“There was a terrible explosion. Twigs flew through the air, pine needles began to fall, dead branches and dust, and dead logs went up,” said Richard Barnhouse to Oregon’s Mail Tribune, describing the detonation of a Japanese bomb.
However, Barnhouse not talking about combat in the Pacific Theater; World War II Japan was attacking the U.S.
The Japanese fire balloon campaign, known as Fu-Go, involved hydrogen-filled balloons carried across the ocean by the Jet Stream to the U.S.’ West Coast, where they would drop their payload of explosives.
The men of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment answered the nation’s call to fight back. Never reaching the necessary manning to fight in the European Theater, the 555th PIR received orders on May 5th, 1945 to report to Oregon and be assigned to the 9th Services Command.
Their primary mission: recovery and destruction of Japanese balloon-bombs. Firefighting was their secondary mission according to a report published by the U.S. Army War College.
Arriving at Pendleton Field, Oregon a week later, the men of the 555th PIR conducted more training in land navigation, medical aid and physical endurance while waiting for their equipment to arrive.
Even there, the all African-American unit faced discrimination much like that of the deep South when training at Fort Benning.
The paratroopers found it difficult to buy a drink or a meal in the town of Pendleton and the commander of the base did not want them mixing with the base’s population. Undaunted, the paratroopers continued taking pride in their skills and staged demonstration jumps for local civilians.
By that time, however, the Fu-Go campaign was tapering off, the Japanese reportedly having used it as an effort to improve morale among factory workers, telling them the balloons were causing havoc in Los Angeles or Seattle.
They soon received training by the U.S. Forest Service to parachute into heavily wooded areas and fight fires caused by the Fu-Go balloons, careless campers and lightning. Specially equipped and trained, the “Triple Nickle” paratroopers became the forefathers of modern-day Smokejumpers.
Based at Pendleton Field, Oregon with a detachment at Chico, the 555th PIR responded to 36 fire calls, making more than 1,200 individual jumps.
More than thirty paratroopers sustained injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to broken legs and even crushed chests. Tragically, Malvin L. Brown, a medic assigned to Headquarters Company, died August 6, 1945 after falling while trying to descend from a tree.
While at Camp Pendleton, the 555th PIR would establish another historic landmark. On July 25, 1945, fifty-four men conducted a full combat-equipment jump with live ammunition. After their initial assault on their objective, they marked it and called in Naval aircraft piloted by trainees to bomb and strafe it. This marked the first time African-American paratroopers conducted a joint operation with the Navy.
Even with the accomplishment of these tremendous feats, their most important footsteps were yet to come.
Author’s Note: This article is the third in a multi-part series honoring the brave paratroopers of the 555th PIR.