Posts Tagged ‘smokejumpers’

On this date in 1949, four Forest Service smokejumpers made the first jump east of the Mississippi River and the first parachute jump ever made onto the Washington Ellipse, the oval park between the Washington Monument and the White House. The jump was even televised, which is how President Harry Truman reportedly watched it, even though he would’ve had a clear view of the historical event if he’d stepped out on the Executive Mansion’s balcony.

The smokejumpers had taken three days to fly out from their base in Missoula, Montana, on a Ford Tri-Motor. Why so long? The airplane’s top speed was 90 mph. Homer W. “Skip” Stratton later recalled 50 years later in an interview with The Missoulian, “If we got a head wind, we could see cars and trains passing us down below.” Of the jump, he remembered they came in so low they were about eye level with tourists looking out from the observation windows of the Washington Monument, which are 500 feet up: “We were waving at each other.”

DC Commissioner John Russell Young welcomes the smokejumpers to the nation’s capital. From left to right, Bill Hellman, Skip Stratton, Bill Dratz, and Ed Eggen. The White House is visible in the upper left corner. (American Forestry Association Photo Collection)

The first two men to hit the silk were Stratton, 27 years old, and William D. Dratz, 26. On a second pass, Edward J. Eggen, 26, and William D. “Bill” Hellman, 23, jumped and landed in the middle of the Ellipse. Hellman had become a new father while on the trip. His son was born the day before the DC jump.

With no forest fire to attack, smoke pots were lit to provide some sense of excitement for the smokejumpers and the hundreds of spectators who turned out to watch. The Washington Post reported the next day, “It wasn’t an invasion, citizens, it was the United States Forest Service demonstrating how its smoke-jumpers fight forest fires in remote sections of the West.” Interestingly, the day before this leap into history the newspaper characterized their job as putting out fires “inaccessible to automobiles,” a indication of how new the concept of smokejumping was.

The jump was arranged by the American Forestry Association (now American Forests), which was hosting a luncheon at the National Press Club “honoring American business for its advertising support in the fight against forest fires through a public service campaign sponsored by the Advertising Council,” according to an August 1949 article in American Forests magazine. The Forest Service hoped the event would generate continued support for its fire prevention campaign and the smokejumper program. After landing, dozens of reporters swarmed to take photos of them and ask questions. Stratton recalled, “The questions were just crazy. What does it feel like? Do you jump right into the middle of the flames? Crazy stuff.”

Then the four men got into two convertibles and rode down Pennsylvania Avenue to the luncheon, where the smokejumpers gave plaques to business leaders on behalf of the Agriculture Department. The men were a big hit in Washington, especially Eggen, the only bachelor of the group. “Ed was the favorite of the women at the Agriculture Department,” Stratton remembered. “He was this big handsome guy with blond hair and a great smile. They pretty much had him surrounded the whole time we were in Washington.” Afterward, they quickly returned to Missoula and to work. Fire season was well underway.

Bill Hellman presents a plaque to Charles E. Wilson, president of General Electric, at the Salute to American Business Program. Looking on is Forest Service chief Lyle Watts. (American Forestry Association Photo Collection)

Some readers might recognize the name of Bill Hellman. Just six weeks later, Hellman would be one of 12 jumpers killed in the Mann Gulch fire, another, though unwelcome, first for the Forest Service smokejumpers.

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Forty years ago last week, Apollo 14 returned from its nine-day journey to the moon and splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean. The three-man crew consisted of Commander Alan Shepard, Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa, and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell. The Apollo 14 mission was the third successful moon landing, and is mostly remembered for Shepard hitting golf balls on the lunar surface. This week, in addition to the usual anniversary attention, the mission was also back in the news because of a USA Today article on NASA’s search for the long-lost “Moon Trees.”

Apollo 14Moon Trees came about through the work of Astronaut Stuart Roosa. Before joining the Air Force, Roosa had worked as a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper, dropping into at least four active fires in Oregon and California during the 1953 fire season. When later selected for the Apollo 14 mission, the Forest Service asked him to consider carrying some tree seeds with him into space. Roosa agreed and decided to bring seeds from loblolly pine, sycamore, sweet gum, redwood, and Douglas fir trees. He carried the seeds – around 500 in total – in a small container in his personal bag.

Smokejumpers 1953

USFS Smokejumpers, class of 1953. Roosa is top row, fourth from left (click to enlarge).

Upon the return to Earth, the seed canister burst after being exposed to a vacuum, scattering and mixing up the seeds. Nonetheless, the seeds were recollected and sent off to two research facilities: the Southern Forest Research Station in Gulfport, Mississippi, and the Western Research Station in Placerville, California. The seeds proved viable, giving the Forest Service more than 400 Moon Tree seedlings.

The first official Moon Tree planting ceremony was held in Philadelphia’s Washington Square Park on May 6, 1975. Roosa, Forest Service Chief John McGuire, Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, Woodsy Owl, and many others were on hand as a sycamore seedling was planted in the northeast corner of the park.

Moon Tree Planting ceremony

Left to right: Stuart Roosa, John McGuire, Ernesta Ballard, and Woodsy Owl at first Moon Tree planting ceremony.

Following the Philadelphia planting, many other Moon Trees were given away and planted all over the country as part of U.S. bicentennial celebrations during 1975 and 1976. A loblolly pine Moon Tree seedling was planted at the White House (although it would not survive). Seedlings were also sent to other countries, including Japan, Brazil, and Switzerland.

Mostly forgotten, many of the trees can still be found today if you know where to look. Dave Williams, a curator at NASA’s National Space Science Data Center maintains an online list of the known Moon Tree locations. You can also still buy your own Moon Tree seeds from the American Forests organization’s Historic Trees Program.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 14 mission, and the ongoing search for the surviving Moon Trees, here are a few relevant items from the Forest History Society Archives:

Stuart Roosa and moon tree seeds

Stuart Roosa (right) holding container of moon tree seeds, with Associate Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Art Greeley (left) in Washington, DC, 1971.

George Vitas, USFS

George Vitas, USFS, stands next to newly planted sycamore Moon Tree in Philadelphia.

Moon Tree Planting program

First Moon Tree Planting offical program, Philadelphia, May 6, 1975. Note the smokejumper on the Roosa logo.

George Vitas, John McGuire, Stuart Roosa

Left to Right: George Vitas, John McGuire, and Stuart Roosa, May 6, 1975.

Master of Ceremonies Glenn Kovar

Master of Ceremonies Glenn Kovar at First Moon Tree planting ceremony.

Moon Tree seal

Moon Tree seeds

Apollo XIV sycamore seeds, distributed by American Forests.

Moon Tree news release

News release for first-ever Moon Tree planting  (click image to read full release).

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On this date 60 years ago, the Mann Gulch fire in Montana’s Helena National Forest was first spotted.  This devastating wildfire would eventually claim the lives of 12 U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers and one fire guard, as well as burn close to 5,000 acres of timber and grasslands.  The tragic events surrounding this fire ensure that August 5, 1949, will forever be remembered within U.S. Forest Service and wildland firefighting history.

Hot weather and lightning storms the previous evening put Forest Service rangers in the area on notice that day, and around noon, the Mann Gulch fire was first officially reported.  Shortly thereafter, a plane carrying 15 smokejumpers was dispatched to the fire from Missoula, Montana.

At the time of Mann Gulch, smokejumping was a relatively new practice.  The Forest Service’s Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project had moved to the North Pacific Region (Region 6) in 1939 and switched its focus from aerial water drops to experiments with parachute jumping.  The first operational use of smokejumpers by the Forest Service occurred in 1940, but prior to Mann Gulch, no smokejumper had ever died fighting a wildfire.


Forest Service smokejumpers dropped over Sherman Gulch, Lolo National Forest, Montana, June 17, 1954.

After landing on the ground a half-mile from the fire, the 15 smokejumpers were met by James O. Harrison, a fire guard from the nearby Meriwether Canyon Campground, and the group headed down the gulch towards the nearby Missouri River to stake a safer position.  The dry conditions and high winds, along with a change in wind direction, caused the fire to suddenly expand.   The men’s route was cut off, forcing them back uphill while trying to outrun the swiftly advancing fire.   It was later estimated that during this blow-up stage, the fire covered 3,000 acres in 10 minutes. (more…)

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I just returned from a trip to Montana, where I conducted an oral history interview with the 15th chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Dale Bosworth. While there, I took the opportunity to visit Mann Gulch, site of the first smokejumper tragedy. There, sixty years ago next month, 13 firefighters (12 were smokejumpers, 1 a fire watch guard) were killed when a fire they were dispatched to fight trapped and then overwhelmed them. Three men survived—one by doing the then-unthinkable and setting an escape fire and two others by miraculously outrunning the fire in what has to be one of the most difficult runs in recorded history. What happened at Mann Gulch forever changed wildland firefighting—new training techniques were developed based on what was learned and the Forest Service began studying fire behavior as part of an effort to improve safety. It also changed those 13 families and the lives of the three survivors.

Getting to Mann Gulch requires going over rough terrain, both physically and emotionally. Years ago, I had read Norman Maclean’s flawed take on the incident, Young Men and Fire, and then refamiliarized myself with the incident in 2004 while doing research for The Forest Service and The Greatest Good. The night before going, I read the U.S. Forest Service fire research report generated as a result of Maclean’s pressing the agency for help in reconstructing the events of August 5, 1949. His book and the report both focused on the fire more than the men. I thought I understood what they faced that day, but even some of the best writing and best research describing what happened does not do the setting justice.

Before the trip I had also finished Mark Matthew’s new book, A Great Day to Fight Fire, which drew on personal interviews conducted in 1999 with the survivors and the victims’ families. To learn about each of the men and then read of their deaths, how each died—and then to see where each man died—made the visit more difficult than I had anticipated. To stand where they fell is overwhelming, sobering, and mystifying. To see the distance and steep incline Bob Sallee and Walt Rumsey scrambled up to survive struck me dumb and humbled. To look upon where Wag Dodge set his escape fire and see just how close so many of the others were to him surprised me. To gaze at their names etched in stone twice—each site has two markers, with a second one having been placed there in 1997—is a stark reminder of what was lost that day. To see some of the markers in desperate need of repair saddened me.

Leonard Piper's cross lies in ruins. All that remains intact is the rebar that once held the cross.

Leonard Piper's cross lies in ruins. All that remains in place is the rebar that once held the cross. The Forest Service decided in the 1990s not to rebuild them and opted to place the granite columns there instead. Click any photo to enlarge it. (All photos are property of the author.)

While standing at the bottom of the deep gulch, looking up at the steep sides I had just hiked down with some difficulty, I tried to envision running full tilt up a nearly vertical wall of loose rocks and slick grass with a wild fire coming at me. I could think of only two things: “Those poor guys didn’t stand a chance” and “How the hell did Sallee and Rumsey make it out of here alive?”

The view from where Stanley Reba died, looking up toward where Sallee and Rumsey went through the rocks to safety.

The view from where Stanley Reba died, looking up toward where Sallee and Rumsey went through the rocks to safety.

Located in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness area in the Helena National Forest, Mann Gulch is reachable only by boat from the Missouri River or by horseback. A tour boat will drop you at Meriwether Canyon, the same place from where Forest Service fire guard James Harrison started his hike to meet the smokejumpers sixty years ago. At the top, you’ll find this interpretive sign and can look across Mann Gulch.

The view from the ridge opposite of where the smokejumpers were killed. Click on the photo to read the interpretive sign showing the timeline of events at Mann Gulch.

Click on the photo to read the interpretive sign showing the timeline of events and their locations at Mann Gulch.

The hike along the ridge and around and down to the markers takes another hour or so. In all, it’s a six or seven mile hike roundtrip that took nearly six hours. A most difficult but rewarding six hours that will be with me for a long time to come.

As I looked back over the sight before heading down for the boat, I had one final thought: I hope the interpretive sign overlooking Mann Gulch is right—that those 13 men did not die in vain.

The Mann Gulch memorial, installed in 1999 and located at the mouth of Meriwether Canyon.

The Mann Gulch memorial, installed in 1999 and located at the mouth of Meriwether Canyon. You can see this before starting the hike up and over to Mann Gulch.

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