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He Started the Smokejumper Program in McCall

by Leo Cromwell (Idaho City '66) |

An Interview With Stewart S. "Lloyd" Johnson (McCall '43)
by Leo Cromwell (Idaho City '66)

Stewart or Lloyd? He does not care what you call him, but he should be remembered as "The Father of Region 4 Smokejumping." Lloyd worked 23 seasons with the Forest Service. In 1943, he volunteered to be in charge of a new experimental firefighting program called Smokejumping. Only a few years earlier Evan Kelley, the Region 1 Regional Forester, said, "All parachute jumpers are more or less crazy and just a little bit unbalanced, otherwise they wouldn't be engaged in such a hazardous undertaking." Three years later in 1946, as the war came to an end, Lloyd hired McCall's first non-CPS smokejumper crew consisting mainly of returning veterans. Lloyd felt that he worked with the finest group of men that could possibly be put together during his ten years with the smokejumpers. What he did and why he left, this is his story.

Raised In McCall

Stewart Standidge Johnson was born in McCall, Idaho, on June 2, 1916. He grew up in McCall and loved the outdoors. Skiing, firefighting, and smokejumping were a very important part of his life. Stewart's nickname, "Lloyd," was given to him by his father. Later in his life, he was called "The Whip" by his smokejumper crew. This title is said to have originated from Bus Bertram (MYC-47), who on a very long packout led by Lloyd said, "Even a government mule gets a break, Whip." He has always enjoyed skiing and was named "The World's Smallest Ski Jumper" on the 1925 McCall Winter Carnival official pin. Lloyd can still be found skiing on the slopes of Brundage Mountain every winter.

Forest Service Career

In 1930 at the age of 14, Lloyd began working for the Forest Service while in high school. He was hired as the custodian at the Forest Supervisor's Office. Emptying and cleaning spittoons permanently cured Lloyd of ever using tobacco products. Later that summer he worked for the district fixing telephone lines, trails and other types of maintenance work.

When he was 16 he received his first full-time forest service position with packers George Anderson and Harry Fritzer. As the camp tender, he was in charge of setting up camp and preparing meals. When fires broke out during this 1932 season, he made his first appearance on a fireline. Lloyd had volunteered to be a much needed water boy. His job was to hike to the nearest stream or lake and fill a 5-gallon pack with water and return it to the fire line for the crew. Walking around the fire offering the crew water, Lloyd learned a lot about fire fighting procedures. Lloyd was fired three times that summer by a Regional Forest Supervisor from Ogden named Floyd Godden. Godden had spotted Lloyd on the fire line and knew he had to be too young to be fighting fires.

Godden approached the young, hard working youth and asked, "How old are you?"

Lloyd replied, "I don't know."

Godden said, "Well, you're not old enough. Collect your pay and find a ride back to where you belong."

Lloyd started to leave, then ducked out of site and reported back to his foreman, who said, "Disappear kid, we need you up here, so whenever you see old Floyd, just go the other way."

He worked on and helped build lookouts that do not exist on today's Payette National Forest. Some of the lookouts he worked on were Blackmare, Eagle Rock, and Teapot Dome.

Later, before taking on the smokejumping project, he worked as an alternate ranger on the New Meadows District. He also spent time in the Supervisor's Office working alongside the Forest Dispatcher, Harold "Slim" Vassar.
How It All Began In 1943

"No one else was crazy enough to do it," is how Lloyd answers the question about why he took on the challenge of starting a new smokejumper firefighting unit. "It was strictly an experimental program and it had to be voluntary. A lot of Forest Service personnel thought that it would not work. I was chosen because I knew firefighting and I believed that this new idea would get firefighters to the line faster without the long walks.

"I can tell you how the McCall Base got started. I got into it even before they started the smokejumpers. They developed a seat that would work out of a Travelaire. You would sit in the seat and pull on a lever and you would go out the bottom of the plane and then you would pull your ripcord. That was never approved, but I volunteered for the first deal. When they decided to give it an experimental try here in Region 4, I volunteered for this great challenge. John Ferguson (MYC-43) and I were both working for the Forest Service here in McCall, so they chose the two of us to go to training in Seeley Lake, Montana. Frank Derry (MSO-40) headed up the training. So Ferguson, the conscientious objectors and I trained together. We then returned to McCall along with three conscientious objectors: Lester Gahler (MYC-43), Jerry Hofer (MYC-43), and Keith Utterback (MYC-43). After the training was completed, I was placed in charge of the new program."

During the first three years of smokejumping at McCall, the crew consisted of two Forest Service employees and the rest were CPS (Civilian Public Service or Conscientious Objectors) jumpers. Lloyd had a lot of respect for the conscientious objectors, even though he did not agree with them for not going into the military service. He understood it was the way they were raised and what they believed in. The CPS crew would do anything they were asked to do in McCall in those early years. That first year the CPS jumpers were not prepared for the sub-zero temperatures. He had to "beg, borrow, and steal" for clothes to get them through the long winter months. The CPS program was run by their own organization and, after training, they received their jumper base assignment. In 1944, McCall received sixteen of these jumpers and expanded to thirty-five for the final year of the program in 1945.

"We had absolutely nothing to work with here in McCall. With no money, everything that we got was taken out of the forest funds, and they handed out money like you would to your kids as they were growing up. Our base was started on the forest property above an old nursery building that was used for raising trees. It was abandoned at that time, so we took over this building. A cook shack was set up in one corner of the building. It had an upper story that we set the smokejumpers up in. A parachute loft was constructed to inspect and dry the chutes. We had a pulley system set up to the apex of the building to pull the chutes up for inspection. John Ferguson and I were the only trained riggers the first three years.

"The building was a portable military building. When the Great Depression came along, they had to have buildings to house the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). So then they shipped in these portable military buildings; they were molded together in sections.

"Up the hill we built a barracks with a basement in it. When the forest supervisor, Jimmy Farrel, would leave town, we would slip out there and build another building because he would never have authorized it if he knew about it. When he came back he would say, 'Well, what's this?' It was a kitchen.

"In 1946 the war was over and we hired local boys and veterans to replace the CPS jumpers who provided jumper manpower during the war. We built a baseball field near the jump tower. I hired Wayne Webb, Kenny Roth, and Dale Fickle, who were great athletes, and they wanted the baseball field. Others hired that year included: Smokey Stover, Bob Caldwell, Bruce Egger, Wally Henderson, Ray Mansisidor, Ace Nielsen, and brothers, Ralph and Paul Wilde. We went and leveled off the field behind the base and got the equipment by the 'beg, borrow, or steal' method because we had no money. If I needed a dollar, I would have to go over the hill and get down on my hands and knees. We had a great team until the fire season got hot and heavy. I encouraged the baseball because it kept the guys in shape. I must say some of the guys were better ballplayers than workers."

The First Smokejumper Buildings In McCall

"We got most of the buildings from the CCC camps at Lake Fork Creek, near McCall and French Creek, up river from Riggins. We would go out and tear them down and reassemble them back at McCall. The last of the buildings we got from Gowen Field in Boise. They were already torn apart and lying out in the sun. They were warped and we had a heck of a time putting them back together, but we had to have them. Each panel was about eight foot wide and we bolted them together. They had 2x4 frames and we put the buildings up and finished them inside. We put up wallboard and covered them with gallons and gallons of paint. We used the spray gun on everything we had; that's what held the buildings together. We painted the floors gray and built lockers for each individual jumper.

"At the food cache each jumper made up his own food bag for the fire. Everybody did not like the same things, so they chose what they wanted to take to the fire. You know, everybody does not like beans, so you didn't take beans if you did not like them.

"Everything was set up in camp. We had a roster and when we got a fire the top guys went and when you came off the fire you returned to the bottom to rotate up again. You worked your way up the roster until you reached the top and when you got a fire, then away you went. We did not have a fire buzzer at first because we didn't have anyone to ring the buzzer. We waited for a call from dispatch over the hill at the supervisor's office informing us that we had a fire. When we got a call we suited up in our ready room and then got into a pickup that had seats along the sides of the bed. Jumpers were all suited and chuted up and went right to the airport and got into the plane, and we were off in around 15 minutes."

The First Jumps From McCall

"The first jump was made from the Travelair with Penn Stoor as pilot and I was the spotter. It was on Capt John's Creek near Riggins on August 14, 1943, on the Idaho Forest. John Fuguson and Lester Gahler made the jump using 30-foot diameter Eagle parachutes.

"The second jump of the 1943 fire season was on August 27. I was jumping with Jerry Hofer and Keith Utterback, and John Ferguson was the spotter. The fire was near Sloan's Point in Paddy Flat, only a few miles southeast of McCall.

"The wind was really blowing, and I managed to get my canopy draped over the top of the tallest fir tree in Idaho. We carried letdown ropes that were only sixty feet in length. I looked down and I knew that with 60 feet of letdown rope. I could not get even close to the ground. The fire was burning right next to the tree I was in, and I felt like 'a pig on a stick.' I unhooked my canopy and took off all my jump gear and threw it out so that the only thing I had left was my rope. I climbed down through the limbs and tied off on the lowest one and dropped the rope. It came within 15 feet of the ground.

"I slowly worked my way down this big sloping fir. There were little clumps of broken branches that made it difficult to work around. I was doing fine until I ran out of branches and I swung out. Now all I had between the ground and myself was my rope. I started down the rope and the friction burned my hands through my gloves. Today I can still remember the feeling as it burned through my gloves into my flesh. Boy, were they smoking! I got down to the end of my rope and just cut loose and did a good roll. Fortunately, outside of my rope-burned hands, I had no problem but the fire was crowning right next to me, so I was naturally a little excited. We got on the ground and soon controlled the fire."

McCall's report of the fire jump says that Dick Johnson was the pilot of the Travelaire. The fire was running fast and snags were falling. The three smokejumpers and a Paddy Flat guard held the fire in check until a crew of 15 firefighters arrived several hours later and prevented a major fire.

The 1946 Season

In the 1946 season, the McCall Unit had forty-three jumpers in the first year after the release of the CPS jumpers. Forty were in their first year, as most of the new recruits were veterans of the war. Lloyd made up rules with the help of the new crew and appointed new squadleaders from their midst. Weight limits were established from 120 to 180 pounds. "If you are over 180 pounds you will hit too hard and if you weigh under 120 you will drift too far," Lloyd informed the recruits. An age limit was placed at 40 years of age after which it was believed the jumper was "over the hill."

Lloyd preferred to hire the college students instead of the "career jumpers." The students came back from college when the fire season needed them and returned to college as the season came to an end. He soon had doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, forest service leaders and other professional people as part of his earlier crews.

July 3, 1946, was the date of the first Forest Service smokejumper fatality in the nation. First-year jumper, Lester Lycklama (MYC-46), was killed after being hit in the head by a limb from a tree that he and rookie John Hennessey (MYC-46) were attempting to fall with a crosscut. Lloyd jumped the rescue along with four others. He administered blood plasma to Lester, who later died in the Council Hospital.

His Decision To Leave The Smokejumpers

Under the National Security Act of 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency was established and by 1949 the CIA went recruiting for candidates in the smokejumper organization. The CIA wanted smokejumpers because of their knowledge of jumping and surviving on the ground after the jump. One of the first people they were interested in was Lloyd Johnson. The CIA talked to Lloyd and he pledged his secrecy to the organization and never even told his wife of their interest in him. But the forest supervisor was informed when they contacted him to reach Lloyd and had discussed the possibility of losing smokejumpers to the new organization.

Soon fellow Forest Service employees were telling Lloyd, "We hear you are leaving us to take a job with the CIA."

The FBI and the forest supervisor accused Lloyd of "letting the cat out of the bag" about the CIA. Lloyd was upset over becoming the "fall guy" and, along with a few other things, he felt like it was time to find a new career. He was not forced to quit but made the difficult decision on his own.

In the spring of 1953, after training his crew for the new fire season, Lloyd quit the Forest Service as he promised he would. Lloyd was a proud man and was very well respected by his crew. Wayne Webb wrote a letter that protested the way the Forest Service was treating Lloyd, and the rest of his loyal crew signed their support. Webb's letter is said to have cost him his chance of ever replacing Lloyd as the new Project Leader in McCall. Lloyd trained the 1953 crew and turned the job of managing the project over to Reid Jackson (MYL-49).

In 1953, after 23 years of working for the Forest Service, Lloyd left and moved his family to Fruitland, Idaho, to begin his new career as an oil distributor for Westcott Oil. Lloyd had a very successful business career and life in Fruitland. He currently lives in the same house he bought in 1953, and his home contains a treasure of smokejumper history. This year on June 2, he will celebrate his 90th birthday with his family, friends, and smokejumpers.

The story of Stewart S. "Lloyd" Johnson has been preserved by the Heritage Program of the Payette National Forest, written in 2003 by Richard H. Holm. Lloyd's knowledge and contributions to smokejumping have been preserved on video by hours of interviews by Bob Webber (MSO-62). Bob has captured Lloyd's life and his memories of the forest workers, pilots, and smokejumpers so that we will never forget them. Lloyd Johnson is the person that made the smokejumping experiment work in Region 4. He truly is the "The Father of Region 4 Smokejumping."