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World War II-era smokejumpers passing on

by Webmaster |

A single sheet of paper on a table outside a meeting room seems to sum up the story of this week's reunion of World War II-era smokejumpers.

The paper shows a long list of names of former smokejumpers. The title at the top of the list says "deceased."

In the next room, among the group of some 50 people, white is the predominant hair color and the occasional cane rests against a chair.

"They are the World War II generation that we're losing thousands of by the day," former smokejumper Chuck Sheley said.

The reunion this week at the lodge at Hungry Horse's Glacier Bible Camp was for smokejumpers who served from 1943 through 1945.

The group has met every few years since 1973.

But as the list of the deceased and the average age of the group, 85, indicates, the smokejumpers say this reunion might be the last.

The smokejumpers at this week's reunion, which began Monday and concludes Friday, were members of the Civilian Public Service.

The service was created as an alternative to the draft for conscientious objectors, people whose religious or personal beliefs were fundamentally opposed to war or killing others.

Those firm beliefs were hardly shared by many others during the war. Many of the smokejumpers remember overhearing people make disparaging and insulting comments about conscientious objectors.

Men in the civilian program performed alternative services for the country, such as building roads and dams or fighting fires.

Sheley, who jumped from 1959 to 1970 and now is the editor of Smokejumper Magazine, also attended the reunion as a sort of gesture to the group of men he says history and society often forget or ignore.

"The conscientious objectors were not popular in World War II, but what they did for the smokejumping program I think got us where we are today," he said.

Smokejumping was pioneered in 1939, but it wasn't put into regular practice until 1943, meaning that the men at this week's reunion were in on the ground level of aerial-approach firefighting.

For many of those men, smokejumping meant a chance to show that they weren't scared or lacking in patriotism.

"The motivation for a lot of us was to prove to society we're not afraid to risk our lives, it's simply the fact that we won't take another's life," said Tedford Lewis, who smokejumped for one season during the war.

Wilmer Carlsen, who now lives in Polson, is a bit more flippant than Lewis when asked why he applied for a job as a smokejumper.

"I probably didn't have good sense when I was younger," he joked.

Lewis, who now lives in Missouri, had some firefighting experience before he arrived at the smokejumpers training base in Seeley Lake. Jumping from a plane was new to him, but the basics of firefighting don't change.

"Your approach is different, but when you're on the fire, it's the same job," he said.

Smokejumpers did some training before their initial practice jump. Carlsen, though, remembers falling back on something other than lessons when he took his first jump.

"I closed my eyes and hoped," he said.

He stayed on for an additional two seasons, completing a total of 29 jumps.

Carlsen said he considered marking each of his birthdays with an annual skydive after he got out of the civilian service, but he didn't follow through. Carlsen, like others in the reunion group, hasn't leapt from a plane since his days as a smokejumper.

When the men get together now, their numbers, which peaked around 240 at the end of 1945 season, are rounded out by accompanying spouses.

Although the reunion crowds have dissipated during the passing years, the interest in social issues among the group of conscientious objectors remains high.

The men at the reunion swap stories and memories, but the many items on the week's agenda are discussions and presentations on social issues, such as the economics of public policy.

Sheley noted that other smokejumper reunions he's been to seem to be more about "going back to the good old days," but this group is equally concerned with keeping up on current world issues.

The strong religious convictions that led them to declare themselves opposed to what was a very popular war are the same ideals that continue to spur their concern over modern day problems, Lewis said.

But not all of the reunion centers on political and ideological education, Lewis said. The agenda includes morning strolls and a trip to Glacier National Park.

At the end of the week the men will decide whether or not they'll try for another reunion. When they began holding reunions, they met every five years until the onset of old age pushed the get-togethers up to every three, and then every two years.

Whether they meet again or not, the smokejumpers say they'll maintain their interest in social issues even if history continues to overlook the role of conscientious objectors in smokejumping history.

"That took balls of brass at that time, to go against society. I think it was a tough decision to make, and I admire them for it," Sheley said.

Reporter Camden Easterling may be reached at 758-4429 or by e-mail at -