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Early Smokejumper History

by Earl Cooley |

The following article was printed in the January 1997 issue of “The Static Line.” It has been edited slightly for clarification purposes.

In the fall of 1939, a group of “barnstormers” was dropped into timbered areas on the Chelan National Forest – now named the Okanogan National Forest – near Winthrop, Wash., to determine the feasibility of dropping firefighters by parachute to combat forest fires.

This original crew of barnstormers included instructor Frank Derry (MSO-40), along with Chet Derry (MSO-40), Virgil “Bus” Derry (NCSB-40), Glenn Smith (NCSB-40), Richard Tuttle and Allan Honey. Francis Lufkin (NCSB-40), a Forest Service employee, made one jump during the last part of the experiment.

This experiment proved to be very successful, and it was decided that Region 1 and Region 6 would each have a small group of jumpers to continue the experiment in 1940.

Region 6 built its crew around a nucleus of the original barnstormers, with Lufkin and George Honey (NCSB-40) – Allan Honey’s brother – being trained to jump out of Winthrop, Wash., along with Smith and Virgil Derry during the summer of 1940.

Tuttle and Allan Honey dropped out of the program in the fall of 1939, as they were not Forest Service employees.

Region 1 had sent Rufus Robinson (MSO-40) from the Nez Perce Forest over to take his training at Winthrop, and to be available to go to Moose Creek and start construction on a parachute loft. Rufus came back to Seeley Lake, northeast of Missoula – selected as the Region 1 training base for 1940 – and made one demonstration jump on the Seeley Lake Airport. He then went on to Moose Creek to start work on the loft building.

Region 1 was to select one key fireguard from each of the seven forests. They included Jim Waite (MSO-40) from the Clearwater Forest, Jim Alexander (MSO-40) from the Old Cabinet Forest, Bill Bolen (MSO-40) from the Kootenai Forest, Dick Lynch (MSO-40) from the Flathead Forest, Leonard Hamilton from the Lolo Forest, and Earl Cooley from the Bitterroot Forest, in addition to Robinson.

Chet Derry was to be the parachute rigger for the Region 1 crew. Frank Derry was retained to serve both regions and was, like his brother Chet, already an accomplished parachutist. Frank had worked for the Eagle Parachute Company.

When we reported to Fort Missoula to take the regular ROTC cadet physical, Hamilton was diagnosed as having an enlarged heart and had to drop out.

Maj. William Lee Carey had been present at Seeley Lake to observe the training jumps and cargo drops. He would return to Fort Benning, Ga., and begin establishing the first U.S. Army parachute unit.

During the time at Seeley Lake, Bolen made three training jumps and decided to drop out for personal reasons. On his first jump, he freefell almost a third of the distance to the ground before he pulled his rip cord; this may have influenced his decision to drop out. He had also been dragged by his chute in a strong wind and suffered scratches and severe bruising.

Alexander had caught his arm in the load lines of his chute and got a bad sprain, so he missed several of his training jumps. Lynch had pulled his legs up on a strong-wind jump and landed on his tailbone, and also missed several jumps.

However, by July 10, 1940, we went to Moose Creek. Waite and I had 10 jumps each – the only two to have achieved this. Alexander and Lynch were to finish their training after we got to Moose Creek, whereas Chet Derry and Robinson had made all their training jumps.

They left six jumpers at Moose Creek Ranger Station for the summer. We were bunked in the ranger’s dwelling since his family did not come in that season.

Merle Lundrigan (MSO-41) – not a jumper at that time – went in as squadleader for the summer. However, Merle made several training jumps in the spring of 1941, before he was called into military service.

George Case (MSO-44), the Moose Creek ranger, was selected as project leader. He had spent some time during training with the jumpers at Seeley Lake to familiarize himself with the jumping process.