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Biophile of Melvin L. "Smokey" Greene

by Richard Baughn, Aerophile magazine |

(Editor's note: Copyright April 1980, Aerophile. Our research shows this magazine ceased publication in late 1981.)

In early 1942, Melvin L. “Smokey” Greene (MSO-42) started jumping out of airplanes to fight isolated forest fires for the U.S. Forest Service. A couple of years later his jump training helped save his life when the B-29 on which he was the flight engineer was rammed by a Japanese fighter over Nagoya, Japan.

Badly injured and burned, he spent the remainder of the war in Japan in solitary confinement as a war criminal. Following the war, Smokey decided to stay in the U.S. Army Air Force – which became the U.S. Air Force in 1947 – and later retired in Austin, Texas, in 1972 as a colonel.

Forest Service firefighters and parachute specialists gathered in the fall of 1939 to determine the feasibility of jumping into the rugged timber country to fight fires. They wanted to reduce their reaction time so a small number of men could contain a fire early before it became a raging inferno.

In 1940 two six-man airborne squads assigned to Montana and Washington made nine jumps, saving a substantial amount of timber. Thus the concept of the “smokejumper” was proven. It was now possible to spot a fire in an inaccessible area and reach it in a matter of minutes instead of days.

Success brought money to expand the smokejumper program and a call went out for more airborne firefighters. Smokey Greene had worked several summers as a regular Forest Service firefighter while attending the Montana School of Mines. He was quick to volunteer.

“Our training was very similar to the Army’s paratrooper program,” Smokey says. “After a good check-up by the doc, we started a tough physical conditioning course. Then came jumps from the high platform, followed by live jumps into an open field, finishing with several jumps into heavily timbered mountainous areas.”
“All during the training, they stressed the use of the 50-foot rope we were issued. It was used to let oneself down from tall trees and steep mountain ledges if the chute hung up during descent,” Smokey continued.

“Our steerable chute was essential because of the mountain air currents, which can be aggravated by the heat from a forest fire. Landing close to the pre-selected point was very important for several reasons, not the least of which was avoiding the fire,” he emphasized. “The chutes were reasonably maneuverable, but a strong unpredictable wind could always carry us off target.”

Six jumps were required to complete the course, but Smokey got seven. On his third jump the primary chute did not open and he had to use the small emergency chute. Since they jumped from relatively low altitudes, he didn’t have much spare time. In fact he landed in a tree as the chute opened, which helped break his fall, saving him from serious injury or worse.

“My squadleader got me airborne right away for another jump to help ward off the clanks,” Smokey said. This was Smokey’s bonus jump.

Initially the experts thought Smokey had failed to connect the static line which automatically opened the chute, but he was certain he had it hooked. Although given two days off, he returned to camp after a few hours, because he feared someone else might experience the same malfunction.

Smokey continued to plead with his bosses. “Something’s wrong,” I told them. “I did have it hooked. Sure enough the next day they had another. Fortunately a checker was by the door of the aircraft and saw the jumper hook his line. They found the problem and went to work right away to fix it,” Smokey related.

He obviously savored the fact that he had been correct and probably helped save someone’s life.

Parachute jumping in those days was in its infancy and most of the doctrine was being written as they learned. The U.S. Army airborne units were relatively new and on the low side of the learning curve, similar to the smokejumpers. Consequently, the smokejumpers and paratroopers maintained a close liaison, trading ideas.

The Army developed the static line for automatic chute opening and passed it on to the smokejumpers, knowing it would enhance their safety during low-altitude fire jumps. (Actually Frank Derry developed the static line before there was even an Army Airborne - Ed.) The smokejumpers provided information concerning the techniques of parachuting into mountain forests for an elite airborne unit activated during World War II.

Smokey went on to make four firefighting jumps. His first was near McCall, Idaho, close to the headquarters of the Snake River.
“Eight of us jumped into the Snake River Canyon. We kinda got separated due to the wind currents and some of ’em never made the fire. Then the fire blew anyway, so the smokejumpers couldn’t handle it. The regular firefighters with their heavy equipment had to be called,” Smokey commented.

(The following remark refers to the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, in which 12 smokejumpers and one firefighter died – Ed.) “Like the fire near Helena a couple of years after I went into the service. It blew on ’em. They were ahead of the fire and didn’t have a chance. We lost 13 jumpers. That was the worst accident we had. We lost others, but nothing like that. Some of my good friends were lost in that one,” Smokey mused. “If I hadn’t gone into the service I would have probably been with them.”

“My second fire jump was near the Big Prairie Ranger Station. That was a primitive area. There were no roads at all. You either had to pack in or jump. Of course there was only one way out and you had to carry all of your equipment. If you left anything, you paid for it,” Smokey said with a smile.

“I was good for up to 20 miles a day then. Even with equipment,” he said, trying to avoid sounding boastful. “It still took me about 24 hours of walking time to make it out. My other two fire jumps were very routine.”
Patriotism called, so Smokey volunteered for the Army Air Corps and was commissioned a second lieutenant in early 1943 after completing an Air Corps engineering course at Yale University. He was assigned to Kelly Field, Texas, and later to Pecos Field, Texas, as a maintenance-engineering officer.

In October 1944 Smokey was selected to become a B-29 flight engineer. After completing the flight engineer’s course at Alamogordo, New Mexico, he was assigned to a newly formed bomber group at Pratt, Kansas. Within a few months his unit was bombing Japan from their base in Guam.

It was on the 7th of April 1945, while flying his seventh mission, that Smokey’s B-29 was rammed by a fighter coming at them head-on. “We were on the bomb run when someone called a fighter at 12 o’clock low. The bombardier was eyeballing the bombsite and couldn’t stop to fire. Neither the top turret nor waist gunners could see him, because he was slightly below us,” Smokey continued.

“He hit our wing just to the left of the fuselage. His wing ripped into our fuselage. There was a loud explosion and it felt as though we had hit a brick wall. Instantly fire shot through the crew compartment. It happened so quickly I had the feeling of being motionless,” Smokey said ponderously.

“A sort of euphoria gripped me, because for an instant the end seemed very near.”

“Then it started getting warm,” he added with a smile to emphasize his understatement. “I unfastened my seat belt and was at once banged against the side of the fuselage; I couldn’t move due to the centrifugal force caused by the flat spin the old B-29 was in. It was like a whip-to-whip ride at the carnival,” he said, gesturing.

“I was finally able to pull the ditching hatch. We weren’t supposed to use it for bailouts, but I didn’t have a choice. I pushed and kicked, trying to get through the hatch opening. About halfway out I got stuck. Burning gasoline started running across the opening, so I struggled back inside and was slammed against the fuselage again.”
“Once or twice it felt like the old bird tumbled, because I was bounced around a couple of times. The fire was getting worse on the inside and I knew I had to get out or else,” he said very determinedly. “It’s amazing what that fire did for me. I seemed to shoot out the hatch door, parachute and all. The experts said it couldn’t be done, but they never tried it while being fried,” Smokey said with a wink.

“Things must’ve happened real fast, but it seemed like an eternity. I was pretty badly burned and cut, but I don’t recall any pain at the time … One thing was for sure, I knew I had to get out and never really had any doubts about making it at the time.”

“I was tumbling like mad and falling through dense smoke coming up from the target. Seems like I was a born smokejumper,” he said with a wide smile. “Once out, I regained my presence of mind. It was like being back on familiar ground. I knew I had to get my flak jacket off so I could open my chute. I even thought about guys who had clawed through their clothing, trying to find the rip cord, but this was only a passing thought,” Smokey added.

“Being close to the target, I could hear bombs exploding. This got my attention,” he emphasized. “Fortunately they were at a safe distance. I could see parts from an aircraft falling around me. They were probably from ours but I’m not sure.”

“When I got on the ground my vision was blurred. My eyes had been damaged by the fire, I guess. Some of my recollections are a little hazy. Evidently I was in shock. I saw our navigator lying on the ground. His chute hadn’t opened. I wondered about the other nine crewmembers. The bombs were still going off and some were pretty close. I could hear some Japanese screaming. All of this hit me at once,” he said very slowly, then paused.

“I do recall getting out of my chute and hiding it along with some other things.”

“I walked for a while, but finally got captured by some police. They tied me to a pole and I took a pretty good beating from them and a few civilians with clubs. I was standing in water and could see blood running over the tops of my boots into the water. I didn’t know what was wrong at the time, but I had cut my legs going through the hatch,” he said. “The water made it look like I was losing more blood than I was. Thank God.”

Like most B-29 crews that survived after being shot down, Smokey was classified as a war criminal. This meant solitary confinement, half of the meager rations of a normal POW and no medical attention. Interrogations, beatings and steady harassment were a daily routine. Contact with other internees was strictly forbidden, but despite this, an Australian Marine who serviced Smokey’s “binjo” would occasionally sneak a few words with him. Once he gave Smokey some sulpha pills when he learned Smokey’s burns and cuts were badly infected and covered with maggots.

Smokey’s weight dropped from around 180 pounds to around 100. “I had a thin watery broth almost every day. Once or twice a week I would get a small bowl of grain, which never failed to turn me inside out. The soup always tasted fishy. Sometimes it would have a little fish, but always seemed spoiled,” Smokey said with a grimace.

“One time I was so disgusted I threw it against the wall and it stuck there. Finally I got so hungry I crawled over and ate it. A lot of guys just plain starved to death, because they couldn’t stand to eat that garbage,” Smokey said disgustedly. “I made up my mind I was going to survive,” he said with determination.

Smokey survived the Omori prison camp, which was called the “war’s blackest hell hole” by the United Press. Shortly after his release, he was requested to provide a deposition concerning his maltreatment and observations of other prisoners being abused.

It took several operations and a couple of years before Smokey recovered fully from his injuries and burns. During his convalescence, Smokey decided to accept a regular commission and went on to serve 30 years in the maintenance and supply field. His awards include the Legion of Merit, the Air Medal, Purple Heart and three other commendation medals.

Smokey and his wife, the former Martha Achee of Mission, Texas, were married while he was stationed in Pecos, Texas, during World War II. They have five children – four girls and a son. All four daughters are married and three reside in Texas and the fourth lives in Montgomery, Alabama. Their son graduated from the Air Force Academy and has been flying fighters, including the British “Harrier,” while on exchange duty with the RAF.

Gene Hamner (MSO-67) made the initial contact with Melvin L. “Smoky” Greene Jr. who was, like Gene, with the “Ravens” in Laos, although not at the same time. “Smokejumper” did a two-part series by Gene on the “Ravens” in January and April 2005. Here is a short bio on Smoke Jr:

Smoky Greene’s son and namesake was born in Texas while Smoke Sr was enjoying the hospitality of the Emperor of Japan in the infamous Omori prison in Tokyo Bay following the destruction of his B-29 over target in April 1945.

Smoke Jr. followed his father’s footsteps into the Air Force. His operational flying career began in Vietnam and then Laos in 1969 where he flew unarmed observation aircraft in the Forward Air Controller role, call sign “Raven.” He went on to serve 30 years active duty in varied flying and staff assignments flying a number of different single seat fighter-bomber aircraft retiring in 1997. He now lives near Fredericksburg, Virginia.