The formation, organization, and operation of the U.S. Army Parachute Test Platoon in June 1940 is a well-known story in the annals of special purpose, special mission organizations. This was, however, the first of two test platoons at the Army’s Parachute School at Fort Benning. The second was activated on 30 December 1943 and originally contained 20 enlisted men and 6 officers, the majority transferring from the 92nd Infantry Division, then stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The unit designation for the second Test Platoon was 555th Parachute Infantry Company. The 555th was the Army’s first and only all-black airborne unit. During its major action in World War II, Operation Firefly, the 555th (or “Triple Nickel”) would initiate and refine special operations techniques still in use today.
On 18 February 1944, 16 of the 20 enlisted men completed airborne training and received their coveted jump wings. Two weeks later, on 4 March, the six officers followed suit. These men formed the company cadre. As new members of the company reported for training, the cadre rotated through specialized training courses, such as jumpmaster, pathfinder, rigger, demolitions, and communications. Many of the early noncommissioned officers attended Infantry Officer Candidate School and, once commissioned, returned to the 555th. When the company reached a strength of 7 officers and 119 enlisted men, it shifted from individual to unit training. The progression of training was typical for parachute units at the time, although in most other units soldiers went through the training as individual fillers and not as a group or unit.
Another significant difference in training that the 555th initiated was in moving the men through leadership positions. On virtually every training jump, a different tactical objective was included. Enlisted soldiers were rotated behind the lines through as platoon and squad leaders as well as on weapons crews. Bradley Biggs, a platoon leader of the 555th, wrote later, “Over the period of these exercises each trooper had the opportunity to lead and command, and to learn each assignment in a crew-served weapons team. This leadership development made it possible for so many to be promoted.” On 17 July, the company transferred to Camp Mackall, where it was assigned to the Army’s Airborne Command. The size of the company continued to grow. On 9 November, the company was redesignated Company A, 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, commanded by Captain James H. Porter. The battalion was authorized a strength of 29 officers and 600 enlisted men. Everyone in a leadership position moved up, squad leaders became platoon sergeants, platoon leaders and sergeants became company commanders and first sergeants, and so on.
Two events, separated by almost three years, came to bear on the history of the Triple Nickel. In Japan, the Doolittle raid on Tokyo and other cities in the home islands in April 1942 shocked the Japanese. Until then, they had believed the U.S. was not capable of invading the home islands. They began to make plans to avenge the insult committed by Doolittle and his raiders. They called this the “Fu Go weapons project.”
Meanwhile, in Europe, Hitler launched his last fateful offensive, cutting through the American and British lines in the Ardennes Forest. The 82d and 101 St Airborne divisions were badly chewed up by this battle and needed many replacements. The 555th was alerted for duty in Europe but only as a reinforced company with a strength of 8 officers and 160 enlisted men. This downgrading action was necessary because the 555th was below its authorized battalion strength and had not yet begun its battalion training. In April 1945, just as the skeletonized company was completing almost three solid months of training in the field and was ready to rotate to Europe, the German Army collapsed. By this time, however, another threat had developed. Later that month, the Triple Nickel was transferred to Pendleton, Oregon on a highly classified mission, Operation Firefly. Having already made its mark in airborne history, the 555th was about to stamp that mark in indelible ink. It would accomplish this by fighting behind the lines in the U.S. northwest.
Beginning in November 1944, the Japanese had started their campaign to make the United States pay for Doolittle’s raid. This campaign consisted of sending balloons with incendiary bombs aloft so they would be carried by the prevailing upper winds (what we now call the jet stream) to America. Once over land the balloons would descend and drop their incendiary clusters. The Japanese believed most of these incendiaries would land in large West Coast cities and cause great havoc. In reality, most of those that made it to the West Coast landed in uninhabited areas and became a serious problem for the U.S. Forest Service, whose job included fighting forest fires in National Parks and Forests.
The Forest Service had been created in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt and had begun fighting fires almost immediately. By 1925 it was using planes to spot fires and within four years was able to drop supplies from planes to fire fighters on the ground. In 1940, the first parachute jump was made on a forest fire. The following year, the U.S. Forest Service Smokejumpers were organized.
When the balloon bombs were first discovered, military intelligence offices noticed that the ballast bags contained sand. Samples of this sand were delivered in secret to scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey to see if it was possible for them to pinpoint either the balloon launch sites or, at least, the origin of the sand. Four scientists, Clarence s. Ross, Julia Gardner, Kenneth Lohmann, and Kathryn Lohmann, examined the sand. These scientists were able, based on unique mineralogical and paleontological assemblages, to confirm two likely sites on the east coast of Japan. Later aerial reconnaissance corroborated the exact location of the second site and it was subsequently bombed.
Working with the War Department, the Forest Service had been able to prevent any widespread reports about the balloon bombs, although some articles had appeared without attributing any cause to the fires. The Chief of the Forest Service, Lyle F. Watts, was interviewed on radio in late May 1945, describing the balloon bombs in some detail. What was not mentioned was the fear that the balloon bombs would be used to carry chemical or biological weapons. The presence of the Triple Nickel was also not mentioned.
The 555th initially set up its main camp at an inactive B-29 Army Air Corps Base outside Pendleton, located in northeastern Oregon, and immediately established a strenuous three-week training program for the battalion’s soldiers with the Forest Service Smokejumpers. As the training progressed the men of the Triple Nickel modified their uniforms to make them more functional—and safer. A 50-foot length of nylon rope was added to assist them down from trees, a common hazard in forest jumps. The heavy, fleecelined jacket and trousers of the Army Air Corps bomber crews were added next to provide padding for rough landings. Finally, they modified football helmets by adding wire mesh grills to the front to protect their face and eyes. Once on the ground, they donned gloves.
The major modification the paratroopers used was one designed by Frank Derry, one of the very first Smokejumpers. Derry had cut several panels out of the standard parachute and replaced one of the olive drab suspension lines with one made of white material. By pulling on the white shroud line, a jumper could turn in the air, to take advantage of the wind or nullify it. It was thus easier to pick out a place to land instead of being completely at the mercy of the wind. This is the first example of military use of steerable parachutes.
Within six weeks the entire battalion had qualified as Smokejumpers. During the training with their new chutes and modified clothing and equipment, the men of the 555th also worked with explosive ordnance disposal trainers to become familiar with disposal and disarming techniques. In mid July, about one-third of the battalion moved to an Army Air Corps Base at Chico, California. Splitting the unit provided wider coverage of forest area (for both fire and balloon bomb response) and better use of the skills of the paratroopers. Within a week of the move, each group had conducted its first jump into a fire area.
Once on the ground after a jump, the Triple Nickel took off the fleecelined uniforms and picked up whatever gear was needed, either to fight a fire or work on a balloon bomb. Discarded uniforms, parachutes, and unneeded equipment were left on the drop zone to be picked up on the way back to camp.
One former member of the battalion described a fire operation this way: “Digging a fire break or clearing a zone to either isolate the fire or keep it from jumping is smoky business. We stank of smoke and fought to keep upwind of it. Team work was the key. Watching out for your team members, keeping together and not losing anyone in the smoke or darkness was the top priority. We worked hard and ate like horses, often five big meals a day. The forest rangers furnished most of our meals and water. We saved ours for emergency or exit use.”
After a team arrived back at camp following a mission, battalion officers and NCOs conducted detailed debriefings of each member and filed afteraction reports. The average mission was four to six days long. On several occasions the paratroopers jumped into Canada, trying to limit the fire from spreading to the U.S. Captain Bradley Biggs stated that, in the case of balloon bombs, “We blew up only those bombs that represented a danger.” Those not blown in place were eventually turned over to an intelligence unit for exploitation.
One of the most interesting missions the Triple Nickel conducted during this period was to help train a group of U.S. Navy pilots who were preparing to go overseas. Captain Biggs and 54 paratroopers from his company were to jump before dawn onto a small drop zone and attack along a 15-mile route, calling in air support on a series of widely-separated targets and then assaulting each target with live ammunition. It was a mission that would task the hardiest paratrooper, lasting all day and with little room for error. Biggs said that “It had all the features of a combat mission except for a real enemy. There was the low altitude jump, full combat load, no ground support, and no DZ markers or pathfinders.” For the Triple Nickel, it was yet another chance to excel.
Biggs and his executive officer, Jesse J. Mayes, spent one full day reviewing the plan and reconnoitering the route the men of the Triple Nickel would cover. The drop zone was 400 yards long and 50 yards wide, and located in the mountains. The route to the various targets was up and down hill the entire way. There was great potential that heat and terrain could take a heavy toll. Each man carried a double ammunition load, two canteens, medical supplies, a compass, and two С-ration meals along with his combat pack. Jump altitude was 800 feet, allowing little time to react to a problem or a malfunctioning chute, “under conditions as close to combat as we might see.” Each plane would make two passes, with nine paratroopers exiting per plane on each pass.
The pre-dawn flight was very rough. Many of the paratroopers became sick before they felt the planes slowing down and descending as they neared the drop zone. Only one man was injured on the jump and had to be evacuated. The remainder headed for their first target, which they had to reach before the sun came up. They were in position and radioed the planes in as the dawn broke. For the rest of the day, the operation went according to plan.
Just prior to the eighth and final target, the Navy dropped a resupply of ammunition and water. This final target was within view of an observation post where several senior Navy officers watched the demonstration. Short of the target, the paratroopers laid out their two-feet by four-feet red marker panels and called in an air strike with rockets and napalm. In the follow-on ground attack, the men of the 555th fired off all their remaining ammunition.
Before the paratroopers departed the exercise area the Navy officers thanked them for their realistic support. “The commander of the naval fighter squadron was extremely complimentary. A job well done.”
Between 14 July and 6 October, the Triple Nickel fought 36 fires (19 from Pendleton and 17 from Chico) and disarmed or destroyed an unknown number of Japanese balloon bombs. In all, the missions included over 1,200 individual jumps with only 30 jump-related injuries and 1 fatality. They conducted at least one demonstration jump, on 4 July in Pendleton. Operation Firefly was an unqualified success. Because the Japanese balloon bomb operation was classified, it was not until many years after the war that the real mission for this operation was known and the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion could receive full credit. The contributions the battalion made to special operations rugged terrain jumping is obvious to anyone who conducts even a cursory review of today’s techniques.
On 14 January 1946, by specific invitation of Major General James M. Gavin, commander of the 82d Airborne Division and of the parade ceremonies, the Triple Nickel took part in the World War II victory parade in New York City. The 555th marched as part of the 82d and was authorized by Gavin to wear unit decorations awarded to the “All-American” airborne division during the war, including the Belgian forragère and the Netherlands lanyard. Just prior to the parade, the 555th had been attached (not assigned) to the 82d for admin and training purposes, physically locating back to Fort Bragg.
By September 1947, the 555th was assigned to the 82d and redesignated as the 3rd Battalion, 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment, the regiment Gavin commanded during the combat parachute assaults in Sicily and mainland Italy in 1943. Gavin believed it was only right for his former unit to lead the division in setting the example for integration.
On 9 December 1947, Gavin took the final step, a full 7½ months before President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, ordering “equality of treatment and opportunity” for all members of the military forces, irrespective of race, color, religion, or national origin. On that day, Gavin signed an order integrating the 82d Airborne Division and moving the men of the Triple Nickel to various units within the division and division headquarters.
While planning Operation Firefly, the Army had no choice but to conduct the mission, if for no other reason than to prevent panic in the public at large. If the Japanese balloon bombs could be rendered harmless and their existence kept quiet from the American and Canadian public, the operation would be a success.
The U.S. planners had two choices for Operation Firefly. They could use Forest Service Smokejumpers to do it or a military parachute force. Using the Smokejumpers had at least two major problems: these civilian firefighters would have to receive extensive explosive ordnance disposal training and would, potentially, have to spend an unknown amount of time on the mission, time when they would not be available for fighting forest fires. This latter would require the Forest Service to hire additional people to take their place on the fire lines.
Using military parachute infantry forces, who already had training and experience in employing explosive ordnance was a more sensible choice for Firefly. These paratroopers would require training in disarming ordnance but their ramp up time would be a lot shorter than using Forest Service personnel. Additionally, their cover as Smokejumpers was perfect for their Firefly operations and was successful in preventing widespread knowledge of the existence of the balloon bombs. As shown, they helped develop a jump technique that is still used by special operations forces today, known as rugged terrain jumping.
Although the main discussion stresses the Triple Nickel’s contribution to rugged terrain operations there is another contribution that this unit made. This one was not unique to the 555th; in fact, most of the better special operations units in World War II made a similar contribution to special operations doctrine. The 555th, however, did it better than anyone else. This contribution is the method of cross-training unit members in a variety of skills and in different leadership positions. This is one of the best methods for building unit cohesion. Without this kind of cohesion the members of the unit don’t work as well together, don’t reach the ultimate, at least in special operations, of working as a team. The two best examples of the team concept are the Alamo Scouts and the Triple Nickel; the SAS, Popski’s Private Army, and the Jeds also demonstrate this quality well.
With this unit there are few examples from Vandenbroucke’s criteria and most from McRaven’s. One of the criteria from Vandenbroucke’s list, coordination, is present in several positive aspects here since the Triple Nickel dealt with some interesting organizations, such as the U.S. Forest Service and its Smokejumpers, and the U.S. Navy. Security, one of McRaven’s key criteria, was the hallmark of Operation Firefly; it was kept so secret that not until many years after the end of World War II was the role of the 555th revealed to the public at large. This same security prevented the Japanese from knowing how many of their balloons made it to North America, where they landed, and what damage they had done.
All things considered, the Triple Nickel was typical of the other special operations units in this study. They did the things that the best special operations units did—they got good people, planned good operations, and ехеcuted with skill and style. Both Vandenbroucke and McRaven would happily give high marks to this unit and its operations.