- Associated Press - Saturday, September 13, 2014

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) - Pendleton isn’t known for its black population.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, African-Americans comprised just 1.4 percent of Pendleton’s population. And that’s actually higher than the historical precedent - only five black families lived in the entire Eastern Oregon region at the turn of the twentieth century.

But thanks to the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the only African-American parachute unit during World War II, Pendleton is now being looked at as a potential African-American historical site.

The battalion members, more commonly known as the Triple Nickles, trained for six months at the Pendleton Air Base. The Oregon Heritage Commission and nonprofit organization Oregon Black Pioneers teamed up to sponsor an open survey to gather places and sites of African-American historical significance.

Oregon Black Pioneers project manager Kim Moreland said the ultimate objective is to choose five sites from the recommendations and nominate them for placement on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Moreland hopes to have each site vetted and selected by the end of the year.

Though Moreland thinks the base is a strong candidate, commission outreach coordinator Kuri Gill said its case is complicated because researchers haven’t been able to find a definitive location used by the Triple Nickles that’s still standing.

While remnants of the old air field still remain, when the Triple Nickles arrived in Pendleton in April 1945, it was still an active military base.

The battalion had spent the previous two years in Georgia and North Carolina training for combat, but after transferring to Pendleton, the Triple Nickles were given a new assignment - smokejumping.

“At the time we were sitting there … waiting for an assignment, the Japanese released what was called the incendiary balloon bombs,” Triple Nickle Sgt. Walter Morris said in the Pendleton Air Museum documentary “WWII in a Wild West Town.”

“They were causing forest fires throughout the West Coast. One of the problems that was really awakening was when a bomb dropped in the air (above) the Hanford atomic plant.”

With the war winding down in Europe and commanders fearing the racist elements they might encounter in the battlefield, the Triple Nickles were ordered to use their parachuting skills to dispose of these balloon bombs and suppress any fires started from them.

Over the course of “Operation Firefly,” the battalion participated in 36 fire missions throughout forests in Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Canada.

Although the Triple Nickles weren’t fighting in the battlefield, their missions were still dangerous.

“We already knew how to jump as paratroopers, but we had to learn how to jump into trees because it was safer for a person to jump into a tree and let himself down by what was called a ‘let-down rope’ than it was to land in an open space, which would normally have boulders and big rocks,” Morris said.

The unit suffered its only smokejumping casuality when Pfc. Malvin Brown dropped 150 feet to his death during a fire call at the Umpqua National Forest near Roseburg.

While the battalion fought fires across the Northwest, they often came back to cold receptions at their home base.

“It was clear that the white people of Umatilla County were not used to seeing many black faces in their midst,” Capt. Bradley Biggs wrote in his memoir of his time in the Triple Nickles. “Clearly there would be few of the joys of the service clubs and homes of Atlanta or Fayetteville. A few of the troopers and a handful of officers would finally be able to find passable living quarters in town where their families could join them. But these were few indeed.”

According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, reports stated two bars and a Chinese restaurant were the only eateries that didn’t refuse service to the Triple Nickles in Pendleton.

Even in the face of discrimination, the Triple Nickles found ways to involve themselves in the community.

Members of the battalion attended Round-Up, performed a smokejumping demonstration and frequently marched down Main Street, gaining admirers along the way.

“The most we saw of them was downtown,” Pendleton resident Cathryn Davenport said in “WWII in a Wild West Town.” ”They would come downtown all dressed up in full uniform with their white leggings on. It wasn’t a planned event of anything, it was very spontaneous on their part. They would fall into formation and march in cadence down Main Street. Let me tell you, that was a showstopper.”

In October 1945, the Triple Nickles were transferred again to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and were eventually called to the 82nd Airborne Division in 1946, where they were integrated with white soldiers.

While Pendleton’s reaction to the Triple Nickles was mixed at best in 1945, recent years have seen them honored for their service.

Battalion members were invited back to Pendleton in 1997 and 2008, with the latter occasion marked by naming a conference room in the Oregon National Guard Aviation Support Facility after the Triple Nickles.

Pictures line the walls of the battalion training at a base that could receive some commemoration of its own.


The original story can be found on the East Oregonian’s website: https://bit.ly/1rwHNVm


Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.info

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