Event in Pendleton honors nation’s first Black paratrooper battalion, the Triple Nickles

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
April 13, 2024 1 p.m.
A group of men don jumpsuits in front of an airplane on a tarmac.

In this photo from 1945, paratroopers of the 555th Parachute Infantry climb into their parachute harnesses before boarding a plane of the First Troop Carrier Command. The C-47 would drop the airborne firefighters near an area where a forest fire was raging. Umatilla National Forest, Oregon.

Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 342-C-K3711

An event in Pendleton, Oregon, on Saturday honors the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, also known as the Triple Nickles.


They were formed during WWII when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, facing pressure from Black cabinet members, paid a visit to the Army Airborne School at Fort Benning in Georgia.

“There were no Black airborne troops in the Army at that point, in 1944,” said Bob Bartlett, a retired educator from Eastern Washington, who has spent the last decade researching the Triple Nickles.

“There was a Black service company… that was serving white troops: doing laundry, patching holes in the street, guarding the gate, hauling ammunition. But they were strictly a service company,” he said.

At Roosevelt’s insistence, troops from that service company were recruited to form a “test platoon” of paratroopers.

The men eventually got their wings and built the unit to combat strength. But they weren’t sent overseas to fight in Europe or the Pacific, a decision that Bartlett said was the result of further discrimination.

A group of Black men in military uniforms face the camera from the inside of an airplane.

In this photo from 1945, a C-47 of Troop Carrier Command carries parachutists of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion to the scene of a remote fire in Wallowa forest, Oregon.

Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 342-C-K3751

“I ran across a quote once from one of the white officers in charge of the theater in Europe that said, ‘We don’t want to add more Black troops to this effort because we don’t want to deal with racism and fight a war at the same time,’” he said.

Instead, the Nickles were sent to Pendleton as part of Operation Firefly, a top-secret effort to intercept and disarm bombs that were carried by hydrogen balloons over the Pacific Ocean from Japan.

One of the bombs killed six picnickers near Bly, Oregon, in 1945. They remain the only known fatalities on the U.S. mainland during WWII.


The Nickles were tasked with fighting wildfires that were thought to be caused by the balloon bombs. The men were given a nine-day crash-course in smokejumping, which was significantly different from their paratrooper training.

“Smokejumpers require a whole different — not only set of skills, but equipment, all the way down to the uniforms,” Bartlett said. “They just made do with what they could get their hands on to do this different job.”

A collection of parachutes drifts out of a clear blue sky toward the treeline.

In this photo from 1945, paratroopers of the 555th Parachute Infantry drift toward the tree tops not far from a forest fire. Umatilla National Forest, Oregon.

Courtesy National Archives, photo no.342-C-K3717

Troops stationed in Pendleton fought blazes across the Northwest, from southern Oregon to Idaho and Montana. All the while, they faced discrimination both on base and off.

They struggled to find places to stay when dispatched to far-off fires, and many of the bars and restaurants in Pendleton were off limits.

“These men literally jumped into the fires of racism,” Bartlett said. “Not only racism in the military, but also… among civilians, wherever they traveled.”

The event on Saturday is meant to celebrate all that the Triple Nickles accomplished in the face of that discrimination.

It features a ceremony and open house with information about the battalion, as well as commemorative jumps from both modern and World War II-era aircraft.

Event coordinator Jordan Bednarz said the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon National Guard will contribute their equipment, aircraft and personnel to the celebration as well.

“We now not only have the fusion of telling the story of the Triple Nickles and their origins, but also the evolution of modern smokejumping,” Bednarz said.

The event starts at 9 a.m. at the Pendleton Airport and is open to the public.

Bob Bartlett and Jordan Bednarz spoke with “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller. Click play to listen to the full conversation: