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Members of Missoula Elite Unit Recruited for CIA Mission to Taiwan

by John Q. Murray |

The following article was printed in “The Clark Fork Chronicle,” Huson, Montana, in the June 25, 2004 issue. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

Lyle Grenager (MSO-48) of Huson, a member of the U.S. Forest Service elite smokejumper firefighting unit from 1946 to 1951, attended the smokejumper reunion held in Missoula last weekend as part of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Forest Service's Aerial Fire Depot.

In a Chronicle interview, Lyle recalled smokejumper adventures and friends. He said he just missed being assigned to the Mann Gulch Fire because he was returning from an assignment in Republic, Wash., and missed that flight by half a day.

In the Forest Service's first (smokejumper) catastrophic wildfire tragedy, 13 men lost their lives in the Mann Gulch Fire in the summer of 1949. Lyle was good friends with two of the Missoula men who gave their lives at Mann Gulch, Jim Harrison (MSO-47), who was his neighbor across the street, and Eldon Diettert (MSO-49).

“They were really good men,” he said. Harrison, a fire lookout, was “a ground-pounder,” he said, the smokejumpers’ term for those who scouted the fire in advance of the smokejumpers' arrival.

With 13 deaths, the Mann Gulch Fire had the most (smokejumper) fatalities on a wildfire until 14 firefighters were killed on the Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in 1994.

“The best duty for the smokejumper was the two-man fires,” Lyle recalled. Two smokejumpers went out in a Travelair on small fires, usually involving a single snag that had been hit by lightning. The two men parachuted in and put the fire out, then had to wait 24 hours to watch it and make sure it was out. They then hiked back to civilization, using “a little square of a map with a crayon line on it.” The Montanans were good at finding their way out of the backcountry.

The tougher duty was the 16-man fire. The DC-3 held 16 smokejumpers, and when that many men were needed, the fire was already big and growing. “That duty was much more labor-intensive,” he recalled.

“The unit trained at Camp Menard, behind the Nine Mile ranger station,” he said. They used football helmets with a screened facemask to keep sticks from poking them in the face. They also put together their own training equipment, such as the tower with the early bungee cord that they used to practice the correct position during a jump. “If your body wasn't in the right position, that chute would snap you around when it opened,” he said.

“Because the smokejumpers represented the most advanced parachute technology in the world at that time, with elite men like Jim Waite (MSO-40) and Frank Derry (MSO-40) pushing the state of the art with their innovations, the CIA turned to the smokejumpers for help with a secret mission after the war,” Lyle recalled. He was one of five or six men from Missoula recruited to serve his country.

“We can't tell you where you're going, but this will take the place of your required military service,” he was told by the recruiter. Lyle, who was in the Naval Air Corps ROTC at the time, accepted the assignment. He soon found himself in Taiwan, giving parachuting training to units that served the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. The smokejumpers also trained the units in survival techniques to prepare for dropping behind enemy lines on the mainland. Among the other men with him in Taiwan, he recalled Jack Wall (MSO-48), Herman Ball (MSO-50) and Wally Dobbins (MSO-47), who passed away just last year.

Lyle offered a photograph of himself and other Missoula men standing in front of a Taipei hotel with the Chinese leader and his wife. “She was the brains behind the outfit,” Lyle said, indicating Madame Chiang Kai-shek on the photograph. She was educated at Wellesley College in the United States and was instrumental in developing Taiwan's aeronautics industry. Madame Chiang Kai-shek just passed away last year on October 23, 2003, at the age of 105.

After two and a half years in the Orient, he returned to Missoula, only to find that his mission was still top-secret. Nobody at the Missoula draft board knew about it, and they had been looking for him because he was not exempt from the draft. After several phone calls to Washington, D.C., the CIA told him that the draft board had more power than they did. They advised him to report, but said they would get him out as quickly as possible.

On the train down to Butte, he commiserated with two other men in the same situation. One, a sheep rancher from Sheridan, Wyo., had been exempt during World War II because he was in a critical industry, but he had been told that he had a month to find someone to run his ranch or sell out. “He was boiling mad,” Lyle said.

Lyle was starting to get nervous as the weeks went by and he was shipped to training in Missouri. But during his eighth week, the general called him into his office. “Grenager, I don't know who you know, but my instructions are to open the gates and let you go.” Lyle said he played dumb and didn't let on that he knew what was going on. The general stopped him. “Do me a favor, will you. I've never seen anything like this in my career. When you can, drop me a postcard and let me know what this is all about.”

“You bet, general,” Lyle said.

The CIA didn't want him to return immediately to Missoula because there might be questions about how he was released from service, so they got him a job in ordnance in Washington, D.C., listed under the Department of the Army. He worked there until word came that he was being transferred to England. The Montana man thought that would just be too many people, and he wanted to go home. “I told them, ‘I don't care if I starve, I'm going back to Montana.’” “They let me quit,” he said.

One of his most memorable experiences involved neither the CIA nor wildland fire. The smokejumpers often participated on rescue searches for lost hunters. One fall Lyle had just ended his summer smokejumper service and had started attending classes at the University of Montana when he got the call asking him to return as a volunteer for one such search on the Magruder Ranger District, southwest of Darby.

After fire season, the Forest Service only kept a few full-time smokejumpers, and they needed more to successfully carry a stretcher out of the backcountry. The DC-3 held 16 men, but they needed at least 12 to give them three crews of four men each. Four men would allow one man on each corner of the stretcher to pack the injured person out.

On the DC-3, the plane often circled a few times to get lined up with the landing zone. A spotter kneeled near the doorway, peering out for the smoke from the signal fire, and told the jumper by tapping him on the back of the ankle when it was time to go. But Lyle's partner didn't have his foot in the right position, and the spotter touched his foot, trying to move it forward so that it would be in the right position when it was time to jump. But as soon as he touched it, Lyle's partner was out the door. Lyle followed and it was soon apparent that they had jumped too early. Lyle used the Derry slots to twist around and look for the smoke, but couldn't see anything.
He yelled over to his partner going down, “Where's the smoke?”

“Heck if I know!”

To make matters worse, Lyle ended up in a high yellow pine and it took two hours to disentangle his chute and collect his equipment.
They had no idea where they were or which way to go. So they cached their equipment and Lyle suggested that they head down the draw. They marked the location of their equipment with a lot of orange streamers.

It took them two hours to walk down the draw, but they found the main camp and joined the search. The men split into different parties and headed up different drainages. On the second or third day of the search, the local ranger and his assistant were on a ridge and noticed a bunch of orange streamers across the valley. They decided to investigate, and their route toward the streamers—Lyle and his partner's equipment—took them down to where they heard a man moaning. It was the lost hunter, who had gone “berserk” from hunger and exposure.

The 12 rescuers toted him 19 miles cross-country to the Moose Creek airstrip, where he was flown to the hospital and enjoyed a speedy recovery. Four of the crewmembers were in college at the time and had worked as volunteers for a week. The crew chief said he would see what he could do and visited the hunter in the hospital. “Four of your rescuers were volunteers, and I just wanted to see if you’d contribute to help reimburse them for their time,” he told the man.The man told him to get lost.

“But there was a happy ending,” Lyle recalled. The hunter's brother heard about it and kicked in $50 for each of the college men. And Lyle, who missed a week of classes and wasn't doing too well in typing already, didn't get the failing grade that he had feared. “The teacher took into account his work for the smokejumpers, so gave him a D-minus instead,” he said, laughing.