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Some Casual Reflections on Early Jumping

by Neil Shier (Cave Junction '46) |

We were the first post-World War II group of smokejumpers. The boss was Merle Lundrigan (Missoula '41) and the squadleaders were Cliff Marshall (Cave Junction '46) and Bill Green (Missoula '45). I was hired in May, right after my discharge from the Navy, and joined the Aerial Project because the lookout job that I had before the war was taken.

I joined a group that left from Grants Pass, Ore. bound for Missoula. Under Marshall's leadership, the group included Danny On, Richard Corson, Ed Adams, Danny O'Rourke, Paul Hankins, John Thach, Andy Henry, "Doc" Middleton and several others.

When we arrived at Missoula, we were trucked to Nine Mile Camp and joined a large group of trainees in what looked like Civilian Conservation Corps barracks. Most were vets, many from airborne outfits. Cliff Marshall and John Thach had been in the 82nd Airborne. Cliff was one of the few who had three combat jumps (Sicily, D-Day and Market Garden). Dick Corson was with the airborne Marines in the South Pacific; Danny On was with the 101st; Eddie Adams had been part of the 17th Airborne Corps. I had been a combat air crewman in TBF Avenger aircraft in the Pacific.

The training was fairly simplistic. The "jump tower" was a rope thrown over a tree limb with one end secured to the tree and the other to the trainee's harness. One jumped off a platform and when the rope became fully extended, voila, opening shock! I think Frank Derry(Missoula '40), Wag Dodge (Missoula '41) and Francis Lufkin (North Cascades '40) worked in the parachute loft adjoining the tree letdown area.

Upon completion of training, we returned to Cave Junction and lived in tent frame units behind the Redwood Ranger Station. Our primary jump rig was the 28-foot flat circular Derry with a few Eagle canopies mixed in. Reserves were standard 22-foot/24-foot chest types. Bob Benesh and Steve Ayers were our pilots and flew the Norduyn Norseman airplane for us that summer.

I was the only "home town" person in the group, being from Grants Pass. On weekends the men would use my mom's and dad's house as headquarters, crashing on the floor and using the washing machine and shower. My folks were totally enchanted by those men.

Because I happened to be the person who answered the phone in the mess hall, I was selected to make the first fire jump in 1946. The fire was a lightning strike on the top of a steep ridge in the Trinity Alps in Northern California. It was a pretty routine trip going south until the pilot flew a fuel tank dry and the sudden silence caused some puckering among the jumpers. The pilot switched to a full tank and restarted the engine and the rest was routine. The fire was one of the "out by ten o' clock" variety.