was because the threat there was more of a direct concern than the situation in Europe, which by 1945 favored an Allied victory. Some of the fires the 555th dealt with were caused by Japanese incendiary balloon bombs. The resulting mission was dubbed “Operation Firefly.”
The balloon bombs traveled to the United States from Japan through stratospheric air currents over the course of three days before falling into the thick forests of the Pacific Northwest. The situation was doubly dangerous; the bombs’ fires threatened both the population of the rural Northwest and posed an immense risk to the then-dry environment there; “Operation Firefly” would protect both. The mission consisted of destroying any undetonated bombs, one of which had already killed at least one family in Oregon, as well as putting out any forest fires in the area in accordance with the U.S. Forest Service’s needs. The 555th’s jumps covered a vast swath of land extending beyond the focus area of the Northwest. Some soldiers were dispatched from Oregon to Northern California. From California, the 555th covered parts of the Southwest such as Arizona, and other soldiers fought fires in Canada as well. The 555th performed about 1,255 individual smoke jumps between June and September 1945, all the while continuing firefighting and combat-readiness training. These were among the first smoke jumps in U.S. history and its most extensive at that time, with smoke jumping only having been proposed for the first time in 1934.
National Archives Identifier 14605, RG 111.
The 555th unfortunately but not surprisingly met with racism from locals in both Columbus, Georgia, and Pendleton, Oregon as well as from within the Army. Many members indeed suspected that their domestic assignment had much to do with Army leadership in Europe being unwilling to work with Black soldiers. Furthermore, the 555th was performing a task for which there was no precedent, making “Operation Firefly” a challenging, albeit successful, experiment and forcing the paratroopers to train extremely hard for an often-thankless job. Bradley Biggs credits in his memoir a “belief in [them]selves and each other” as a major part of why the 555th was so outstanding. This belief held the 555th together through drastic mission changes and discrimination on and off-post and showcases how a strong sense of camaraderie can keep morale high even in difficult circumstances.
One should note that the bust at the top of the memorial is of First Sergeant Walter Morris, honored here as the very first member of the 555th assigned to the battalion. 1SG Morris apprenticed as a bricklayer after graduating from high school, but the poor job market during the Great Depression influenced him to take up the Army’s offer of a year-long employment contract in 1940, an experience he was extremely excited for and which would impact him for the rest of his life. 1SG Morris’ subsequent work within a parachute service company at Fort Benning was his first step toward becoming an officer within the 555th. After sharing in all the 555th’s victories, 1SG Morris returned to bricklaying but found himself determined to educate the public about his experiences combatting racism and making U.S. history as a Triple Nickle, his recollections of his service providing a valuable look into what life was like as a Black officer during World War II.
Due to the secretive nature of this mission, though, little word got around the United States about what the 555th accomplished before the end of the war. The press was determined to conceal from Japan any knowledge of the kind of damage that could have resulted from the balloon bombs. Therefore, they kept coverage of forest fire to a minimum. The 555th did not receive the kind of official recognition they deserved as an unlucky consequence of that. There is, nevertheless, a happy ending. The 555th got to march as part of the famed 82nd Airborne Division during the 1946 Victory Parade in New York City. The 555th remained within the 82nd until 1947 when its members were integrated into the 82nd’s 505th Regiment. This proved an emotional period for the 555th’s soldiers, who rejoiced the end of segregation but had to simultaneously wish a bittersweet goodbye to the legendary 555th. There have been numerous efforts to acknowledge the 555th’s contribution to Army history in the past few decades, and the 555th received the Buffalo Soldiers Medal of Valor in February 2020. As time goes on, their presence in the American collective memory will certainly continue to grow.
Biggs, Bradley. The Triple Nickles: America’s First All-Black Paratroop Unit. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1986.
Bradsher, Greg and Sylvia Naylor. “Firefly Project and the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion (‘Smoke Jumpers’).” National Archives, February 12, 2015. https://text-message.blogs.archives.gov/2015/02/12/firefly-project-and-the-555th-parachute-infantry-battalion-smoke-jumpers/.
Crumley, Todd and Aaron Arthur. “The Triple Nickles and Operation Firefly.” National Archives, February 5, 2020. https://unwritten-record.blogs.archives.gov/2020/02/05/the-triple-nickles-and-operation-firefly/.
Library of Congress. “Walter Morris.” Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans History Project. Accessed June 22, 2022. https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp-stories/loc.natlib.afc2001001.02946/.
“Retired Lt. Col. Bradley Biggs.” Fresh Air. NPR, August 16, 2001. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1127462.
Richter, Charlotte. “‘Triple Nickles’ Honored in Observance.” Fort Leavenworth Lamp, October 21, 2021. https://www.ftleavenworthlamp.com/featured/2021/10/21/triple-nickles-honored-in-observance/.
Queen, Jennifer. “The Triple Nickles: A 75-Year Legacy.” U.S. Forest Service, February 28, 2020. https://www.fs.usda.gov/features/triple-nickles-75-year-legacy.
555th Parachute Infantry. “The History of the Triple Nickles.” Accessed May 19, 2022. http://triplenickle.com/history.htm.