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Civilian Public Service Camp 103: CPS Smokejumpers

by Roy & Lillian Wenger (associate members) |

Throughout history, there have been groups who firmly decided they could not take part in killing during a war. Feeling that the value of a human life is too great to arbitrarily end it, these people say, "I will not take or threaten your life, and I hope you will respect mine." During the intense heat of war, some framework of understanding is needed to work together without clashing. In WW II, this framework was CPS, Civilian Public Service, and some 12,000 men across the USA joined it to perform non-military du­ ties instead of military ones.

The military draft system negotiated with the "Historic peace churches" (Brethren, Friends) and Mennonites), and came up with Civilian Public Service, a plan that partly satisfied both sides. Although some indi­viduals from other denominations also be­ came conscientious objectors, their church hierarchies were not especially supportive.

Under the CPS umbrella, the three "Historic peace churches" rotated in establishing new CPS camps around the country as needed. The first camp opened in 1941 and the last closed in 1946. In addition to the regular camps, numerous "special projects" were es­tablished.

The idea of conscientious objectors serving as smokejumpers was suggested by a young man named Phil Stanley, a Quaker.

At the start of the war, upon reading that the pool of forest fire fighters was drying up, he wrote to the Forest Service suggesting that the men of CPS be given an opportunity to do this work. The idea was accepted by the For­est Service and approved by the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (the peace church organization), and by Selective Service.
In the rotation cycle of establishing new camps, it was the tum of the Mennonite Central Committee to open this new camp in CPS camps, and Roy Wenger (co-author of this article) who became the CPS smokejumper camp's first director, worked with the Forest Serv­ice in coordinating the staffing and set-up of the camp. Details such as lodging, food, training, supplies and coordination between the Forest Service and the church groups needed to be worked out.

Invitations then went out to all CPS camps around the country asking for volunteers for the new smokejumper project, to be called "Camp 103". Men from other camps who wished to apply, had to complete an application that needed to be approved by their present CPS camp director, the regional director, and the CPS smokejumper camp director. The Forest Service staff then re­ viewed the applications with the CPS smokejum­per camp director, agreeing upon the applications chosen. The men were then informed of their ac­ceptance.

Training began in April 1943 at Camp
Paxon and the Seeley Lake Ranger Station in Seeley Lake, Montana. Many of the men were from farms and were in good physical shape, but they still needed to participate in a rigorous train­ ing program. The CPS men were trained by the few remaining Forest Service employees working as smokejumpers headed by Earl Cooley. This well-qualified and seasoned staff guided the train­ ees in the art of jumping out of airplanes. They also learned to pack and repair parachutes, and to fight fire.

By the middle of 1943, the first squads were trained and stationed at strategic points in the region. The initial 60-man group of CPS trainees soon moved from Seeley Lake to Nine Mile, west of Missoula, Montana.

By the end of the project in 1946, about 250 men had been trained as smokejumpers. When the camp closed, in 1946, all CPS smoke­ jumpers were discharged. These men had sup­ plied the manpower to an area critically in need of trained and specialized individuals.