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USDA Forest Service Honored First African-American Smokejumpers

The last three living original members of the nation’s first African-American smokejumpers crew have been honored at USDA Forest Service Headquarters. The “Triple Nickles” were from the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion and were trained by the Forest Service to put out forest fires in the Northwest during the summer of 1945. Combat-ready, the “Triple Nickles” served a unique, secret assignment called “Operation Firefly.”

“These highly skilled paratroopers used their military training in a different kind of combat few people were aware of,” said USDA Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Fighting the fires that had the potential to do great harm to the nation in a time of war was dangerous, important work. We are extremely pleased to honor them at our national headquarters for their heroic service to the Agency and the nation making more than 1,200 individual jumps during the summer of 1945.”

The Triple Nickles served in more airborne units, in peace and war, than any other parachute group in history. The 555th paved the way for African-American soldiers to become part of the prestigious 82nd Airborne Division, when the triple Nickles were absorbed into the 82nd Airborne in 1947.  The 555 Parachute Infantry Association located in Tampa, Florida was founded in 1979 to keep alive the legacy of the Triple Nickles.  There are more than 1,000 members in 28 Triple Nickles chapters. For more information, visit:  www.triplenickles.com.

Walter Morris a former 1st Sgt of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment Smoke Jumpers, speaks with Deputy Chief for Business Operations, U. S. Forest Service Chuck Myers. The Smoke Jumpers visited the the Forest Service on March 26, 2010 in Washington, D. C.
Walter Morris a former 1st Sgt of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment Smoke Jumpers, speaks with Deputy Chief for Business Operations, U. S. Forest Service Chuck Myers. The Smoke Jumpers visited the the Forest Service on March 26, 2010 in Washington, D. C.

Former members of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment Smoke Jumpers, L to R Sergeant Clarence H. Beavers, National Triple Nickles Association President Joe Murchison, Smokey Bear, First Sergeant Walter Morris and Lt. Col Roger S. Walden. The Smoke Jumpers visited the U. S. Forest Service in Washington, D. C., on March 26, 2010.
Former members of the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment Smoke Jumpers, L to R Sergeant Clarence H. Beavers, National Triple Nickles Association President Joe Murchison, Smokey Bear, First Sergeant Walter Morris and Lt. Col Roger S. Walden. The Smoke Jumpers visited the U. S. Forest Service in Washington, D. C., on March 26, 2010.

By: USDA Forest Service Office of Communication

President Obama Visits Afghanistan, Meets USDA Staff

March 29, 2010 – On Monday in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Bagram Air Base to visit with U.S. civilian and military men and women supporting the U.S. government’s efforts in that country. Among those in attendance were staff members from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, including employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture working as part of the U.S. government team.

President Barack Obama greets U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, March 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama greets U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, March 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Some, like USDA employee Jaime Adams (right, blue scarf), shook President Obama’s hand at the event.

At Bagram, President Obama said, “So I want you to know, I want every American serving in Afghanistan, military and civilian, to know, whether you’re working the flight line here at Bagram or patrolling a village down in Helmand, whether you’re standing watch at a forward operating base or training our Afghan partners or working with the Afghan government, your services are absolutely necessary, absolutely essential to America’s safety and security. Those folks back home are relying on you.”

Read President Obama’s full remarks to military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan, here, and learn more about USDA’s activities in Afghanistan, here.

USDA Science Tuesday – Banking on Seeds

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

If you’re a gardener, you’re probably starting to think about picking up some seeds for this year’s garden.  Perhaps you’re digging out those seeds you scooped out of last year’s pumpkin, or setting up a mini-greenhouse to get a head start on planting.  Have you ever wondered where the seeds at your local garden center came from?  It probably wasn’t the side of a volcano in Far East Russia, but you never know.

In 2003, USDA researchers partnered with scientists at Russia’s Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry to collect samples of a rare wild strawberry (Fragaria iturupensis) from the Atsunupuri Volcano, on the island of Iturup. Samples of the seed were sent to a USDA lab in Corvallis, OR, for study; the strawberry may provide new flavor components or pest resistance that can be bred into commercial strawberry lines.

But what happens if those samples get damaged or destroyed?  Seeds are an important part of our agricultural future; without a well-maintained stock of seeds, our future food supply would dry up.  Fortunately, USDA scientists thought of this long ago and have been collecting and cataloging germplasm since 1898.   In cooperation with state agricultural experiment stations and universities, the USDA keeps hundreds of collections of plants, seeds, trees, microbes, cell cultures, and even insects. These collections protect the future of agriculture by preserving the genetic diversity necessary for a plant or animal to adapt to changing growth conditions.  If you knew that a certain type of tomato just didn’t do well in your garden, you probably wouldn’t try to grow it year after year without making some changes.  The same is true for crops grown in fields.  The collections also preserve our history; one collection in Oregon contains genetic material from the oldest living pear tree in the United States.   It’s all part of the USDA’s commitment to seed preservation.

Retrieving Seeds at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado

Last month, USDA scientists sent some 10,000 seed samples for storage in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) in Norway.  February’s shipment marks the third such shipment of seed lines to the vault.  SGSV stores seeds of everything from soybeans, wheat, rice, carrot, and sorghum to sunflowers, bananas and wild strawberries that only grow in Far East Russia.  Svalbard now contains about 45,000 of the USDA’s 511,000 seeds, tissue samples, and whole plants; plans are to have the majority of them backed up at Svalbard in the next 10 to 15 years.

Think of Svalbard as agriculture’s Noah’s Ark.  About 1,400 seed banks worldwide already house the seeds that ensure our food supply, but if one of those locations suffered a natural disaster and didn’t have electricity for a month, those seeds could be lost.  Svalbard’s backup seeds could then be used to re-establish those lines.

The storage chambers at Svalbard are buried deep in the permafrost on the side of a mountain, on a Norwegian island 800 miles from the North Pole.  Spitsbergen Island’s subarctic location makes it a secure, if chilly, location to house the seeds.  The cold keeps the seeds in slumber mode, and the island’s location, far from any tectonic plate boundary, means that no earthquakes or volcanic activity will disturb the vault.  It’s high enough in the mountains that the vault will stay dry even if the sea level rises 400 feet.  And the polar bears will probably discourage any intruders.

USDA’s germplasm collections grow each year thanks to worldwide collaborations and gathering expeditions—without which, we’d never have a strawberry plucked from the side of a volcano in Russia.  With this catalog of genetic diversity at our fingertips, we can keep agriculture’s past alive and ensure its future.

Ellen Buckley, Program Analyst, Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems, USDA Agricultural Research Service