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The Man in the Middle - The First Black Smokejumper

by Robert L. “Bob” Bartlett |

Many thanks

I am going to start the way I would normally end. I owe a great deal of thanks to Tony Wood of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Fred Donner (MSO-59)--the pair who found the gravesite of Triple Nickle PFC Malvin L. Brown (PNOR-45) and for their earlier efforts to track down the story of “the man in the middle,” Wardell “Knuckles” Davis (MSO-45)--a CO reportedly from the Philadelphia area. Also, a big thanks to Fred for the electronic copy of the NSA Master Action Report. The Master spreadsheet proved invaluable in discovering Wardell’s story and continues to be a researcher’s goldmine.

Thanks to Chuck Sheley (CJ-59) for his willingness to answer my countless probing smokejumper history questions; for his CPS knowledge, sharing of contacts and leads; and, for his constant encouragement. And, a huge special thanks to my colleague and fellow researcher Nancy A. Bunker, an Associate Professor at neighboring Whitworth University in Spokane, WA, for her excellent research skills--in finding what others had tried and failed to find. To all of you, I am in your debt.

The photo

I have seen the picture a number of times: three men, two white and one black, standing next to a Ford Tri-motor. When it appeared on the cover of the April 2016 issue of Smokejumper, I tore through the pages looking for an accompanying article. Finding none, I immediately called Chuck Sheley. “So Chuck, did the cover article not make the final cut?” “There is no cover article, Bob. As a matter of fact, Jim Burk, the one on the left who knew the black guy well, just died.” Unfortunate!

Chuck knows me well. For the longest time he has known that I have been deeply interested in the story of the man in the middle. Who was he? How did this black guy end up in Missoula or wherever, posing next to a Ford Tri-motor? This time my curiosity was kicked into high gear, and I had some time on my hands. Behind every face is a story and I believe this is his.

Little to go on

I had little to go on and I know other NSA members have tried and failed to learn this man’s story. My turn had come, and my research colleague, Nancy A. Bunker, agreed that the story of the man in the middle needed to be found and shared.


I immediately pulled Earl Cooley’s book Trimotor and Trail off the shelf. Cooley gives a detailed, first-hand account of his experiences with jumpers out of the Missoula area before and during the War years, including a chapter on the Civilian Public Service (CPS) volunteers and Japanese balloon bombs. The first time I read Cooley’s book I was interested in what he had to say about the 555th. This time I was looking for any mention of the man standing in the middle of the photograph. I was fairly certain that Cooley would have not only noticed him but would have mentioned something about the only “Negro” in camp, who was also a smokejumper. Nope, not a word!

As a black Westerner

As a black Westerner, passionate researcher, member of the Triple Nickle Association and the National Smokejumpers Assoc., and a relative newcomer to smokejumper history, I am particularly interested in early “trail blazers”-- the “firsts”, and this black guy was apparently both. I was told some time ago that the man in the middle was/is Wardell “Knuckles” Davis, a reported Golden Gloves boxer from Philadelphia, PA, who rookied in Missoula in 1945—most likely the first black smokejumper. Imagine my surprise when I also learned that he was a conscientious objector, a CO, a devout pacifist!

If the person my colleague and I found is the man in the middle, well, some of the mystery is solved, and we are excited to share his story and to add a lot more detail to smokejumper history. Unfortunately, some of the pieces do not match up perfectly, so, if he is not our man in the middle, well, I’m just about to tell you another amazing story of a black conscientious objector from Philadelphia.

The Man in the Middle

The man in the middle would have experienced life in the west and northwest at the awkward intersection of race and pacifism, a young, lone black man, living in isolation in an overwhelmingly white place, involved in an overwhelmingly white line-of-work--a man hard to miss. It is fitting the photographer, whether by design or happenstance, captured him the way he did--as the man in the middle, an outsider within.

Wardell A. Davis and Family

Wardell “Knuckles” Davis was actually born Wardell Alfonzo Davis on February 11, 1926, in Lynchburg, VA, to Gilbert Allen Davis and Mary Isabell Davis. Gilbert and Mary were both born in Virginia in the late 1800s and married around 1915 at the ages of 21 and 17, respectfully. Both had a 6th grade education. All four of Wardell’s grandparents were also born in Virginia.The 1920 census shows that Gilbert was working for himself, farming on rented land.

Gilbert and Mary had 12 living children, according to the 1940 census: four daughters and eight sons. Gilbert is listed as a paper bailer in a junk shop. The two eldest daughters worked as servants in a wholesale bakery and the oldest son as a bottle washer. Wardell was the fifth oldest child. Even though he was 14 in 1940, he had only completed the 4th grade. The two older sisters had completed grades 7 and one older brother grade 6. His younger siblings 11 and 12 had completed grade 3.

The family moved from Virginia to Philadelphia probably early in 1935, based on one child born in Virginia and the next in PA. The 1940 census reports they were in Philadelphia on April 1, 1935, but not at the same address as 1940. Their 1940 address of record shows 3736 N. Syderham St., Philadelphia, PA, and their church of record shows, First Century Gospel Church of Philadelphia.

The CPS Program

Peace Church representatives submitted a program to President Roosevelt in early 1941 that would fulfill the requirement of “work of national importance.” The Civilian Public Service Program (CPS) called for Conscientious Objectors (COs) to be assigned to work camps in soil conservation or forestry projects and to begin their service with the idea that after a number of months, they could volunteer for other programs.

COs first reported to Base Camps. There they received orientation to their particular “work of national importance” by the government technical agency; induction into CPS by the church operating agency, including orientation for living together in a pacifist community, time for spiritual and personal development; and introduction to camp governance.

Afterwards, many men opted to perform “Detached Service,” where they volunteered for special project work in units including smokejumping. Men who belonged to historically pacifist religious groups had guaranteed access to conscientious objector status.

Black COs

It is not hard to imagine individual black men and women being conscientious objectors during the War Years. There have been a number of famous ones, both during and since WWII. Bayard Rustin, also from Pennsylvania, was one. He combined the pacifism of the Quaker religion (the religion of his grandmother), the non-violent resistance taught by Mahatma Gandhi, and the socialism espoused by black labor leader A. Philip Randolph. However, unlike Wardell and his brothers, Rustin would spend two years in prison for his pacifist beliefs during the War. The opposite is the story I am most familiar with, coming from a family of war veterans dating back to the Civil War.

Throughout our nation’s history, black men and women have served as scouts, soldiers and spies. They volunteered by the hundreds during the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and every war and conflict--against enemies both foreign and domestic. They volunteered, served, and died at a time when they were considered not fully human, not worthy, not smart enough to be pilots, or brave enough to jump out of an airplane. They were not the only nonwhite combatants to serve bravely and honorably from the margins of American society. But they did, and blazed a trail for the rest of us to follow!

Political vs Theological Objection

Wardell and his family were not members of a “Peace” Church. They would not have “automatically” qualified for CPS service. Their objection or opposition to the War would have been political and not theological. In those days, it would have been difficult, but not impossible, for a non-Mennonite, Quaker, or Brethren to receive protection or help under the CPS program.

Three Davis Brothers Join the CPS Program

The three oldest Davis sons--Gilbert R. Davis (b.1920), Buford R. Davis (b.1924) and Wardell (b.1926)--joined the Civilian Public Service. How they did it remains a mystery.The five younger sons would have been under 18 during the war. They are all listed as being from the Full Century Gospel Church. That church was founded in 1925 in Philadelphia and later moved to New Jersey. Of the 32 Full Century Gospel Church members listed in the CPS program, nineteen were from Philadelphia, the home state of Quaker founder William Penn.

Gilbert R. was listed as a junk dealer before entering CPS on Nov. 7, 1941. He served in a unit in Kane, PA. Buford R. was listed as a laborer but did not join until January 5, 1945. He served in two units: one in Big Flat, New York, and the other in Mancos, CO. Wardell was listed as a carpenter before he entered in 1944.

CPS Worker 002053-Davis, Wardell A.

According to the Mennonite CPS records, Wardell entered at age 18, drafted from Philadelphia on April 23, 1944. He left CPS service July 26, 1946, three years and a day before I was born. He served in four camps during his two year stint. One of the units was CPS Camp 20 at Wells Tannery, PA. This camp dealt mostly in contour farming. It was run by the Mennonites and closed in Oct. 1944. He served at CPS Camp 28, a Forest Service base camp at Medaryville, IN, where they mostly planted trees on former strip mines, and CPS Camp No. 46, a Soil Conservation Service base camp at Big Flats, NY, where they worked on soil erosion control. Most significantly, Wardell served at CPS Camp 107, a National Park Service camp at Three Rivers, CA, where they dealt with fire suppression.

CPS Camp 103-01 Huson, MT

Wardell is on the list of workers in each of the other camps; however, he is not listed on the Mennonite site as serving at CPS Camp 103-01 at Huson, MT, operated by the Mennonite Central Committee in cooperation with the Brethren and Friends Service Committees. Thanks again to Chuck, I have a list of other CPS jumpers not listed on the Mennonite website but are listed in the records of Camp 103 Administrator Roy Wenger and his wife Florence. Camp103 opened in May 1943 and closed in April 1946. It is obvious that Wardell applied and was accepted into the smokejumper program and most likely from a camp in CA. Wardell is listed on the Wenger Camp list.

The first Black Smokejumper

Wardell reported to Camp 103 at Huson about thirty miles northwest of Missoula. Men in that unit are reported in the 1940s as “. . . highly trained,” parachuting into rugged country and putting out forest fires. “When not fighting fires, the men at this camp spent much time putting up hay to feed pack mules that carried supplies and equipment to guard stations and to and from fires.” All the camps Wardell is listed in, and the one at Huson, were closed by July 1946.

We have yet to confirm Wardell’s Golden Glove status. The nickname and reference to Golden Glove status comes from an interview with CPS jumper Wilmer "Bill" Carlsen (MSO-43), recorded by Steve Smith (Associate) for the NSA history documentary “Firefighters From The Sky.” What we do know is how common nicknames are among “jumper bros.” “Jumper bro” Wardell ‘Knuckles” Davis

The Master Action Report (MAR) for Region 1, 1945, lists Wardell Davis as (MSO-45) and as “perhaps the first black smokejumper.” In spite of no Mennonite paper trail, the MAR confirms that 19-year-old Wardell Davis completed seven practice jumps (standard) and jumped at least three fires that fire season—making 10 total jumps.

Wardell’s Fire Jumps

His first fire jump entry is dated July 11, location--Lolo’s, Weir Ridge 6-36N-12E. Wardell reportedly jumped that fire with CPS jumpers George H. Robinson (MSO-44) and Edwin A. Vail (MSO-44). He later jumped fires on July 29 and August 1, location--forests unknown. Five days after Wardell’s last jump entry, 555th medic jumper PFC Malvin Brown made his first and last fire jump. On August 6th, 1945, Brown made history as the first smokejumper to die on a fire jump in Southwestern Oregon near Roseburg.

I wonder if Wardell ever heard of the death of Malvin Brown, Operation Firefly or the 555th? According to the MAR, the 555th did jump a few fires in Region 1 alongside CPS jumpers. The following is one such account told by CPS Jumper Wallace “Pic” Littell (MSO-44).

CPS and 555th Team-up

July 19, 1945, CPS Jumpers and Triple Nickle Team on Peavy Creek Fire, (Smokejumper magazine, July 2002). This was a fire south of the Salmon River, in the “River of No Return Primitive Area.” “Pic” describes 20 jumpers including himself on this fire that grew out of control when,
“To the rescue came 47 black paratroopers from the 555th Triple Nickles. They came from Pendleton, Oregon, and dropped from C-47s. Francis Lufkin (NCSB-40) was their spotter. The next day 25 more jumped bringing the total of Triple Nickle jumpers to 72.” This fire is officially listed as the Nez Perce, Meadow Creek Fire 25-28N-10E.

Another fire involving CPS jumpers and the 555th that happened around that same time is mentioned in Robert C. Cottrell’s 2006, Smokejumpers of the Civilian Public Service in World War II (pg. 7). According to Earl Kenagy (NCSB-45), the fire was along the Canadian border and involved CPS jumpers and “Some 97 paratroopers (555th) . . .”

Far from complete

The story of Wardell “Knuckles” Davis is not complete, and I have my own specific questions. For example: What motivated Wardell and his brothers to choose to be CO’s, and how did they enter the CPS program? What was his experience as the first and only black CO smokejumper living in rural Montana? I cannot help but wonder what, given a chance, a black CO and black Army jumpers trained for war, but denied, would talk about?

Wardell was unquestionably a “Trailblazer,” the “First,” and his story is still incomplete. Sadly, it would be nearly thirty years before Milford Preston (RDD-74) would become the next black smokejumper.

The Final Word for Now

According to the Social Security Death Index, Wardell A. Davis died in January 1977 at 51. His final resting place or obituary is yet to be found. He may have married an Earlene Edwards in 1948-1949. The hunt continues for living relatives and for anyone living or interviewed who knew Wardell as a CPS Jumper in Region 1. We are combing the University of Montana’s Mansfield Archives, Smokejumper Collection as this article goes to print.

His story is incomplete, but we are much further along than ever before! Thanks to everyone who helped along the way. God bless the trail blazers, especially those who volunteered to blaze the roughest path.

Addendum to the October 2015 article, A Tale of Two Coins: For those in the Baltimore/D.C. area who would like to visit the gravesite of 555th PFC Malvin Brown, the actual location is the Mount Calvary Cemetery in Anne Arundel County near Baltimore.

Thanks Chris: I also failed to thank Associate NSA Member and magazine contributor Chris Sorensen in that same October article mentioned above for his kind words regarding my Triple Nickle presentation in Missoula last summer. The welcome and kindness I received in Missoula and continue to experience is the impetus behind my membership in both associations. Thank you all!