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Wilmer Carlsen ( Missoula 1943 )

posted: Apr 3, 2008

Bill, 91, of Polson died March 28, 2008, at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula. He was born February 3, 1917, on a farm near Harlan, Iowa. He was a longtime resident of Missoula and Polson. Bill was one of the original CPS-103 jumpers and one of the few who jumped all three seasons of the program's existence.

In a 2004 interview with Smokejumper magazine Bill told more about his past. In 1936 at age 19, Bill and his older brother decided to head west to dig potatoes. "The whole family came down to the freight yards to see us off," Bill recalls. His brother managed to climb aboard the first train, but it was moving too fast for Bill. He was able to catch the next one and rejoined his brother 1,100 miles down the track in Park City, Montana. From there it was picking apples in Omak, Washington and bailing hay in Lancaster, California.

War clouds were developing, and Bill registered with the Lancaster draft board. Returning to work, "I had a lot of time to think about it on that big hay field driving the tractor back and forth. I finally decided that I couldn't shoot anybody." He was sent to a CCC camp run by the Forest Service near Cascade Locks, Oregon, where he gained firefighting experience on the Deschutes River and the Olympic Peninsula.

One day there was a notice posted in the camp mess hall about smokejumper positions in Montana. Out of over 200 conscientious objectors in the camp, only Bill and one other man responded.

Bill reported to Seeley Lake on May 1, 1943, ready to go. The assemblage was so large that jump training was staggered through the summer. Bill was in the second group of 30, starting in mid-June. He had only one fire jump that year, on the Madison Plateau, 14 miles from Old Faithful.

Bill jumped two more years, jumping fires in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Later, he joined the carpenters union, working at that trade until retirement.

One emotional memory from his jumping years involved a confrontation with a non-jumping USFS employee, a recently discharged Marine. "He kept calling me a yellow belly. He wouldn't shut up." Bill's foreman, Wag Dodge (MSO-41) heard the ruckus and came to his rescue. "He really straightened the guy out."