Jumping Out of Perfectly Good Airplanes
It took some of the biggest barns in Missoula to hold people who showed up for the 2004 National Smokejumpers Association reunion in July. Nearly 1,000 people were pre-registered, and the caterer for the opening night barbecue promised there was enough food for 1,500—no one would go hungry. But they ran out of food long before they ran out of people.
At hundreds of tables at the Western Montana Fairgrounds, smokejumpers and their wives—and yes, smokejumpers and their husbands—swap the same old stories they’ve delighted in retelling every five years at these reunions, while updating each other on what they’ve been up to since the last gathering. There are people from their twenties to their eighties, and their conversations take place over the noise of a loudspeaker beckoning people to one side of the pavilion for group photos: (“Last call, Redding, 1975 to 1980; first call, West Yellowstone, all years”).
Two parachutes serve as a backdrop. The former smokejumpers sit on risers and smile for the camera. It takes about five seconds to shoot the photo and fifteen minutes for the photographer to clear the risers. As soon as the shot is taken, a new wave of smokejumpers moves in. Invariably, they spy old friends in the departing group and a new round of backslapping, handshaking, and storytelling begins.
So it seems odd, in this mass collision of humanity under the parachutes, with a couple thousand people milling around the huge pavilion, that a writer looking for former smokejumpers to interview, would happen, back-to-back, to select these two.
The Young and the Restless
Joe McDonald started fighting forest fires when he was thirteen years old. “It was during World War II, and they were short of firefighters,” says McDonald, a UM graduate. “They needed bodies, and they didn’t pay very close attention to your age.”
By the time he was eighteen, McDonald had five years experience on the summer fire lines and even though he was too young to meet the minimum age requirement for smokejumping, he again sneaked around the red tape. In 1951 an old buddy from a ground crew called and told him that the next crop of smokejumper candidates had been invited to the Ninemile training center. Most were college-age forestry majors, McDonald says. His friend told him sometimes people don’t show, and if you’re there and there’s an opening, they might take you.
“I hustled down to Ninemile,” McDonald says. What he found was that, indeed, the federal government preferred forestry majors for smokejumping. “But some of them couldn’t chop a tree or saw a log,” McDonald says. “The national government wanted forestry majors, but the local people in charge wanted local guys who wouldn’t get lost in the woods and knew how to swing a Pulaski.”
There was a no-show. McDonald got in. The first time he jumped out of an airplane was also the first time he’d ever ridden in one. They took off from Hale Field. Back in those days, that’s what Missoula’s airport was called. It was located where Sentinel High School stands today.
The Ford Tri-Motor headed for a jump site near Lolo. “I was cussing myself all the way,” McDonald says. “‘You dumb SOB, what are you doing, jumping out of an airplane?’ When you’d do practice jumps from the tower, you’d just drop. But up there, the door you jump out of is low, you have to put your foot out on a step before you jump, you’re in a 100 mile-per-hour wind, you know you’re gonna get whipped back ... I just kept telling myself, ‘You’re not gonna NOT do it.’”
McDonald would go on to make twenty-eight jumps onto fires from 1951 to 1955. And those forestry majors the locals sometimes cussed—“I mean, there were guys from the University of Connecticut, the University of Georgia, just all over the map,” McDonald says—inspired him to go to college: “Just being around them, listening to them talk about college, made me want to do it.”
McDonald spent his first two years at what was then Western Montana College in Dillon before transferring to UM. He earned a degree in education while smokejumping in the summers, then taught and coached his way around Montana—at Oilmont, north of Shelby; at Plevna and Miles City in southeastern Montana; in the Bitterroot Valley, at Hamilton. He became an assistant basketball coach to Ron Nord at UM and was head coach at Northern Montana College in Havre before becoming principal at Ronan High School in 1968.
Today he is president of Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, which he helped to found in 1978. He is one of the youngest smokejumpers in history. Certainly, George Cross can’t challenge him on that.
Cross happens to be the next face plucked from the crowd. Turns out the red tape Joe McDonald successfully cut through in the 1940s and ’50s held firmly in place when Cross tried to join the smokejumpers in the 1960s and ’70s.
Cross was a UM physical education instructor for thirty-one years who often found forestry majors signing up for his physical conditioning class to prepare for the rigorous physical tests required of smokejumpers. “I’d make them wear their jump boots during the class, and I gave it at two o’clock—the hottest period of the day,” says Cross, now retired and living near Orofino, Idaho.
In 1961 the Forest Service hired Cross to run their physical conditioning for smokejumpers. A paratrooper during his time in the service, the more time he spent training smokejumpers, the more he wanted to be one. Trouble was, you couldn’t join if you were older than twenty-seven. And you had to quit by age forty. Cross was thirty-four—too old to qualify.
The years rolled by. Every summer he was at the training center by 6 a.m., ready to put a new batch of rookies through the grind. By 1973 Cross was forty-six years old—and still writing letters to congressmen and regional foresters complaining about the age parameters for smokejumping. That year the federal government finally did away with the age requirements. Cross promptly broke his ankle while teaching a soccer class at UM: “That took care of 1973.”
But in 1974, George Cross became a smokejumper. And he remained one until 1986, when he was fifty-nine years old. “I figured since it took all those years to get in, I might as well stay in,” he says with a shrug. “The other smokejumpers accepted me. Heck, a lot of them were my students.”
The Older Ones, and the Rest
Missoula has hosted previous smokejumper reunions, and this one landed in the city for good reason. A rededication of the Missoula-based Aerial Fire Depot, on its fiftieth anniversary, was a key element of the smokejumpers’ celebration.
In 1954, 30,000 people showed up and President Dwight Eisenhower made a cameo appearance to christen the center, where smokejumpers have trained and scientists have discovered safer ways for them to fight fires for the last half century. The Mann Gulch fire of 1949, when twelve smokejumpers perished, spurred the government to better study and understand fire, and to better train and equip the people who put their lives on the line to fight it.
Fred Brauer was the dispatcher who sent the plane to Mann Gulch. He also was the smokejumper chosen to give the welcoming address for Eisenhower at the original dedication.
Now eighty-seven, Brauer remembers the dedication well. “They did the whole thing ass-backwards,” he says. “Eisenhower made the dedication speech, then I made the welcoming address.” The order also put Brauer in a tough spot. Eisenhower, he says, referred to the Forest Service as being a part of the Department of Interior.
“Well, no, it’s the Department of Agriculture,” Brauer says. “So I’m sitting there wondering, when I get up, do I correct the President?” Anyone who knows Brauer, knows the answer. “I tell it like it is,” he says. “It’s not Interior, it’s Agriculture. So I said so. Some people told me, ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve correcting the President of the United States.’ But a lot of people said I was right to do it.”
Brauer’s smokejumping career was parlayed into a brief movie career. He made ten jumps during the filming of 1942’s The Forest Rangers, standing in for star Fred MacMurray. He also served as a technical adviser on 1952’s Red Skies of Montana, a film based on the Mann Gulch disaster.
A Butte native and a starting guard for the Grizzly football team in the mid-1930s, Brauer was a smokejumper in the summers of 1941 and 1942, and again from 1946 to 1958. The forty-year-old age limit ended his career, “Or I’d have jumped ’til I was fifty-five,” he says. “We were the first band of brothers that ever existed. I loved every one of those boys. I’m quite proud of them.”
They include men like Dean Bate of Ogden, Utah, eighty years old now but twenty-one when he started smokejumping out of McCall, Idaho, in 1946. His reaction the first time he leapt from an airplane?
“The ground’s a long ways away, isn’t it?” he says. “Honestly, I was so busy trying to remember everything they told me to remember that I don’t remember anything else.”
Andi McQuade of Avery, Idaho, spent three years on a hotshot fire crew before joining the smokejumpers, jumping out of Missoula in 1992 and 1993 and West Yellowstone in 1994. She remembers her first jump: “I was really excited, and there was lots of fear,” McQuade says. “I was wondering if I’d be able to do it. Then you’re out the door, and all of a sudden everything’s very peaceful. The first thing you do when you land is look straight up at the sky and think, ‘I was there.’ ”
When she made her first jump to fight fire: “We flew the fire a long time. It was very windy and very bumpy. There were four rookies on the load, and the others had all gone. My jump partner was vomiting. I’m trying to stay out of his way. Then he’s in the door, and I realize my leg is asleep because I’ve been sitting on it funny, trying not to get vomited on. They dropped us next to a road, and there were these people camping there. When I got down, I’m taking off my jump suit and these two little girls, about six years old, walked up to me and asked me for my autograph. It was all very strange.”
Counting her training, McQuade made more than seventy jumps as a smokejumper.
And the Survivor
The keynote address at the reunion’s banquet gets off to a rocky start. There are troubles with the sound system at the Adams Center. Then speaker Bob Sallee opens his remarks by telling the crowd that smokejumping taught him courage. “What is courage?” he asks rhetorically. “The dictionary defines courage as ...”
Turning to a dictionary definition in a speech is seldom a good sign. On this night, however, it will be different. “All I know is that to jump out of an airplane and trust your life to a parachute takes courage,” he says. “But it also takes courage to change jobs, to get married, to raise a family. Courage makes living easier. After smokejumping, everything else was easy.”
He recounts his training, both for jumping and for fighting fires. “We were expected to be the best,” he tells the crowd. “And we believed we were. If you walked up a fire line, you expected to see every man swinging a Pulaski. You’d see nothing but asses and elbows.”
Smokejumping taught them all, he says, “that whatever you do, you do it well.” And they have. The National Smokejumpers Association is filled with people who have gone on to very successful lives. “We have doctors, lawyers, an astronaut (Stewart Roosa) ... a lot of people a lot more qualified than me to give this address. The only reason I’m here is because of Mann Gulch. I know that.”
Sallee is the last survivor of the little fire that suddenly erupted and burned thirteen men—a dozen smokejumpers and one ground crew member—to death. Sallee had lied about his age to get on a smokejumping crew. Mann Gulch was his first fire jump. He was seventeen years old.
On Aug. 5, 1949, Sallee says Canyon Ranger Station requested a smokejumper crew out of Missoula for a fire north of Helena, near the Gates of the Mountains. The smokejumpers were stuck on a roof putting a new coat of sealant down, “Because Fred Brauer believed a smokejumper without anything to do would lead to mischief,” Sallee says.
The crowd laughs. It’s the last time you hear a peep from them.
They suited up and climbed on a DC-3, Sallee continues. There were sixteen smokejumpers, spotter Earl Cooley, and two photographers, one from the Forest Service, and one from Life magazine.
“The fire was in the Helena National Forest, and the temperature in Helena that day was 97 degrees,” Sallee says. “It was very unstable air, and the ride over was horrible. One fellow got so sick he couldn’t jump.”
The fire was small, about forty to sixty acres, and “looked like a piece of cake,” Sallee says. Cooley chose an area with open grass and a few scrub pine trees as the landing spot. Sallee couldn’t wait. “I was so sick I wanted out of that plane in the worst way,” he says.
They had to jump from 4,500 feet up, higher than usual, because of the unstable air. The first smokejumper leapt out at 3:50 p.m., and by 4:10 all fifteen of them were on the ground.
“They couldn’t take the plane down to drop our cargo, either, so the cargo ended up scattered all over,” Sallee says. “One chute didn’t deploy, and the radio was destroyed.” The men ate quickly, then were led into the gulch. Everything was normal until about 5:45 p.m.
In an instant, Mann Gulch was hell on Earth. An incoming cold front, mixing with the 100-degree temperatures on the ground, caused opposing winds to turn the “piece of cake” into an instant inferno that would trap—and kill—most of the men.
Sallee and buddy Walter Rumsey ran into the rimrock and found an opening that led to safety. Foreman R. Wagner Dodge, in a desperate attempt to save his crew, lit a second fire that shot up the mountain and created a safe haven seconds before the wall of flames reached him. But instead of staying with their foreman, the rest of the crew tried to outrun the fire.
The young men didn’t stand a chance. “The noise was incredible,” Sallee says. “It sounded like a thousand jets taking off at once.” Almost as quickly as the fire had blown up, it was past them. Sallee described finding one of his fellow smokejumpers still alive, “but with the clothes burned off his back.” Dodge found another still breathing, his feet and hands badly burned, but his clothing intact.”
The rest had burned to death. Sallee was sent for help. He hiked to the bottom of the gulch and flagged down a boater who gave him a ride to the ranger station, where it took a few hours for a rescue party to be organized. By the time they returned to Mann Gulch, it was too late; they had to wait until morning to move the two badly burned smokejumpers. “They both died the next day,” Sallee says. “The other eleven perished at Mann Gulch.”
A few minutes earlier, a thousand festive people had been laughing and talking at more than 100 linen-covered tables that spread from one end of the field house floor to the other. Silver and glassware clinked, waiters and waitresses bustled about and there was a steady dull roar.
Now, you could hear a pin drop. Sallee finishes his speech almost apologetically. “Thank you for your patience,” he says softly. “And for having me tonight.”
A thousand people shove their chairs back and leap to their feet. The ovation thunders on. A weekend of laughter and dancing and drinking and photos, of food and fun and red, white, and blue-colored water drops from retardant planes, had come down to this: A reminder, from the last living witness at Mann Gulch, of the often unspoken bond in this band of brothers—and yes, sisters. They jumped out of perfectly good airplanes and—even after all that has been learned about wildfire since Mann Gulch—once on the ground, they were just a wind-shift away from death.
It is a common denominator as powerful as the gravity that once pulled them from airplanes and into harm’s way. And every five years, it pulls them back together to reminisce.
Vince Devlin is a reporter for the Missoulian.
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