Brave 'yellowbellies' served the West well

 

During World War II, more than 250 American men — mostly Quakers and Mennonites — stood up for their pacifist beliefs, declared themselves conscientious objectors, and volunteered for a different risky service. They became pioneer smokejumpers, parachuting onto the front lines of wildfires in the Rockies. Smokejumping had only been invented in 1939, and it was, as Mark Matthews writes, "a flirtation with death."

Equipped with primitive gear, including football helmets, wire-mesh masks and ankle braces, the pacifist smokejumpers leaped out of wallowing airplanes, aiming themselves at "fires smoking in tight canyons and near … craggy cliffs, where winds swooped, churned, died down, and spiraled with changing temperatures." Floating downward — or plummeting, when their chutes failed — they sometimes sang hymns, and often crash-landed in trees and rocks, breaking ankles, hips and vertebrae. Some got caught upside down, dangling from an ankle snagged in high branches. They got paid $5 per month and their employer, the U.S. Forest Service, refused to provide health insurance as punishment for their anti-war stance. As if the job wasn’t hazardous enough already, some of their fellow Americans called them "yellowbellies" and roughed them up.

Matthews, himself an experienced wildland firefighter, first explored the heroism of conscientious-objector smokejumpers in an HCN cover story in 1995. He adds a richness of details in his book, drawing from interviews with conscientious objectors and many other sources. He traces the roots of pacifism back to the Revolutionary War, and smokejumping back to Leonardo da Vinci’s design for the first parachute. He’s created a fascinating, many-faceted, respectful book, personalizing it around the men who lived out their commitment to nonviolence — role models that remain relevant, as the Bush administration launches questionable new wars, and labels skeptics as unpatriotic cowards.


Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line: Conscientious Objectors During World War II

Mark Matthews

316 pages, hardcover: $29.95.

University of Oklahoma Press, 2006