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. . . And If You Find Out, I'll Have To Kill You

by Don Courtney (Missoula '56) |

There was a time when certain jumpers coming back in the spring for another fire season were greeted with, "Where ya been? Secret mission for the CIA?"

You weren't suppose to say where you'd been, of course. We usually said that we'd been working in Alaska or Maine or some other place out of the way. Which was a pretty dumb thing to say when you were tan from the waist up, had jungle rot on your feet and were twenty pounds below your best weight. Whatever the cover story, it drew a big smirky, "Har, Har, Har!"

It got so that we'd just smirk back and say, "Can't tell you. And if you find out, I'll have to kill you." The first part was true and the second part was balderdash. But it usually got an uneasy laugh, the subject got dropped, and we'd get on with the fire season.

All the coyness was more than just a game or a fireline joke. A covert operation is like a premature baby: the odds are stacked heavily against it from the very start. The baby needs an incubator if it is to live, and without the incubator, the baby dies. The covert operation needs secrecy and without secrecy, the covert operation gets stomped and dies. Since the operation is built around people, alot of human beings get stomped and die, as well.

CIA specifically invited/recruited smokejumpers into the covert operations business for several reasons: 1) We were damned good looking. 2) We didn't get airsick. 3) Off season, most of us weren't doing much anyway. 4) We were strong and fit. 5) We knew alot about parachutes and about throwing people and things out of airplanes. 6) We were not active duty military, so our direct involvement in an affair of arms didn't constitute an official act of war. 7) We weren't trained to work by the book and could improvise. 8) We didn't need heavy supervision on the job. 9) We were deniable; that is, if the President chose to say he'd never heard of us, he could do so and get away with it, maybe. And 10) Did I mention that we were damned good looking?

The money was good. Not like winning the lottery, but plenty good. I don't remember what it was, but I do recall that it was about a Major's/GS-11's pay. There was danger-pay on top of that, so much an hour for the time spent over unhealthy territory. It was all taxed, more than a major's pay was taxed, because less of it was tax deductible. The deal was, you filed your taxes on everything except your secret stuff and sent it off. You then handed copies of your tax forms to your case officer (your CIA contact/boss), and sometime later, he handed you back some tax forms in another name, which you signed in that name, and came up with some more tax money. Every dime of it. No breaks.

In the early days, the CIA connection took the form of short-term contracts: employer not named on paper, no copy of the contract left in the employee's hand. You'd work a couple of months, and then go away and get called back a few month later. Or not, depending. The job was by invitation only, a phone call in the night. Jumpers already on the job had blackball control over who was added to the crew, which was very small. If a name came up and somebody didn't want to work with that guy, he never got called. It was spooky, fun stuff. "Can't tell you where you're going, can't tell you who you're working for, can't tell you what you'll be doing."

For example: First class (!) tickets to Tokyo, the name of a hotel, a phone number to call. More first class tickets to Okinawa, another phone number to call. Onto an Air Force C-130 wearing Air Force flight suits. Off that airplane into 110 degree temperature, 98 percent humidity, condensation dripping off the cold C-130 making the ramp slippery. Met by a guy who says, "Welcome! While you're here, don't tell anybody where you are or who you're working for or what you're doing." And I just couldn't help it. "Where are we," I asked, "and who are we working for and what are we doing?" And honest to God, I'm not making this up, but he answered, "I can't tell you." We all laughed like hell, but he meant it. He was a very good guy, by the way, very sincere and dedicated.

We got used to it. I remember getting shot at by a 12.7 mm gun and reporting the gun's location when we got back. Three or four days later when we were getting ready to go back to the same area, I knocked on the door of the ops room to ask, "Where was that gun, again?" The kid in there told me, "I can't tell you that." I knew that he would say that! We all growled and bitched and laughed about it. We weren't supposed to know ANYTHING, and no one was supposed to tell us anything. There was a very good and simple reason for this because there was a distinct possibility that we'd get shot down and captured. What you don't know, you can't tell. Nothing personal. You have to keep the incubator intact while the baby develops and grows.

There was alot of hard work, long hours and some danger. It was great fun. Then, somebody did get shot down. The casualty rate of our little smokejumper crew suddenly became about that of an infantry unit in the first wave across the beach. Some Air Force puke, a major, said, "Well, that's what they get paid for." Some smokejumpers did a dance on his head, and he got transferred.

After the funerals, a carload of us driving back to Missoula decided that we'd had enough and were finished with this stuff. Never again. No way. We all agreed and shook hands on it. But everyone of us went back again that fall. This time we knew that we were mortal. We were dead serious. Those first losses were just that, only the first.

Some of us worked awhile and then left. Others stayed for years, moving into various other corners of the clandestine world. CIA worked us hard but treated us fairly. Over the years, we were always tired, frequently angry and sometimes scared. But we were never bored. Wherever we were in the agency, we tended for the most part to stick together and to look after one another - an unofficial smokejumpers' protective society. As smokejumpers within the agency culture, we were respected. There remain to this day identifiable traces of the smokejumper influence upon CIA's operations and attitudes.

We weren't an outlaw mob (a Wild Bunch, maybe). We weren't a wart on the butt of the smokejumper organization. We weren't mercenaries. You don't have to have a Pulaski in your hand or a uniform on your back in order to pay your dues and serve your country with honor.

Some of us were old when we finally got back to the mountains and forests where we started. Some of us - perhaps 20 or 25 percent of us - didn't get back at all.