Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1533:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1533.

Today, a secret WW-II battle. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Ask anyone about black Americans in WW-II, and you hear about the Tuskegee Airmen, those courageous fighter pilots who guarded American bombers so well, late in the war. The story of another unit of black soldiers is far less well known because they functioned in secrecy. Their story began in 1944, when the Army agreed to form the 555th Airborne Battalion, a unit of black paratroopers.

Like the Tuskegee Airmen, the 555th (or Triple Nickel) had to fight prejudice and foot-dragging from all sides. They took only the best, and other units wouldn't let their best transfer into it. Passive resistance by the Army kept it below full strength. The Battle of the Bulge came and went that winter in Europe while black soldiers chafed to get into the 555th. Only as the war wound down in the spring did the unit finally reach battalion strength.

But now the Japanese had unleashed their secret weapon. Balloon bombs rode the jet stream all the way from Japan and landed randomly across western America. The military couldn't hide that completely, but they shrouded most of it in secrecy. The bombs actually killed only six people. A woman and five children were fishing near Bly, Oregon, and they chanced to find one of the bombs. It exploded as they tried to figure out what it was.

The one place the bombs were effective was in starting forest fires. The Forest Service had just introduced smoke-jumping in 1939 and was still working out its techniques. In May, orders reached the 555th. The battalion was to be trimmed to a company of 160 men. Only the best of the best were chosen. They were sent, not to Europe, but secretly to Pendleton, Oregon. There they were to be retrained as smoke-jumpers.

Much was different. The military train to come down in open terrain. Smoke-jumpers expect to land in trees, and they train to lower themselves to the ground when they do. The Triple Nickel began jumping into fires in the Summer of '45. The Jim Crow mentality was still alive in Oregon, but the community of pilots and firefighters was color-blind. They were all in it together.

So the men of the 555th made twelve hundred individual jumps into fires. As they honed this embryonic firefighting technique, they suffered burns, broken bones, asphyxiation, and the first smoke-jumping fatality. Malvin Brown landed in a tree near Roseburg, Oregon (where I finished high school two years later), and he fell to his death. I worked on a road survey crew in the virgin Douglas fir that he'd died to protect. I remember those noble 200-foot trees, and I shudder at the idea of trying to descend on a rope from a parachute tangled in the top branches.

The Triple Nickel saga makes a powerful story of swords to plowshares. These were some of the least-known WW-II heroes, serving their country, unrecognized, under truly battlefield conditions, and doing it without firing a shot.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

After this story surfaced as an NPR feature in March, 2000, I located the following source on the web:

It, in turn, links to a great deal of historical background. I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Special Collections and Archives at UH, for calling my attention to the NPR story and suggesting the topic.

The following U.S. Army Photo from this site shows members of the 555th in their smokejumping gear, including "let down" ropes for getting to ground from a tree.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H. Lienhard.