Medic Malvin L. Brown, First Casualty in the US Forest Service Smokejumper Program

By Scott C. Woodard, AMEDD Center of History and HeritageFebruary 23, 2016

Brown 1
1 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Brown 2
2 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Brown 3
3 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – October 1939. Chute near top of 125 foot Douglas fir where it was purposely guided by jumper (Frank Derry). Canopy caught on branches ten feet below tip. Jumper descended on rope with relatively little difficulty. Chelan National Forest [now Okanoga... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Brown 4
4 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – 6 August 1945. [This photograph was taken the morning of Pfc. Brown's death.] Capt. Richard W. Williams, Battalion Executive Officer, and 1st Lt. Clifford Allen, Headquarters Company Commander, and jumpmaster for this "smoke jump" mission, peer thr... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Brown 5
5 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Brown 6
6 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – 30 August 1945. Medical officers and attendants of the 555th Medical Battalion, attached to the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, stand by on every jump made by the paratroop fire-fighters. The "smoke jumpers" have been assisting the U.S. Forest S... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Throughout the Second World War, Army units remained segregated separating "colored" troops from other Soldiers. It was not until after the war that the armed forces were desegregated under President Truman's executive order in 1947. Despite the separations, Pfc. Malvin L. Brown was a member of the only parachute unit composed entirely of black Soldiers.

Army Airborne Pioneers

The Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies in December 1942 recommended the activation of a black parachute battalion "for the purpose of enhancing the morale and esprit de corps of the negro people." [1] A cadre of personnel was selected from the 92nd Infantry Division and volunteers from various units were used to form the 555th Parachute Infantry Company activated on 30 December 1943 at Fort Benning, Georgia. This core group would eventually be designated as Company A, 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion on 25 November 1944 at Camp Mackall near present-day Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In late 1944/early 1945, the "Triple Nickles" began parachute training at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was during this time that officials in the War Department, US Army, US Navy, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation became aware of mysterious devices found out west. They determined that incendiary bombs from balloons were coming from Japan and landing along the west coast from Alaska to California. Combined with the Department of Agriculture's request for seasonal firefighting assistance, the War Department sought to counter the threat posed from the drifting time bombs and implemented the "Firefly Project." The troopers were pulled halfway into their eight-week combat training program and diverted to prepare for a new mission to combat potential forest fires and bomb disposal in coordination with the US Forest Service (USFS) in the Pacific Northwest. [2]

Firefighting and Bomb Disposal Training

Two hundred enlisted men of the 555th were ordered to Pendleton, Oregon and a detachment of 100 enlisted men were stationed in Chico, California on 3 May 1945. Initially, training was conducted by the Army. Training subjects included a brief instruction on fire fighting and neutralizing the Japanese balloon bombs. The USFS training regimen was modeled after their own fire control officer program with slight modifications. The 16-hour course provided information on the fundamentals of fire behavior, fire line locations, tools and construction. The paratroopers received additional training in "smoke jumping." [3] As relayed in the story of one of the original paratroopers, Capt. Bradley Biggs, "Troopers would jump with full gear, including fifty feet of nylon rope for use in lowering themselves when they landed in a tree. Their steel helmets were replaced with football helmets with wire mesh face protectors. Covering their jumpsuits and/or standard army fatigues, they wore the air corps fleece-lined flying jacket and trousers." Additionally, he discussed training with Frank Derry using the USFS "Derry Chutes" which were extremely maneuverable and able to turn in a complete circle. [4] The USFS's final report on the "Firefly Project" noted that the paratroopers understandably had quite a bit of trouble breaking from the habits of Army parachuting versus USFS "smoke jumping." [5] The Army trained to land in open terrain, while the USFS purposely guided toward trees in order to prevent landing in uneven mountainous areas riddled with downed timber. Biggs had commented, "While we were trained to handle ourselves if we landed in trees, most of us went for the clearings from force of habit and past experience." [6] This combined with a lack of training in mountainous country for the troopers, jumpmasters, and pilots proved to be disastrous.

The Commander, Capt. James H. Porter, wrote in an historical report that the unit conducted three training jumps with "T-7 assembly" [military] parachutes in June 1945. Only one of these jumps was over a wooded area. Jumpmasters focused on the Forest Service technique of dropping only a few men over timber with each pass -- quite different than their Army experience which sought to push as many paratroopers out in the fastest time possible. Training continued through July 1945 when the majority had qualified as "Smoke Jumpers." [7] On 23 July 1945, the 555th's General Orders Number 9 established a "Stand-By-Detachment" consisting of two commissioned Fire Officers-of-the-Day and 51 enlisted Fire Guards. Headquarters Company provided the required Aid man. [8]

Medical Training

Malvin L. Brown entered the Army from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 9 November 1942. [9] When the 555th was formed in 1943, Brown volunteered for the new parachute infantry unit. At the time, most black Soldiers were assigned to service support units and led by white officers. Unlike most of his peers in the Army, Brown was also led by black officers in the hand-selected airborne unit. These highly-motivated volunteers had to carry two burdens - successfully brave the rigors of airborne training all the while facing the sting of segregation and discrimination. [10]

Typical of all advanced training for enlisted medics during this phase of World War II, Brown participated in a three-month training program for medical and surgical technicians after his basic training. During the initial phase, Soldiers trained in anatomy and physiology, hygiene and disease prevention, ward procedure, ward management, and emergency medical treatment through didactic lecture in the first month. The intent was for students to receive more hands-on application in small groups during the latter phases of the course. The second month focused on first aid and emergency care for injuries and diseases likely found in a combat environment such as inflammation, infections, wounds, and burns. Follow-on applications were conducted in hospital wards. [11]

Unlike a Soldier destined to a medical unit, Brown was assigned to a field unit and was trained under a cadre system by Army Ground Forces. The medical technicians focused on the skills employed in the front-line combat units (i.e., company aid man, battalion aid station). Technical skills were incorporated with the larger combat unit-level training within the battalion. For example, while the combat arms focused on the tactical aspects of training, the organic medical support elements conducted missions within those larger combat training scenarios such as evacuating the wounded on a river crossing and moving casualties to clearing stations from collecting stations. [12]

First Smokejumper Death

Malvin Brown reported to the Pendleton Airfield later than the other troopers because he was completing his medical training. The medics served as vital elements of the battalion for a good reason. Medical personal always cover a mission, particularly air drops. The 555th experienced the normal range of accidents incurred in parachuting -- sprains and fractures. During the 1945 fire season, the Triple Nickles had more than 30 injuries. In context, this is actually very few and quite remarkable considering that they jumped into 15 [13] fires with 37 men on average. [14]

The Air Base received the call for 15 military smokejumpers on the morning of 6 August 1945 for a fire in the Umpqua National Forest near Lemon Butte. Medic Brown volunteered to replace the assigned medic who was sick even though he had not completed his smoke jumping training. The fire was situated along a ridge on the south side of the summit in an area where many trees tower 200 feet. The only clearing was a two-acre opening half-way up the slope. With terrain forming into a draw, water runoff erosion and large trees presented a tremendous hazard. It did not take much wind to carry the nine-man chalk into this obstacle so close to the drop zone. Normal procedures to exit a tree were to utilize the letdown rope smokejumpers carried by attaching it to himself and the parachute. After disconnecting, the firefighter lowered himself to the ground using the 50-foot rope. According to reports, Brown fell from a very tall and leaning fir tree for about 150 feet into the ravine and was believed to have died instantly. His fellow paratroopers traversed an 80 percent slope for 1,000 feet until they got to a creek bed. They then carried him for over three miles through backcountry without any trails. Once they did come across a trail, it was another 12-miles before they came upon their first road. [15]

The Record of Performance

The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion made history and excelled as the first all-black parachute infantry unit combating hate and prejudices the entire way. They were the first military organization to become smokejumpers, building upon the legacy of the United States Forest Service from previous years. A triple volunteer (airborne, medic, and replaced another medic for a mission) Triple Nickle Malvin L. Brown was the first smokejumper to die in the line of duty. His battalion bravely fought 28 fires and jumped into 15 of those infernos from a perfectly good airplane. [16]

Prologue to the Footnote

The fire season of 1945 was particularly harrowing. Outside of the 555th, there were six seriously injured jumpers at the Missoula base alone. Smokejumpers from the Missoula base were fighting the Bitterroot National Forest's Cooper Creek Fire on 31 July 1945, just days before Brown's death. Smokejumper Archie Keith fractured his thigh in two places and crushed his ankle 16-miles from the nearest road. Evacuation in a makeshift litter was performed over a valley full of dead falls and snags. The Triple Nickles answered the call for medical assistance when the Battalion Surgeon, 1st Lt. Charles T. Burks, and medic Cpl. Benjamin Brown volunteered to jump in and help these men from outside their own unit. Upon their link up with the crew, they splinted their patient and administered penicillin and sulfa drugs. The total evacuation time over the 16-mile terrain took over 24-hours. After Burks and Brown helped provide aid en route during the five-hour ambulance ride to Missoula, no hotel would provide them lodging because of the color of their skin. [17] Pfc. Malvin L. Brown probably had knowledge of this injustice toward his fellow medics given the close camaraderie of the unit. Yet, it did not prevent his willingness to volunteer and continue providing aid and comfort.

Special thanks to Joe and Sharon Murchison of the 555th Parachute Infantry Association, Inc., Chuck Sheley of the National Smokejumper Association, and Ralph Alvarez of the 82nd Airborne Museum for their insight and assistance.

1.(Lee 2001, 160)

2. (Bradsher 2015) Several other Army, Army Air Corps, and Navy units were diverted to assist the US Forest Service. The Bradsher article states there were 36 missions involving 1,255 jumps, but this conflicts with the USFS Final Report.

3. (Rahm 1946, 2-5)

4. (Biggs 2008)

5. (Rahm 1946, 12-13)

6. (Corbet 2006)

7. (Porter 1946)

8. (Wills 1945)

9. (Lienhard 1945)

10.(Stone 2013, 44)

11. (Mullins 1974, 225-227)

12. (Mullins 1974, 261-268)

13. (Rahm 1946, 14)

14. (Corbet 2006)

15. (Corbet 2006)

16. (Rahm 1946, 12, 14)

17. (Gidlund 2014, 10-12)


Biggs, Bradley. "" Captain Bradley Biggs - SmokeJumpers. 2008. (accessed January 27, 2016).

Bradsher, Greg and Naylor, Sylvia. "Firefly Project and the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion ("Smoke Jumpers")." The National Archives, Rediscovering Black History. February 10, 2015. (accessed January 14, 2016).

Corbet, Mark. "The Death of PFC Malvin L. Brown: "In The Interest of Public Welfare"." Smokejumper Magazine, July 2006.

Gidlund, Carl. "The Longest Rescue?" Smokejumper Magazine, October 2014: 10-12.

Lee, Ulysses. The Employment of Negro Troops. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2001.

Lienhard, John H. "War Department Report of Death: WD AGO Form 52-1." August 6, 1945. (accessed January 14, 2016).

Mullins, William S. Medical Department, United States Army Medical Training in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General, 1974.

Porter, James H. "555th Parachute Infantry Historical Report." February 1, 1946. (accessed January 21, 2016).

Rahm, Neal M. Final Report: Fire Fly Project. San Francisco: United States Forest Service, 1946.

Sheley, Chuck. "Operation Firefly-Triple Nickles Myth, Fact and Common Sense." National Smokejumper Association. June 12, 2015. (accessed January 6, 2016).

Stone, Tanya Lee. Courage Has No Color. Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2013.

Wills, Edwin H. "Fire Fly Project SOP." Pendleton Army Air Base: Headquarters, 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, July 23, 1945.