Fighting fires, and indignities

  • Testing parachutes in a Montana field

    Roy Wenger
  • Bryan Hammerstrom & Phil Stanley with USFS spotter Gordon Ratiean

    Roy Wenger
  • Pilot Bob Johnson delivered smokejumpers and supplies accurately

    Roy Wenger
  • Back at camp, COs repaired their gear

    Roy Wenger
  • Squeezing through a small Ford Trimotor door required practice

    Roy Wenger
  • Spotters dropped fire gear after the smokejumpers

    Roy Wenger

"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 Fire

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 the sky.

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.

Shift 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 smokejumping.

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 sentence.

After 51 years, the snub to that man listening in the audience and to others like him still hurts.

Meet a "yellow belly"

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 Stanley's.

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 scorn.

"They called us 'yellow bellies,' " recalls Stanley.

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 month.

"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 effort.

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 smokejumpers.

Staking out an identity

"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 the opposite."

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 lines.

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 other humans."

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 arrived.

"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."

Thousands of jumps

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?"

After that 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.

Men moved 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."

No men 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 concussion.

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."

It was lonely duty.

"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 stand ..."

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."

Although Stanley 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 lives.

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 outcast."

Staying the course

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 order.

"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 conflict."

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 there.

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 thing.

"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 off.

Mark Matthews writes and fights fires from Missoula, Montana.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- A hot welcome on the fire line

- Hot summer reading

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