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Black smokejumpers made their mark in Pendleton

Phil Wright

East Oregonian

Published on March 1, 2018 12:01AM

Last changed on March 1, 2018 9:24PM

Soldiers of the 555th Infantry Battalion prepare for a jump shortly after arriving at the Pendleton Army Airfield in April 1945.

Contributed photo

Soldiers of the 555th Infantry Battalion prepare for a jump shortly after arriving at the Pendleton Army Airfield in April 1945.

Robert Bartlett aims to convince Pendleton locals that it’s time to give the Triple Nickles their due.

Bartlett, 69, teaches sociology at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington. He’s making the drive Friday morning to Pendleton to deliver a presentation on 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, AKA, the Triple Nickles, the first all-black airborne unit in the United States Army during World War II.

They served out of Pendleton and became smoke jumpers, and Bartlett along with Oregon Travel Experience’s historical marker program want to see a roadside marker near Pendleton to commemorate the 555th.

Markers are value statements, Bartlett said, that show who and what is important to a place. Likewise, the lack of a marker can send the same message. The members of the Triple Nickles were men who literally jumped from airplanes into fires, but they also jumped into the flames of racism and American culture.

“The reason why we are so interested in Pendleton is because Pendleton is where they really started,” he said.

The Army created the unit with 20 African-American men at Fort Benning, Georgia, where 17 earned their wings. Bartlett said the Army considered that a success. After months of training, the 555th members thought they were going to see combat, either in the last days of the European front or in the battles of the Pacific. Instead, they received classified orders, got on a train and a several days later stopped in Pendleton.

They reported to Pendleton Air Field at the airport. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle and his Raiders were long gone by then, and the field was all but deserted. Only some mechanics were still on site. The men opened their orders and saw their mission was to train at Pendleton to become smoke jumpers to fight part of the war that the government was keeping secret.

Japan discovered the jet stream, Bartlett said, and used the air current to send incendiary bombs to the western United States in hopes of setting forests aflame. One bomb near Bly in southern Oregon killed the pregnant wife of a reverend and the four children they took on a Sunday school outing.

Another bomb hung up on power lines above Hanford, which was making plutonium for a U.S. atomic bomb.

“If it had gone deeper into the compound we would not have the Tri-Cities,” Bartlett said.

The military kept this quiet because it didn’t want Americans to panic, knowing Japan was bombing U.S. soil. And the military did not want Japan to know their scheme had worked.

Racism also played a role in the assignment to Pendleton, he said. The military segregated black troops from white, and the Army was not ready to send black soldiers overseas and into war zones.

The 555th trained to disarm or blow up bombs, but they also responded to fires throughout the West.

“So whenever there was a fire anywhere, they would scramble these guys out of Pendleton,” Bartlett said.

The unit left the Round-Up City in October 1945.

Clarence Beavers was the last surviving member of the original Triple Nickles. He died in December 2017 at the age of 96 in Huntington, New York.

The story of the Triple Nickles is unique to the Pacific Northwest, Bartlett said, and specifically unique to Pendleton. The Pendleton Aviation Museum produced a few videos on the unit, and Bartlett said a roadside marker could encourage people to explore the city and its aviation history.

Bartlett was part of the work that led to a similar marker in June 2017 at Cave Junction at the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum. He said he feels a “DNA connection” to the story of the Triple Nickles. He’s an African-American and also is the son and grandson of combat medics. Bartlett served in the Vietnam War.

The story of the 555th also sparked his academic interest. The military did not declassify documents on the unit until 2014, so there is still much to learn and reveal about this history.

The presentation on the Triple Nickles takes place Friday, 5:30-7:30 p.m. for “History Happy Hour” at Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery, 511 S.E. Court Ave., Pendleton. You can RSVP from the Travel Pendleton Facebook page.


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