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An Interview With A Pioneer Smokejumper

by James Budenholzer (Missoula '73) |

A member of the first smokejumper force in 1940, Jim "Smokey" Alexander is a true pioneer. Alexander recently sat down with James Budenholzer (Missoula '73) to share his recollections of that first season—and what it was like to make history.

"The way the smokejumpers were started was in the late 1930s. The Forest Service decided they needed another method of fighting fire so they didn't have [a] repeat of the horrible 1910 fires. I worked on the St. Regis district of the old Cabinet National Forest. I'd been up to see the 1910 fire. It was something to see—miles and miles of blackened snags.

"A man named David Godwin out of Washington, D.C., was the national forest-fire officer for the U.S. In the fall of 1939, there was an experimental jump group in Winthrop, WA, where they had a pioneer squad,…trained people, riggers and parachutists, and they did experimental work and some jumps. They became our riggers at Seeley Lake [MT].

"To choose who would be the first smokejumpers for the first smokejumper fire season in 1940,…Godwin had decided to choose ten men, one to represent each of the ten major forests. He wanted each man to have a minimum of five years experience fighting fires. I was working the old Cabinet National Forest,…and they asked for people who'd be interested. I volunteered. The supervisor chose me in the spring of '40 to represent the Cabinet National Forest. [This was] just after everyone came back…from four to five days of rigorous…training.…The selected ones of us went out to Fort Missoula, which was still an active army post, with the infantry stationed there. They had a hospital facility, and we had to take a medical exam. One guy named Hamilton didn't make it. He didn't pass the physical. The rest of us went up to Seeley Lake…and put up a bunch of tents behind the…ranger station.

"Godwin was there and several other people from Washington representing the Forest Service, and a whole bunch of Army guys and Air Force people, because they were thinking about starting what would become the Airborne 82nd and the 101st, and they took about 2,000 pictures of all our techniques and interviewed us all. They were going around the country looking for any working parachute operation. Turned out ours was the only one. They were thinking about creating airborne divisions.

"The man I became acquainted with was Major William H. Lee. The next time I heard of him, he was a Major General and in charge of training the 82nd Airborne and the 101st….There is a big memorial to him down here in Fort Bragg at the 82nd headquarters. He wanted me and a buddy to come with him and join the Army. He offered me a 2nd lieutenant, but I didn't go.

The First Camp at Seely Lake

"We were at a place called Blanchard Flats, just north of Seeley Lake.…This was about 35 miles northeast of Missoula. Each new jumper made six practice jumps: three jumps at Blanchard Flats and three jumps at the landing strip before any were made in timber. Instructions were given to the men on rolls, letdowns and other basics. We had two minor injuries during the training. One was a sprained ankle. The other was, we were pulling our own ripcords, and [one guy's] ripcord got caught in the shroud lines, and he pulled his shoulder pulling the ripcord. We jumped at 6,000 feet….[Another] guy didn't pull his ripcord until 2,000 feet, and Frank Derry sent the guy on his way. The guy didn't want to continue jumping anyway.

The First Fire Jump

"I didn't make the first fire jump; I made the second fire jump.

"I have a picture of Earl Cooley and Rufus ("Rufe") Robinson. My personal recollection is that there was a fire on Martin Creek, and they decided to make the first jump. They went 'eeny-meeny-mieny-mo' and then decided [on] Rufe and Earl-Rufe, a little because he was an older man, about 35, and Earl had to be about 23. I was 20."

"We were all looking up to Rufe as the more experienced. He was the guy that had a lot of experience fighting fires and kind of calmed us down. [He was] easy-going and completely unflappable. Earl was sort of a 'yup-no' man, didn't have a lot to say. He was one of the nicest guys. These days, we talk every year. He says to me, 'Smokey, about this annual subscription for the National Smokejumper Association magazine: Do ya think we're gonna make it through another year?' He stayed on with the Forest Service. On our practice jumps, Earl and I went together, and he almost always got sick when he made a jump. It was very hard…He was at the cookie bag all the time.

"When Rufe and Cooley got back, we were all elated they had made a safe landing. We figured the project was underway, and that it was going to be a success and there was going to be a good way to fight small fires, and we wouldn't be having to walk in a hundred men.

"Periodically, big-shots would fly in from Missoula—like Major Evan Kelly. He was the regional forester. There were letters on file that he was not in favor of the smokejumper squads, and that it was a waste of 'honest suppression money' that could have been spent on good men. We all knew that he was against us. He was overruled by Washington. David Godwin had overruled him. Godwin was the chief fire officer for the U.S. Forest Service…and he was with us at Blanchard Flats when we did our training jumps. From time to time, he'd show up. He had the entire U.S., but this was his baby. He wanted this thing to go.

"There was a lot of barracks gossip. As if we were under a microscope, the whole Forest Service was looking at this project, seeing where it was going to go. But we felt the Forest Service guys were with us. We all had experience with the pick-up crews out of the bars. They weren't worth anything. After a day, their feet hurt from walking in their shoes, and they wanted to get back to the bar and get a jug of wine.

"As untested smokejumpers, we were afraid that if they decided they were spending too much money, they'd cancel the whole project. So we worked as hard as we could to make sure it did work.…We were planning for 1941. For 1941, we were thinking there would be three squads, one at Moose Creek, one at Big Prairie and one at Nine Mile, which would be the main one, because there was a CC barrack there at Nine Mile, and the Forest Service had hundreds of mules there.

"We were…very good friends, and everybody helped do everything. The first year, we didn't have the static line; it was free-fall. We felt that if a guy didn't feel like jumping,…[he] didn't have to. The Forest Service never chastised them. It was their decision. When we got the static line, [however,] it was a horse of a different color; they had to jump. I don't think I ever elected to not jump, but Earl a couple of times decided not to, and that was not a problem.

"Frank Derry had been experimenting with the static line, so we decided to try and work that out for the 1941 group. We worked that out in 1940. So they were making pioneer static parachute packs on the feasibility of the static line at the loft in Moose Creek.

"In 1940, we were pulling our own ripcords. We stepped out on the step of the Travelair, and we'd go and count to five or 10 or whatever to clear the plane. Some guys would pull just when they were clean, and others would wait until they were at 1000 feet. Bill Bolen pulled his at 4,000 feet, and we were all on the ground watching him come. Frank Derry kept raising his leg and praying, "my God, my God." We thought he was going into the ground. [Afterwards,] Frank told him he was through, but Bill first said 'I don't want to jump any more.'

"The rest of 1940, Frank Derry worked on this static line and the cover on the backpack. They made any number of different models, using the sewing machines at Moose Creek, and Chet Derry made the first jump with a static line. It had never been done anywhere, as far as I know.
It worked perfectly.…[In] the winter of 1940, they went to California and perfected it.…In 1941, we used it in the spring out at the old Nine Mile Remount west of Missoula during training.

"During a practice jump, a guy stepped out on the step, and before he jumped, he pulled a ripcord while still on the steps of the plane. Frank had to push the chute out the door, and it caught briefly on the tail of the plane. Luckily, the guy landed safely.

"At any rate, Earl Cooley and Rufe Robinson went on the first fire at Martin Creek. [They] dropped firepacks on it. Dick Johnson was the pilot. They worked it all night and had it out before ten the next morning, [when] a four-man walk-in crew took over.…The theory was, knock it in the head, control, and if you couldn't control it, watch it until help came.

Second Jump

"I did the second fire jump along with Dick Lynch from the Flathead Forest. That was on July 20, 1940. They decided to make an experiment. Two lookouts saw this lighting bolt go down way at the head of Moose Creek Range in Idaho, but they never saw any fire or smoke, but both had an azimuth reading.

"George Case was the District Ranger at Moose Creek. George Case had authority to dispatch jumpers from [the creek] to anywhere in the region. It was his responsibility. The crick drainage was huge drainage, and this strike was at the head of it. Even though they didn't see any smoke or fire, they decided to jump in two jumpers.

"George Case ordered us in.…Dick and I landed on a meadow about a half-mile from where the fire would be. Because it was a long, flat, ridge line, very open, we could see both lookouts through the trees, and with our compasses, we followed [the] azimuths until they met. Then we smelled smoke. It had just started out. We put it out.

"It was in the early afternoon so we left all our gear up there, piled up for packers to go in and pick it up. We took our jump jackets and pulaskis and dropped down 7 or 8 miles into Moose Creek Basin, which was 6000 feet down. We were told there would be food at the Forest Guard Station, but there wasn't, only a can of Sego Milk (condensed) and coffee. That's all the grub we had.

"We headed out at 4 AM when it was just getting light. We hiked along at a good clip of 3 or 4 miles an hour over very good trail, all down hill gentle grade, one of the main the trails, paralleling Moose Creek all the way. There were so many elk in that canyon we were slapping them on the butt to get them out of the way, literally thousands of elk. At noon we opened that can of milk: Dick had half, I had half. 40 miles later at about 10 or 11 PM we walked into the main Moose
Creek Ranger Station. We were so tired we could hardly take our boots off. We were pretty sore from that long hike. It was a success, because with our compasses, we were able to get to the fire. I never heard of them doing that again.

"Two days later at Moose Creek, we were building an irrigation ditch. Dick and I were sent to do the job with dynamite. Dick said he had plenty of experience. We dug the holes and buried the dynamite. He set the caps, and when we hit the plunger, it didn't go off. He hit it a second time, and we had to then go in and dig out the dynamite. I was afraid we'd get our hands blown off. We dug it out okay.

The First Loft

"Frank Derry…his brother Chet and Glenn Smith…had set up a temporary loft, just a bunch of tables they had made. We decided to build a loft. The Forest Service flew in a cement mixer in a Ford Tri-Motor. We poured the base. The first loft wasn't even enclosed; it was all open. We couldn't extend the parachutes vertical; they had to be dried [horizontally]. We put on a roof made of cedar shakes made from trees we sawed down…That served as [a] parachute loft for 1940-1941 at Moose [Creek], and I don't know what ever happened to that. It was very serviceable, over a hundred feet long. Frank Derry was the project manager. We had shelves to store the parachutes and a couple of heavy sewing machines to make repairs.

"In 1941, Dick Lynch went on to be the squad leader at [the] Big Prairie ranger station, with about 15 men. I went there in 1941. It was a long flight from Missoula in a Ford Tri-Motor.

Early Days

"Let me go back further. I graduated from Great Falls High School in 1936, and I was active in the Boy Scouts and became an Eagle Scout. After a campout, we scouts came into Great Falls, and they were rounding crews to go to the Bear Paw Mountains, east of Havre, where there were two bad fires on the Indian reservation and the Forest Service lands. I volunteered to go up there. They sent us in an open truck, driving all night. We didn't have any covering, just open air and sleeping bags.

"I was 18, one of the youngest guys. [We] rode all night, got there at breakfast.…They were bringing down a guy on a horse who was in the last stages of dying. He'd been burned, made quite an impression on me.

"We were there a couple of weeks, fighting that fire. Then we came back to Great Falls and fought another big fire that had started on Straight Crick…back up against the Rockies, where Charles Russell used to paint a lot of his paintings. We lost two guys on the Straight Crick Fire. Then we went back to Great Falls.

"We were fighting fires for 27 cents an hour. The grub was wonderful. We were growing up in the Depression. Those were hard times. So for us, the food was great.…Some of us jumped the rails and rode boxcars to Missoula to keep on fighting fires. I signed up for more, and we went up to north of the Flathead, where there was a huge fire of about 17,000 acres. I stayed there. I was almost the last guy off. I was on the mop-up crew.

"I went back to Missoula, and we rode the boxcars to Spokane, and we fought a bunch of fires there. Some of my buddies wanted to go north and fight fires near Seattle, but I went back to Missoula in a boxcar and fought a fire south of Missoula. By then, it was getting on to about September, getting pretty cold. When that fire ended, I went back to Great Falls.

"There was another call for a fire around Lewiston. By that time, I had enough experience; they made me a sector boss. I set up my first fire camp. It was really getting cold. And in the end, it snowed.

A Pretty Girl

"It is an interesting side story that in 1941, my wife, Dorothy, rode on the flights with Dick Johnson from Missoula to Big Prairie…Dorothy came from an old pioneer family in Montana.…[Her people were] in the legislature and the senate and everything. On one flight, [Dick] had a cement mixer that broke loose in the plane, and because she was the only passenger, she had to secure it. He liked to take newspapers and have Dorothy throw them…out to the lookouts. There were about 15 of them between Missoula and Big Prairie. Boy, were the lookouts happy to get those. They'd be waving! It was a pretty girl throwing out newspapers they enjoyed getting."