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A Tribute To Fred Brauer

by Ron Stoleson (Missoula '56) |

He’s one of those few who are deeply admired and loved by those he supervised. He was and is, a “Jumper’s Jumper.” At a noon luncheon in Missoula in 2004, attended by about forty ex-jumpers, he was given a plaque designed and crafted by Vance Warren (MSO-54). The plaque contained the words, “We came as boys and left as men” and was a fitting tribute to a person who is still idolized by many of the “boys” who were privileged to work for him.

Fred O. Brauer joined the “Parachute Project” in 1941 at Missoula, Montana. He had much to tell of the Project’s progress from the days of the “Eagle” parachute to those of the FS-3.

Fred grew up in Montana, going to high school at Missoula County High where his athleticism earned him a football scholarship to Montana State University (now known as the University of Montana). Fred took up studies at the University in 1938 and majored in Journalism. He had worked summers for the Forest Service fighting forest fires on the Bonita Ranger District on the Lolo National Forest in 1934, at the age of 17, and for the Seeley Lake Ranger District during the 1937-1939 seasons.

The Alternate Ranger he worked for at Seeley Lake was Merle Lundrigan (MSO-41), who would later become the “Parachute Project” leader in Missoula and who hired Fred in 1941, putting him in charge of physical training for the smokejumpers. The training assignment fit in well with Fred’s athletic background as a football player for MSU. At MSU Fred enlisted the help of their Athletic Department’s trainer, Nasby Rhinehart, to design a physical training regime for the jumpers. Nasby’s help resulted in “the rack” (some called it the torture rack), a device for exercising the leg and stomach muscles.

In 1941, when Fred joined the outfit, there were 26 jumpers at Missoula organized into three squads. After group training at Ninemile, one squad was stationed at Stoney Creek Civilian Conservation Corps camp on the Lolo National Forest with Francis Lufkin as foreman. The second squad was based at Big Prairie, a fly-in ranger station on the Flathead National Forest, with Dick Lynch (MSO-40) as squadleader and Jim Waite (MSO-40) as Rigger. The third squad was at Moose Creek, another fly-in station on the Nez Perce N.F., with Rufus Robinson (MSO-40) as squadleader and Earl Cooley (MSO-40) as rigger.

Also, in 1941, Frank Derry (NCSB-40), Chet Derry (MSO-40) and Glenn Smith (NCSB-40) were a part of the project and responsible for the development of equipment necessary for the project’s success, a job Fred felt never got the recognition it deserved. That winter brought about the development of the static line and the “Derry Slots,” a parachute canopy modification that allowed directional control of the 28-foot parachute that was being favored over the Eagle because of its lesser opening shock. The 28-foot chute was a circular, flat canopy and was made of nylon, not the silk used in the Eagle. Silk was very tasty to grasshoppers and, on more than one occasion, parachutes left out in the open after a fire jump had multiple holes chewed in them by the hoppers. The Eagle parachute, which the 28-foot nylon canopy would replace, came in two sizes: a 30-footer used as a main and a 27-footer used as a reserve. Fred used the 27-footer as a main because it had much less opening shock than the 30-footer.

As a result of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Fred’s journalism education was cut short and he volunteered for service in the Army Air Corps but wasn’t called to active duty until April 1942, when space was available for him to enter pilot training. During the winter of ’41, Fred, along with Wag Dodge (MSO-41), was hired by Paramount Studios to make some jumps that would be filmed for use in a movie Paramount was making titled “The Forest Ranger,” starring Fred McMurry and Paulette Goddard. They each made 10 jumps and were paid the decent wage (in those days) of $35/jump.

When called up by the Army, Fred went to the Southeast Training Command with three others from Montana. One was a professional cowboy and another ended up practicing medicine as a doctor in Missoula.

After basic training, Fred was assigned to fighter pilot training but, when it became obvious that a large number of troop carrier pilots would be needed for the final assault on Germany, he was reassigned to twin engine training at Bergstrom Field at Alliance, Nebraska. He was with the 1st Troop Carrier Group, 93rd Squadron. The aircraft he trained in was the C-47 (DC-3 to many of you jumpers). Following training, he flew in North Africa for three weeks but was then based in England where he flew missions to Belgium, France and Holland. One mission he flew was of historic proportions, coming as it did immediately prior to the D-Day invasion. It involved dropping troops of the 101st Airborne Division (commanded by General Gavin) at 0115 hours on June 6 (Fred remembered those dates and times), in the vicinity of the town of Ste. Mere Eglise, a name well known to those who have read about D-Day or have seen the movie “The Longest Day.” Many will remember the airborne trooper snagging his chute on the church steeple in that town and hanging there while the Germans prowled the streets beneath him. The flight Fred made that night with eight other C-47s was the furthest penetration eastward of any allied air transports on that date.

Following his flight to drop the airborne troops, Fred was assigned the mission to drop some engineers in a Horsa Glider to build an airfield for the evacuation of troops from the front. The airfield was built and Fred ended up flying wounded American soldiers from that field. Fred recalls an instance when a German officer was included with the wounded soldiers. He had to restrain a wounded airborne soldier from killing the German officer.

Fred ended his time in Europe with 1500 hours in the C-47 and with many medals, including the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, seven major battle stars and the Distinguished Flying Cross. The latter was awarded to him for successfully leading a flight towing gliders full of supplies for relief of the besieged airborne units in the town of Bastogne. At least three men on the ground that day benefited from Fred’s heroism and would later become smokejumpers. One, David Navon (MSO-49), although surviving Bastogne, would later lose his life in 1949 on the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana after parachuting from a C-47. Another, Wayne Webb (MYC-46), became a leader of the McCall Smokejumpers and would share the stage with Fred in welcoming President Eisenhower (the commander of the European Theater of Operations in WW-II) to the dedication of the Aerial Fire Depot in Missoula in September of 1954. The third was Bob Crowe (MSO-46). Two days after Fred’s relief flight, Patton broke through and relieved the besieged troopers.

In 1945, Fred was overdue to be rotated home after amassing 117 points while flying in the European Theatre. Instead, he was told he would be going to the Pacific Theatre to help in the final assault on Japan. President Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs resulted in Japan’s unconditional surrender, and Fred never had to go to the Pacific. Instead, he was discharged from the service. Upon returning home to Montana, he turned down an offer to fly for Johnson Flying Service (he couldn’t feed a family on a part-time job) and, instead, returned to the smokejumping profession in November of 1945. He had attained the rank of Major during his stint in the Army and, after leaving, had also passed up a chance to join the Operations branch of the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency, who wanted someone with a parachuting and piloting background. Again, Fred didn’t feel he could take this position in consideration of his family. Another jumper from Missoula would take that position and go on to recruit many other smokejumpers to the Agency.

In his return to civilian life, Fred felt strongly about the recognition of veterans with whom he had served. Working with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars grievance committee and with support from Ralph Starr, the Mayor of Missoula, Fred fought for the rehiring of veterans to the Forest Service (as was the law). In doing so, he probably strained his relations with some of the jumpers who hadn’t served and some personnel types in the Forest Service Regional Office in Missoula (see the article in the July 2004 Smokejumper Magazine re: Wag Dodge). This volunteer work was mostly completed by mid-1946, but Fred believed its effects followed him in his future years as a Forest Service employee.

The smokejumper operation to which Fred returned had been well served by the Conscientious Objectors. However, there were still needs for some defined, consistent training standards. Filling those needs was the focus of Fred’s work upon return to smokejumping. In 1946 the barracks were moved from Camp Menard at Ninemile to the Cannery Building at the Missoula Fairgrounds. Frank Derry left the Project in 1947, and the base was moved to the new Aerial Fire Depot in 1954.

Fred worked for the project, getting a formal training program instituted that included a seven training jump routine—the first two in big meadows and the third a smaller meadow. Among the seven there was a timber jump, where it was expected that the trainee would hang up in a tree and practice a letdown and retrieval of the chute.

Fred was assigned the Project Superintendent job in 1950 but recalls the difficult time of 1949 when the Mann Gulch disaster happened. During our interview, he had special praise for the job done by Harold “Skip” Stratton (MSO-47), who was assigned the job of recovering the bodies of those lost in the fire.

An interesting event happened in 1958 when Fred turned 40 and was no longer, by the regulations at the time, qualified to jump. Even so, he suited up for a fire and got on board the DC-3. Before the plane headed out, someone ratted him out to the Regional Air Officer and he was forced to disembark. Needless to say, he had some strong words about who he thought was the rat.

In 1959, Fred was made Assistant Regional Air Officer, and his duties were primarily involved with the retardant program, that had just begun, and helicopters, also a relatively new program. That August, almost 10 years and one day from the Mann Gulch tragedy, the crash of a Trimotor at Moose Creek killed two jumpers and injured the pilot, a Forest Supervisor and a jumper foreman. The Supervisor died later. Fred was the Forest Service official who traveled to Grangeville, Idaho, visiting the injured jumper in the hospital. 40 years later he was a major player in getting a memorial placed at Moose Creek to recognize the fallen jumpers. Fred always took care of his “boys.”

Fred ended his Forest Service career in R-5 at the San Dimas Equipment Development Center where he was involved in the development of Aerial Equipment. While there, he was also involved with the “Lassie” show and worked with Rudd Wetherwax on those productions. He left San Dimas in 1965 to return to his beloved Missoula and organized and began the Lolo View Manor mobile home park off Reserve Street. The park grew to 69 spaces and a 10,000 square foot commercial building called the Harriett Center (named after his wife of 37 years). His son John would later help him manage the trailer park.

He maintained contact with many of the Missoula jumpers, and in 1999 began an annual ritual of sending off the NSA members for the Art Jukkala Trail projects. He gave his usual “good deal” speech after having dinner with his boys.

Fred was a faithful attendee of all the jumper reunions but was missing at Boise this year. Fritz Wolfrum (MSO-53) asked people attending to sign a placemat for Fred and was going to take it to him. Fred passed away on Monday, June 25, 2007 at age 89. Hope he got to read the placemat.