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Mann Gulch Remembered

by Carl Gidlund (MSO 1958) |

Remarks of Keynote Speaker Bob Sallee, last living survivor of the Mann Gulch Fire, at the 50th anniversary of that fire, commemorated on the Helena, Mont. Capitol lawn, August 5, 1999

We are gathered at the commemoration this morning to remember the tragedy of the Mann Gulch Fire which took place 50 years ago today. By definition, a commemoration is the act of honoring someone or some thing; and we are here today to honor the 13 young men who were my fellow firefighters on that fateful day.

But this ceremony also honors the others who played roles in the fire, rescue efforts and all that followed. Men who are still with us today, like Earl Cooley, who made the first fire jump in 1940 and was the Smokejumper Project Supervi­sor in 1949. Earl was the spotter on the plane that dropped us into
Mann Gulch 50 years ago. Men like Dr. Amos Little, who treated Bill Hellman's and Joe Sylvia's bums at the fire and at St. Peter's Hospital, and then later helped to identify and recover the men's bodies from Mann Gulch. Dr. Little is also credited with dozens of rescue parachute jumps to treat and help injured smokejumpers and other accident victims in the backcountry during the 1950s.

And men like Skip Stratton and Mike Hardy who helped on the rescue mission following the fire. And this commemoration is likewise an opportunity to honor the memory of other men whose lives were touched by the fire in Mann Gulch, men who have since passed on. Men like Forest Service fire researcher Harry T. Gisbome, the little-known 14th victim of the Mann Gulch Fire who, in November 1949, while doing research on the Mann Gulch Fire, died of a heart attack in nearby Rescue Gulch.

It's a time to honor men like John Robert Jannsson, who was the Forest Service District Ranger in charge of the Mann Gulch Fire and was the man who led the rescue mission immediately after the fire blew up and overran us.

And this commemoration is a special opportunity to reflect upon and honor the memory of Mann Gulch smokejumper Walt Rumsey, and smokejumper crew
foreman "Wag" Dodge, who like me, survived the fire and whose lives would be forever affected by the events of that day 50 years ago. And of course Norman Maclean, author of the book Young Men and Fire, who reminded us all of this tragic event. We should also recognize two other books that also provide a record of the Mann Gulch Fire, Trimotor and Trail by Earl Cooley and Smokejumpers '49 by Starr Jenkins. And we should remember the Smokejumper Program. In 50 years of smokejumping, more than 300,000 jumps have been made. Today there are over 400 smokejumpers assigned to 10 jumper bases and on the average, each jumper makes 10 fire jumps per season.

We should also recognize that as a result of the Mann Gulch Fire many fire fighting methods, procedures and tools were developed which improve the safety of today's wildland firefighter.

But essentially we are here today to honor the 13 men who died that day.

In all honesty, I didn't know much about the men who parachuted with me into Mann Gulch 50 years ago because in 1949, during a month of intensive training, we were assigned to four-man squads. Although I had a speaking acquaintance with the other trainees, I only really knew the people in my squad.

After training we were sent out around the region on project work. Many of the men were in large groups piling brush or building trails and they developed strong friendships but I went out to the Canyon Ranger Station on the Clearwater Forest, alone, to replace a man who had not reported for their trail maintenance crew. When we jumped at Mann Gulch all the crew, except for Walt Rumsey who was in my training squad, were just acquain­tances. But I think these men would be both surprised and humbled that so many of us are gathered here today, and that so many others across the country remember them and the circumstances under which they perished.

And it occurs to me that as a nation we honor these 13 men who died in Mann Gulch from a number of perspectives.

We honor them as ordinary citizens who cared enough about the natural resources of their country to volunteer to protect our public lands and those resources from wildfires.

Of the 15 men who parachuted into the gulch that day, 11 were veterans of World War II. So we honor many of these men as veterans who responded to the demand for young men to help defend their country during a time of war.

We also honor them as employees of the United States Forest Service, an organization which has a long and proud history of conserving and protecting the resources of the National Forests of this great nation. Like me, most of the boys were just working that summer as seasonal employees of Forest Service Region 1. And like all Forest Service employees, when the call went out for help, they pitched in to protect our National Forests.

We honor these 13 men as firefighters, as men who knew the danger and hard work involved in fighting forest and grassland fires. Men who were well aware of, and accepted the risks involved with taking on a sometimes­ unpredictable foe like a wildfire. Men who knew the job of firefighting meant many hours and even days away from the comforts of home and the company of family and friends. Men who were well acquainted with the demanding nature of the work: the sometimes backbreaking effort of digging fueline, the choking smoke, the searing heat, the nose, and the often endless hours of firefighting with tittle or no sleep. And yet, they took on the challenge.

We also honor them as smokejumpers, men who knew what it is like to step out the open door of an airplane and the shock of an opening parachute - the glorious feeling that goes with seeing that beautiful white canopy overhead and the exaltation of knowing that you have done it.

They also knew that the parachute was - and still is - the quickest and best way to get to a fire in remote areas.

And so, we honor the fact that they took the fire assignment on the Helena National Forest and in so d ing, they made the ultimate sacrifice that any citizen, any Forest Service employee, any firefighter, any smokejumper ca n make; they gave their lives.

All these men whose lives were touched by the Mann Gulch Fire, both the living and the dead, deserve our deepest respect. And while it's fitting to honor these men, I think it's also important that we recognize the pain, the trauma, and yes, the hard feelings that care after this fire ... and maybe still persist even to this day ...and put that all away. As firefighters, as smokejumpers, as friends and family of the 13 men, and as people who dare deeply about all that came from the Mann Gulch Fire, we need to complete the healing process that began a half century ago. It's time to forgive old perceived injures. And as we move into the next millennium, it's time to rededicate ourselves to the memory of these fine young men and the lessons their deaths taught us; that wildfire are and always will be dangerous and we must respect its potential to put firefighters in harm's way, and that life is precious and fo r some, very short.

And now, please join me in a moment of silence in memory of those 13 young men who lost their lives in the Mann Gulch Fire: Robert J Bennett, Eldon E. Diettert, James 0. Harrison, William J. Hellman, Phillip R. McVey, David R. Navon, Leonard L. Piper, Stanley J. Reba, Marvin L. Sherman , Joseph B. Sylvia, Henry J. Thol, Jr., Newton R. Thompson, and Silas R. Thompson.

At this time I'd like to ask Ranger Harp to step forward to help me unveil the new bronze plaque which is dedicated to the 13 men who died it Mann Gulch. It will be permanently mounted at the Forest Service's Meriwether Picnic Area on the Missouri River jus t to the south of Mann Gulch.