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Honoring their contribution

While white paratroopers trained for parachute duty at Fort Benning in Georgia during World War II, black soldiers were given menial tasks such as cleaning up the training areas and other parts of the post.

Black U.S. Army clerk Walter Morris decided to boost morale among the black soldiers by leading them through the parachute training course after they finished their regular duties. The course featured 34-foot-tall towers, mock aircraft and pull-up bars, according to an account by Morris' grandson and other historical sources.

After days of running the course, Morris was summoned to the office of Lt. Gen. Ridgely Gaither, commander of the parachute school.

Wondering what type of punishment was in store, he pedaled his bike to the meeting. But once he arrived, Gaither disclosed the Army was forming a black paratrooper unit — and the lieutenant general wanted Morris to serve as first sergeant.

The 555th Parachute Infantry Company was born.

It would go on to play a key role in battling WWII-era forest fires across the West while also defending against Japanese balloon bombs that floated across the Pacific Ocean.

The efforts of the pioneering paratroopers will be recognized when a new historical marker is unveiled at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 3, at the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum, at 30904 Redwood Highway at the Illinois Valley Airport in Cave Junction.

"Oregon has never formally thanked the 555th for their role in defending Oregon during WWII," said Roger Brandt of the Illinois Valley Community Development Organization, who will be among the speakers at the dedication ceremony. "The 555th historical marker installation is taking the first step toward acknowledging their contribution to our state's history."

During an era of segregation in the military, black soldiers flocked to the 555th Parachute Infantry Company hoping to be sent to Europe to join the battle against Hitler.

But with the war winding down in Europe in 1945, they were diverted to Pendleton and Chico, California, on a secret mission: Operation Firefly.

Largely unbeknownst to the American public, the Japanese military floated more than 9,000 hydrogen-filled balloon bombs up into the jet stream, where they were carried across the Pacific Ocean to North America. The Japanese hoped to kill people and set American and Canadian forests, farms and cities ablaze. Wood harvested from North American forests was vital to the war effort.

At the time, the balloons were the longest-range weapons ever used in warfare.

Although the balloon bombs were not as effective as the Japanese had hoped, a woman and five children on a fishing trip east of Klamath Falls were killed in 1945 when they went to investigate a strange object on the ground. The object — a balloon bomb — suddenly exploded.

The black paratroopers were given a dual mission. First, find and destroy balloon bombs that landed in America. Second, help in the fight against forest fires, no matter the cause.

Training ranged from bomb demolition to operating specially designed forest-fire parachutes that gave the paratroopers more control over where they landed. They learned how to read forest maps, use firefighting tools, lower themselves out of trees with ropes if they missed clearings and perform first-aid on injured jumpers.

The inventive paratroopers were outfitted with football helmets, which they equipped with chicken wire to protect their faces.

During the 1945 fire season, the paratroopers worked on 36 fires and made 1,200 individual jumps. More than 30 were hurt, with injuries including a broken leg, a crushed chest and a spinal fracture. Fortunately for the man who broke his back, his spinal cord was not severed. He walked 18 miles to an airstrip rather than burden the other paratroopers — who were tired and low on food and water — with carrying him.

One paratrooper was killed after he got hung up in a tree, then accidentally fell to the rocks below.

While the black soldiers faced prejudice in Pendleton, with many stores refusing to serve them, they said white airplane pilots who ferried them back and forth to forest fires treated them well — even visiting them in the hospital when they got injured.

Some paratroopers learned to fly in their off-hours. Other diversions included hunting, fishing, going to the movies, storytelling and visits with black members of the Women's Army Corps based in Washington state.

The 555th Parachute Infantry Company is credited with developing forest firefighting tactics that are still in use today.

Many of its members went on to have successful careers both in and out of the military.

Paratrooper Jesse Mayes served during WWII and the Korean War, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Later he became a university professor specializing in military science, mathematics and computer science. Mayes was elected to the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors in Virginia before his death at age 100 in 2014.

As for Morris, who first led black soldiers through the paratrooper training course in Georgia, he became a construction project supervisor.

In 2004, he watched his grandson graduate from paratrooper training at the U.S. Army Airborne School, which now trains men and women of all ethnicities. Morris pinned his own military Jump Wings badge on his grandson's chest during the graduation ceremony.

Morris passed away in 2013 at the age of 92.

His contributions were memorialized in obituaries across the nation, with the Washington Post writing that Morris "played a pivotal role in a little-remembered theater of war: the Pacific Northwest."

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Paratrooper Jesse Mayes prepares to jump from an airplane. [U.S. Army photo]