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Rescue Mission in the South Fork Primitive Area

by Jack Demmons (MSO 1950) |

During Wed. and Thurs., Sept. 17 & 18, 1941, there was high drama in the South Fork Primitive Area of Montana. (That area is now part of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.)

Two Travel Airs of the Johnson Flying Service, based out of Missoula, were standing by at the Big Prairie Ranger Station's landing strip. A rescue mission was in progress.

A call had been received in Missoula on the 17th, stating that a woman in a hunting party had been shot by another hunter--from a different party. (The call erroneously stated that the victim was at the ranger station. She was actually about 20 miles away.) Veteran pilot Bob Johnson took off from Missoula's Hale Field at 6:00 P.M. with Dr. Leo P. Martin and nurse Cathryn Ward. (The Big Prairie strip was about 75 miles northeast of Missoula.) Dr. Martin had trained at Missoula under Frank Derry and had also taken some training in parachuting at Moose Creek in the Nez Perce National Forest. He was not a smokejumper, but had taken parachute training on his own so as to be jump-qualified for rescue operations. (Medical journals in the United States referred to him as the only "Jump Doctor" in the nation at that time.) He was a native of Coram, Montana.

Upon landing, they found that the injured woman, Barbara Streit of Missoula, had been shot about 20 miles from the ranger station, in the Young's Creek region. She had been shot at a distance of 50 yards by a 180 grain soft-nosed, hollow point bullet, fired from a 30.06 rifle. The bullet had gone through both knees. Miss Streit had been preparing to enter Montana University upon her return from the hunting trip. She would have been a senior. The report received at the station said she was in critical condition, suffering from loss of blood and was in shock, and that the hunting group was moving her down the trail. Dr. Martin, nurse Ward, and several employees of the ranger station took off in the darkness to try and meet them.

In the meantime, Bob Johnson contacted Hale Field and stated that smokejumpers were needed since the injured person was a long distance from the ranger station. A 60 mile round trip had to be taken to Nine Mile west of Missoula and back in order to secure parachutes and jump gear. Very early in the morning on the 18th Dick Johnson was airborne in another Travel Air, along with Barbara Streit's father, Norman C. Streit, and smokejumpers Karl Nussbacher, Roy Mattson, Bill Musgrove and Wag Dodge. It was raining in the South Fork area and conditions were such that it was impossible to drop the jumpers. They landed at Big Prairie and shortly headed up the trail also.

In the Young's Creek area members of her hunting party had slowed the loss of blood and applied splints to both legs. Miss Streit was placed on the rump of one of Tamarack Lodge's pack horses--Old Sylvia. With a man on either side steadying her--with legs held straight out in front--they started down the long trail. Dr. Martin and others in his group met them 18 miles from the Big Prairie station. Dr. Martin administered 1st aid and once again Miss Streit and the rescuers headed to the northwest. They had to stop at the Hahn Creek Guard Station since Barbara Streit had taken a turn for the worse. Dr. Martin gave her what was called in those days a "canned-blood transfusion." This was at 3:30 A.M. during the morning of the 18th. At 7:30 A.M. the group started out again. The going was slow along a slippery trail, and they had to cross the rain-swollen South Fork River. Dr. Martin said later that Miss Streit never once uttered a single cry.

The 4 smokejumpers and Norman Streit came across the party 7 miles from Pig Prairie and gave assistance. Then, 3 miles from the airstrip they met a Forest Service mule-drawn, rubber-tired cart, to which she was transferred. Arriving at Big Prairie Barbara Streit was quickly placed in Bob Johnson's Travel Air. The nurse and her father also went along. The smokejumpers boarded Dick Johnson's ship and both groups took off in the face of a cross-wind, with Dick's ship acting as escort along the route to Missoula. At Hale Field she was taken in an ambulance to a local hospital where doctors removed about 200 pieces of bullet fragments from both knees. She recovered and lives in Missoula today.

The Great Falls Tribune on the 19th commented: "The saga of a fearless girl, an intrepid doctor, dauntless airmen, and sweating rescue workers ended at Missoula's municipal airport this afternoon...Thus ended a 95 mile trip (20 by trail and 75 by air)..."

Among the jumpers, Wag Dodge survived the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, and passed away in 1955. We do not know the whereabouts of Karl "Bear Wrestler" Nussbacher (He later changed his name to Glades.), Roy Mattson or Bill Musgrove. Dr. Martin joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 and became head flight surgeon for the base at Walla Walla, Washington. He was a captain and taking flight instructions. He and his instructor pilot were shooting practice landings. Dr. Martin's wife-- along with her parents--was watching. Suddenly the cabin trainer hit a power line, exploded, and crashed in flames. Both pilots died. Dr. Leo Martin was later buried at Missoula. Dick Johnson died in March 1945 in the crash of the Johnson Flying Service Travel Air he was piloting south of Jackson, Wyoming while taking part in a game survey.
Bob Johnson passed away in December 1980.

It has now been 53 years since that rescue out of Big Prairie. The Young's Creek area is still a primitive region and the Big Prairie airstrip has been closed for a long time to civilian aviation. The roar of Travel Air engines over the South Fork Primitive Area has been stilled forever.