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Pioneer African-American Smokejumper Laid to Rest at Arlington National Cemetery

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., former chief of staff of the Army, talks to Lt. Col. Roger Walden during a recognition ceremony at the Pentagon on March 25, 2010. (U.S. Army)

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., former chief of staff of the Army, talks to Lt. Col. Roger Walden during a recognition ceremony at the Pentagon on March 25, 2010. (U.S. Army)

During World War II, a time when segregation was still a part of everyday life, a group of 17 brave men took the plunge to serve their country and become the first all African-American paratrooper unit known as the Triple Nickles.

The battalion’s original goal – to join the fight in Europe – was thwarted when military leaders in Europe feared racial tensions would disrupt operations. At about the same time, the U.S. Forest Service asked the military for help to minimize damage caused by balloon bombs launched by the Japanese across the Pacific Ocean with the intent to start forest fires in the western U.S. during World War II.

In the end, few of the incendiary devices reached U.S. soil, but the Triple Nickles were instrumental in helping the Forest Service fight naturally-caused fires. They became history’s first military smokejumpers who answered 36 fire calls and made more than 1,200 jumps that summer of 1945.

On Jan. 6, Lt. Col. Roger S. Walden, who passed away on Sept. 17, 2013, was remembered and given full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Walden holds a special place in U.S. Forest Service history. He will be remembered for his bravery, sacrifice and groundbreaking achievements in wildland firefighting. During a time of war and social prejudices, the commitment to serve his country through wildland firefighting was challenging and unique.

“Lt. Col. Roger Walden was one of the original 17 test platoon members of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion – hence the nickname Triple Nickles – who contributed to fighting wildfires in the Pacific Northwest during World War II led by Gen. James Gavin,” said Joe Murchison, president of the 555th Parachute Infantry Association Inc. “He will be sorely missed by all who knew and loved him.”

An American flag is draped over Lt. Col. Roger Walden’s casket at Arlington National Ceremony. (Stefani Walden)

An American flag is draped over Lt. Col. Roger Walden’s casket at Arlington National Ceremony. (Stefani Walden)

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Walden attended schools in Des Moines and Chicago. While working at Ford Motor Company at the onset of World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Army on Dec. 7, 1942, one year after Pearl Harbor. In 1943, at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., he volunteered for paratrooper training at Fort Benning, Ga., and received his wings in 1944.

Walden was promoted to sergeant in the 555th and later completed Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, receiving his commission as a second lieuten­ant in March 1945. The 555th was deployed on secret orders to become history’s first military smokejumpers, combating aerial attacks by Japanese balloon bombs across the Pacific Northwest during Operation Firefly.

In honor of the paratroopers, the Forest Service recently named a conference room after the Triple Nickles in its newly renovated Yates Building, the agency’s national headquarters office in Washington, D.C.

The body of Lt. Col. Roger Walden is unloaded from a caisson at Arlington National Cemetery. (Donna Sinclair)

The body of Lt. Col. Roger Walden is unloaded from a caisson at Arlington National Cemetery. (Donna Sinclair)

After being transferred to Fort Bragg, the 555th became attached to the elite 82nd Airborne Division. In 1949, Walden served as commander of Company A in Gifu, Japan. He commanded Company F in Pusan, Korea, and was awarded the Silver Star for heroism during the Korean War. Walden served as a major in Giessen, West Germany, from 1957 to 1960, earned his bachelor’s degree in social studies at San Francisco State University, and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He taught military science at Central State University in Ohio until his retirement in 1966 and then worked as manager of the City of Detroit’s Housing Rehabilitation Program until 1984.

“I’m very proud of my dad’s military service,” said Rogena Ann Walden. “He certainly earned the privilege of being laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors. I’m also grateful for the example he set — he was a wonderful father.”

February is African-American History Month.

A processional for Lt. Col. Roger Walden enters Arlington National Cemetery. (Donna Sinclair)

A processional for Lt. Col. Roger Walden enters Arlington National Cemetery. (Donna Sinclair)

7 Responses to “Pioneer African-American Smokejumper Laid to Rest at Arlington National Cemetery”

  1. MARK MAJOR says:

    LT. COLONEL ROGER WALDEN WAS AN AMERICAN !

  2. Y. Peralta says:

    LTC. Walden,
    Thank you for your service.
    Airborne, All The Way, Sir!

  3. Charley Moseley says:

    From one old Smokejumper to another, thanks Roger for helping pave the way for so many of us. You and your guys did our country a great service by jumping to fires with so little experience and training to prepare you for such tough country and so many unknown possibilities. My son John has traveled many of your paths as a Paratrooper too.

  4. Joe Brinkley says:

    In honor of Lt. Col. Roger S. Walden from the McCall Smokejumpers,

    “And once you have tasted flight,
    you will walk the earth
    with your eyes turned skyward…

    For there you have been and
    there you long to return.”
    ~Leonardo da Vinci

  5. Kimberly Blair says:

    LT. COLONEL ROGER WALDEN, THANK YOU FOR THE SACRIFICE YOU MADE TO PROTECT AND SERVE OUR NATION, YOU WERE A TRAILBLAZER. YOU HAVE LEFT SUCH AN IMPRESSIVE LEGACY, WE ARE SO PROUD OF YOU. MAY YOUR SOUL REST IN PEACE AS THOSE WHO MOURN YOU SEEK COMFORT THROUGH CHRIST; YOU WERE NOT ONLY A GOOD MAN, BUT A GOD MAN. WE WILL MISS YOU!

  6. Brian Cresto says:

    Out of Great respect and honor for Lt. Col. Roger S. Walden from the Great Basin Smokejumpers. It is an honor to be a Smokejumper today only because of Gentlemen like you and the trail you have blazed for us to follow. That will never be forgotten. With the sincerest respect and gratitude, Boise BLM Smokejumpers

  7. Roger S. Walden Jr. says:

    To my father, a true officer and a gentleman who throughout his entire life made many great personal sacrifices for his fellow comrades and country. He was a visionary in his own right, but he was a little ahead of his time. He sought to treat all people with the highest of morals, dignity, respect, and values. He prided himself on being a perfectionist all of the time regardless of the challenging circumstances / situations that he encountered on a daily bases while serving his great nation (USA). He is truly in a better place now and will be greatly missed by his children, grandchildren, family members and friends.
    May our great nation and the military services never stop trying to improve our way of life on the subject of equality for all human beings. He loved the military (the Airborne Corp. / being a Paratrooper) and jumped at the first challenge to join the 555 / Smoke Jumpers. He also enjoyed commanding units and making all of its assigned soldiers always strive to do their best at what ever they encountered and to have pride in every thing they did too. Love Your Son always RSWJR

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