-Them sons-of-bitches was Mennonites who wouldn't fight in the last war ' Them sons-of-bitches took them shovels and saws and Pulaskis and put a hump in their backs and never straightened up until morning when they had a fire-line around the whole damn fire. Them sons-of-bitches was the world's champion firefighters."
Retired smokejumper Hal Samsel,
quoted in Norman Maclean's Young Men and
Crouching at the side
hatch of the roaring Ford Trimotor plane, a young man peers into a
thick column of smoke 1,000 feet below. He waits for the spotter's
signal, and for the pilot to cut the engines. Then he steps into
It's summer 1944 and thousands of
Americans his age are parachuting onto smoky World War II
battlefields in Europe, Africa and Asia. This man's war, though, is
not against foreign troops.
He's a Montana
smokejumper and a conscientious objector to that other war. As his
parachute inflates and he floats to a forest hotspot, he braces
against two types of foes: the swirling flames beneath and the
character assassins waiting back at camp.
the frame forward to July 1995. Eight hundred members of the
National Smokejumpers Association gather in Missoula, Mont., for
their regular revelry. Retired smokejumpers, many of them
old-timers, have come from all over to renew friendships, resurrect
memories of close calls.
The climax, a Saturday
night banquet, features a lively speech by Secretary of the
Interior Bruce Babbitt, and then, read aloud to the entire group,
what's billed as the definitive history of
But there is a missing piece. In
the lengthy official version of all the heroics, that young
conscientious objector jumping onto a forest fire in the distant
past, is not afforded so much as a
After 51 years, the snub to that man
listening in the audience and to others like him still
Meet a "yellow
Summer, the fire season, invites
rumination on how the West has been shaped by flames - not only the
landscape, but also the people.
Phil Stanley, who
lives in a small house on the shore of Flathead Lake, Mont., moves
carefully now, at age 76, as he pulls out an old scrapbook. It
preserves his portion of that passed-over piece of history: photos
from the World War II era of men in jump gear, exercising, pulling
in silky parachutes. They were all conscientious objectors - COs -
who served as smokejumpers.
The whole idea was
Declaring himself a CO back then was
no easy out. It never is, but in a more recent war, against North
Vietnam, draft dodgers and COs managed to find support in some
segments of society. World War II COs faced almost universal
"They called us "yellow bellies," "
Stanley and the other COs had to
choose between destinations such as prison or public service camps.
The Civilian Public Service work camps were often run locally by
"peace churches' like the Quakers and the Mennonites. Camp beds and
bosses came from the government; the churches provided religious
programs, clothing and food. Most camps focused on soil
conservation, forest management and agriculture. A few camps
recruited men to be human guinea pigs in medical or nutritional
experiments. The pay was about $2.50 a
"Most of the projects were worthless,"
Stanley says. "Rather than works of "national importance," we
called most projects "work of national impotence."
He wanted his work to have meaning. While doing
his service on a traditional fire and trail crew near Colville,
Wash., in 1942, he heard of an experimental firefighting technique
which the Forest Service had initiated in Montana three years
earlier. It involved men parachuting out of prop planes. With so
many men off at war, the agency was desperately short of able
bodies and was about to shut down the
Stanley wrote to the Forest Service,
suggesting that COs could be smokejumpers. Some in the agency
thought the idea stank, but higher-ups agreed to give it a try. A
call for a new class of smokejumpers went out nationwide. Of the
more than 70,000 men who registered as COs in that era, 300
volunteered to be
Staking out an
"We thought these men would be difficult
to handle, real renegades," recalls Earl Cooley, who helped train
the COs coming into the smokejumper program. "But they were just
Most of the smokejumper COs went
through rigorous boot camp near Missoula: five weeks of running,
calisthenics and obstacle courses, then countless hours jumping out
of a simulated airplane door, escaping from hung-up chutes,
practicing the landing roll and digging fire
Yet there wasn't a lot of strict
discipline or regimentation. "We really didn't need it," Stanley
says. "Most of us were highly self-motivated."
Like many COs, Stanley developed his strong
personal beliefs long before the war. Born in China, where his
father was stationed with the international YMCA, he'd grown up
watching warlords fight for territory. Years after his family moved
back to the U.S., he could still vividly recall the soldiers
marching past his schoolhouse in China, his schoolmates picking up
spent shell casings that littered the nearby battlefields. "I knew
from an early age," he says, "that I never wanted to kill or maim
The decision to be a CO typically
reached to the core of the man. John Ainsworth, a former CO
smokejumper who lives in Yakima, Wash., defines himself: "I am an
engineer. I build things. I don't destroy things."
James R. Brunk, today a physician in
Harrisonburg, Va., recalls, "I thought if I could get into the
smokejumpers, there would be enough danger involved that people
might realize that I was serious about my stand against the war and
was not just a "yellow belly." "
Many COs acted
out of religious beliefs. As a Jehovah's Witness, Ralph C. Belzer,
of Glasgow, Mont., was convinced that "a true Christian cannot
involve himself in any world government conflict, as the Bible
tells us that Christ's heavenly government will soon remove all of
this world's governments and replace them with His own government
where peace will abide."
Even so, many Forest
Service staffers remained hostile.
"When I first
heard that we were hiring conscientious objectors, I considered
joining the Army before they arrived," says Cooley, who was helping
to run the smokejumping camp at the Ninemile Remount Station near
Missoula during the 1943 fire season, when 70 COs
"Some felt conscientious objectors
should not eat at the same table in the cookhouse with the regular
employees," says Cooley, who made the first smokejump in 1939. "One
man got up in the cookhouse and said that anyone who would eat at
the same table as a conscientious objector was not very damn
patriotic. Others felt (the COs) should be treated like dogs and at
the same time expected them to give 100 percent effort."
Sharing camp administrative duties with
pioneer smokejumper Cooley was Roy Wenger, a CO and lifelong
pacifist. Wenger says the biggest challenge was the stigma of
belonging to a shunned minority. "It's a humbling experience to
suddenly discover that you're way out of line with everyone else.
All COs had to develop thick skin. What else can you do when an
entire community turns against you?"
first spring training, the 70 COs were divvied up among bases in
Missoula, Mont., McCall, Idaho, and Cave Junction, Ore. During the
relatively slow fire season of 1943, they fought 47 fires. The next
year the peace jumpers battled more than 100 fires. Montana
volunteers continued to jump from civilian planes operated by the
Johnson Flying Service, but for the first time, in Washington and
Oregon, COs jumped from military DC-3s.
in and out of the program, but the total number grew to 235 just in
time for the hot summer of 1945, which created tinder-dry forests.
Going nonstop from July 11 into September, the COs made 1,236
jumps, fighting 269 fires. The Mennonite farmers on the squad,
Cooley says, refused to admit exhaustion - -they were used to
working hard from daylight to dark."
died, but the damage included broken bones, back injuries and a
mangled shoulder. Oliver Huset can't forget the time his parachute
delivered him into the canopy of a tall tree; struggling to free
himself, he fell more than 50 feet and suffered a
To help the smokejumpers buy medical
insurance, their pay jumped to $5 a month, but some used the money
for necessities they lacked. One wrote home: "Now I will not only
have enough to buy stamps and paper, but also have enough to buy
some clothes and still save a little."
"Two of my uncles considered me a
disgrace to the family. Also, all of the men I had become
acquainted with were entering the Armed Services," recalls Wilmer
Carlsen of Polson, Mont.
"I equated the military
draft with herding - and I wasn't about to be herded," says J.
Philip Neal of Asheville, N.C. Still, Neal felt "spiritually
adrift." "'''I was uneasy, never feeling absolutely right in my CO
When the war ended in 1945, Forest
Service supervisors in Montana decided against keeping the CO
smokejumpers; some other regions retained a few. Cooley had come to
admire the COs, but realized, "If these men had been retained, they
would have been supervising or instructing returning veterans who
would have resented them."
continued to work for the Forest Service as a photographer and
eventually settled in Missoula where he ran a photo lab, he says
not many other CO jumpers were eager to stick around. Like the
G.I.s, they wanted to get home and get on with their
Most COs came home to a cool reception. As
the program wound down, one smokejumper, Roy Piepenburg, got
treated roughly going on leave to North Dakota: "(The train) merely
slowed down and the conductor contemptuously pushed me from the
platform between two cars." "'''I knew what it meant to be an
As the National Smokejumpers Association
did its thing in Missoula this July, between the lines there was a
reunion of 50 former CO smokejumpers. They told their stories and
joined in songs they once shared at smokejumper camp - peace hymns,
old folk tunes like "Waltzing With Bears." One afternoon they
toured the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center in Missoula, where they
discussed the role of the United Nations and the changing world
"The belief in a nonviolent way of life is
what keeps drawing the volunteers together," says Wenger, the
former camp director who organized the CO reunion, as well as ones
past. "There's a real camaraderie among these men, just like among
men who were in the military."
Wenger, now 88
and a Missoula resident, has dedicated himself to keeping the CO
smokejumpers connected over time. He's encouraged them to write
memoirs of their dangerous summers, and of the beliefs that kept
them from fighting. Wenger says he understands the human need to
perform noble deeds - even at the risk of death. He also says, "As
a society, we should never stop negotiating in order to avoid
It's almost impossible to find a CO
who has backed down from that course. Piepenburg, for instance,
perceived the U.S. military reflex continuing in Korea and Vietnam,
so he moved to Canada, where he's active in the group Plowshares
for Peace; he's about to visit Hiroshima, Japan, to mark the 50th
anniversary of the nuclear bomb explosion
As COs mingled with smokejumpers of all
stripes in Missoula, it was clear that some who weren't COs still
held grudges. Mostly, though, smokejumpers got along. For the COs,
being left out of the official history was the hard
"It was deliberate," says Martha Huset,
whose husband is the CO smokejumper who suffered a concussion
coming down from a tree. "From 1942 to 1945 there was a total blank
in the history."
One daughter of a CO
smokejumper cornered the speaker after the banquet to ask about the
omission, and reports that the excuse was, "We didn't want to bring
up anything about cults."
Compared to the snubs
of the past, and in tune with his personal philosophy, Wenger says
this one's easy to shrug
Mark Matthews writes and
fights fires from Missoula,