Our southwest Oregon community now has a new way to celebrate African-American History Month thanks to a decision to approve installation of an Oregon state historic marker at Illinois Valley Airport to commemorate the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.
The 555th was a segregated African-American paratroop unit established during World War Two and was dispatched to Oregon as a defensive measure when the Japanese began using balloons to carry bombs from Japan to the American continent. An estimated 9,000 balloons were released, each about 30 feet in diameter and carrying 4-5 bombs designed to start forest fires. Balloons went as far east as Michigan and as far north as Canada. A family was killed by one of these bombs east of Klamath Falls.
News about the balloon bomb attack was kept secret to avoid providing the Japanese with information about the effectiveness of the attack and where the balloons were landing. The same secrecy was also applied to 555th operations and might explain why few people know about them today.
The 555th was assigned to the Forest Service and were trained to work as smokejumpers. They parachuted into remote regions of Oregon and California to fight fires are the only military unit in American history to work as aerial firefighters.
The 555th was officially stationed at an airbase in Pendelton, Oregon but fought fires in different part of Oregon. One of them died during a fire jump near Roseburg, Oregon and became the first smokejumper death in history. Their work protected Oregon’s forest lands in many parts of the state and it was decided that the Siskiyou Smokejumper Museum, located five miles south of Cave Junction, Oregon, would be the most appropriate place for the 555th Oregon state historic marker.
The next step is for the marker sponsors to raise funding for the development of the marker panel. It takes about a year to go through the development and approval process. It is likely that the dedication for the marker will be sometime in the summer of 2017. This dedication ceremony will likely be a large event considering the importance of this story to Oregon history, the history African-American civil rights, Forest Service history, and military history.