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Bob Sallee: A Personal Remembrance

by Carl Gidlund (Missoula '58) |

To most of the world, Bob Sallee (MSO 49) was merely the last living survivor of 1949’s Mann Gulch Fire, a disaster that took the lives of 12 smokejumpers and a fireguard on the Helena National Forest. And if God had to spare just a single man to tell the Mann Gulch story, he chose exceedingly well.

Bob was thoughtful, intelligent and articulate and, although he was loathe to tell that story, he did so, probably hundreds of times. He briefed rookie smokejumpers, fire officials, historians and, on a Missouri River float, I heard him recount the tale to a group of canoeists and rafters who somehow learned that “Mann Gulch Sallee” was camping nearby. They were as enthralled by his telling as any group of fire fighters.

And every year on our volunteer projects, he was beseeched by new crewmembers to recount the story once again. For a shot of scotch, he did so.

But Bob was much, much more than a storyteller. He had many other dimensions besides his speaking ability and the physical strength that allowed him to outrun the fire: He was a skilled and industrious worker, a devoted family man, and he had an abiding love for his fellow smokejumpers and the precious lands they risk their lives to protect.

Bob was a paper mill man, and he learned his profession from the ground up. He began that career at a mill in Lewiston, Idaho, after his two seasons of smokejumping. He worked there several years, until he moved to a new mill in Missoula in 1957 where he earned several promotions during the next decade. Taking a respite from that industry, he tried farming, then ran a hardware and farm implement store in Fairfield, Washington.

He studied at the University of Idaho, then earned a degree in accounting from Eastern Washington University in 1973 to qualify for a job with an Oregon engineering firm that wanted his skills. He used those skills all over the world, setting up mills in India, New Zealand, South Africa and Algeria.

Tiring of travel, he moved to Spokane in 1977 to work in the Inland Empire Paper Company mill, eventually retiring from that firm as production manager in 2000.

Along the way he picked up carpentry skills sufficient to build homes for his family in Lewiston and Frenchtown, Montana. He carried those skills back to the forest, working with me and other smokejumper volunteers every summer since 1996, rehabilitating historic structures and building foot bridges on forest trails.

Like many young men of the ’40s, the first decade of smokejumping, Bob earned his way into the program as a “ribies goon.” He began in 1947, pulling gooseberries and currant bushes from the soil to prevent the spread of white pine blister rust which was ravaging the Northwest. He fibbed to get that job, boosting his age two years to 18. But they liked his work during that first season, so invited him back to help set up another camp the following summer.

A pair of visitors during that second summer, 1948, changed the course of his life. Two smokejumpers were detailed to the ribies project, and he learned from them that they were making “big bucks,” $1.30 per hour. That amounted to a 30-cent raise, so he applied and, based on outstanding evaluations from his bosses, he was accepted for new man training with the Missoula crew of 1949.

The first of his seven practice jumps was also his first airplane ride, and Bob later admitted to being nervous. “But when you get up there, you’ve got your buddies with you and you just couldn’t not jump,” he recounted.

The training was different in 1949 than in later years. Rookies were assigned to four-man squads and, ”Although I had a speaking acquaintance with the other trainees, I only really knew the people in my squad.” he told us.

After training he was sent alone to the Clearwater National Forest’s Canyon Ranger Station to fill in for a man who hadn’t reported for its trail maintenance crew. Consequently, when he was summoned back to the base as the fire season heated up, he knew well only Walter Rumsey (MSO-49), a member of his training squad. When he climbed aboard the C-47 for the Mann Gulch Fire, his first fire jump, his fellow jumpers on that run were merely acquaintances with the exception of Rumsey.

The story of that fire and Bob and Rumsey’s run for life is well known to most if not all smokejumpers. Those who don’t may find the account in Norman Maclean’s bestseller, Young Men and Fire. While Bob disagreed with some points in it, the book is still the definitive account of the Mann Gulch Fire.

My personal acquaintanceship with Bob began in 1999 in Helena when Bob was the principal speaker at the commemoration of the Mann Gulch Fire’s fiftieth anniversary. Learning that we lived not too far apart, we began meeting for lunch a few times each year with fellow jumpers Hank Jones (MSO-53) and Fred Ebel (MSO-57). The three of us “young bucks” were involved in the trails program and eventually we persuaded Bob to join us. He did, in 1996, and I’m proud to say he rejoined our crew every year since then. He obviously enjoyed working in the woods again and, to flatter us, I reckon he enjoyed our company too. Bob had signed up for our 2014 crew and, by God, we’re really going to miss him, his humor, kindness and skills.

Although he labored at several jobs during his life, he obviously had a life-long fondness for the two seasons he spent as a jumper and for his fellow smokejumpers. As a memorial to his life, he and his wife Bertie asked that friends contribute to either the American Cancer Society or the National Smokejumper Association. And in an interview with a reporter for his college newspaper, he described smokejumping as, “The best damn job in the world.”

Rest in peace, Bob.