My Brush with History: CPS Smokejumpers
by Gregg Phifer (Missoula ’44)
from the July 2000 edition
At the time of the last “good” war, World War II, 12,000 men refused induction into the military,, were classified IV-E (conscientious Objectors), and assigned to Civilian Public Service for “work of national importance under civilian direction.\" Of that tiny minority (less than 1 percent of those drafted), nearly 40 percent were Mennonites, 11 percent Brethren, 7 percent Friends, 6 percent Methodists (my own denomination), and the rest represented more than 200 sects or denominations.
The Selective Service wanted us to be as nearly invisible as possible and sent us to distant locations. Most early CPS camps took over barracks constructed for the Civilian Conservation Corps, and we assumed responsibility for some projects they had abandoned with the onset of wartime conscription. Most CPS assignees worked for the Park Service, Soil Conservation Service or the Forest Service. Other alternatives, such as service in mental hospitals, came much later.
“How About Smokejumping?”
In the fall of 1942 Phil Stanley (Missoula ’43) a Quaker assigned to GPS 37 in Coleville, Wash., wrote Axel Lindh, head of fire control for Forest Service Region One: “lt occurred to me that you might need men for your parachute fire-fighting corps." Lindh’s reply told Stanley that, “So far as the Forest Service officials are concerned, we will be mighty glad to recruit parachute firefighting candidates from the Civilian Public Service Camps.\" He initiated a request to have smokeiumping approved as a form of service for COs.
Both Selective Service and the National Service Board for Religious Objectors approved Lindh\'s request and in the spring of 1943, 300 men applied from CPS base camps. Three of those selected came from Buck Creek Camp (CPS 19 in Marion, N.C.) to which I had reported just before Christmas 1942.
The Forest Service selected 60 men who reported for jumper training at Camp Paxson on Seeley Lake, about 60 miles north of Missoula. Most, perhaps all had fought forest fires from their base camps. After jumper training, the Forest Service stationed units at strategic spots throughout the area: Seeley Lake, Big Prairie, and Nine Mile in Montana; Moose Creek and McCall in Idaho; and Redwood Ranger Station (Cave Junction) in southern Oregon. The agency established headquarters for CPS 103, the smokejumper unit administered by the Mennonite Central Committee, in Huson, Mont.
Program a Success
The 1943 unit proved so successful that, by 1944, the Forest Service doubled its request. My part in a mountain rescue while assigned to the Mammoth Lakes side camp of CPS 37 earned me a strong letter of recommendation from the ranger of that district. For that and other reasons, (I had fought a number of fires both at Buck Creek and Coleville CPS camps), the Forest Service chose me as one of the 60 new men to receive jumper training in 1944 at the new Nine Mile base near Huson. Evidently the Forest Service was happy with our work since in 1945 the agency requested additional men to bring camp strength to better than 200. Some CPS men served all three years. I spent two years as a smokejumper, with 20 jumps, 10 training and refresher over the airfield at Nine Mile, and 10 fire jumps into the Idaho wilderness.
By 1944 when Gregg joined the CPS/USFS smokejumpers, he had earned his BA from Pacific and his MA fro Iowa. After release from CPS and two years teaching at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, he returned to Iowa for his doctorate. Gregg joined the faculty at Florida State University in 1949 and retired as Professor Emeritus in 1994. He is looking forward to seeing many of the CPS jumpers at William Penn College in July at the CPS reunion.