These thoughts started after reading Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire, which dealt with the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, and doing some thinking and walking afterward.
Although published in 1992-a mere 27 years ago—I'd never read it because I thought I probably knew more about jumping fires than Mr. Maclean and wouldn't learn much. This may be true since I'd jumped in the mid-70s, which was near the time he started researching his book in Missoula. But Mr. Maclean knew more about life and tragedy, and it took me some time in life to get to where he'd been.
The Mann Gulch Fire is not just about tragedy and the burnover of 12 smokejumpers and one fireguard. It is also about trying to do everything right and having everything go wrong, and maybe a few things about that pot-holed trail called life. It is about how bad luck, chance, and using one's best judgment nevertheless rubbed out lives and made men fading statistics with only white crosses on a bleached mountainside to remember.
The story of Mann Gulch is not so much about smokejumping but, as stated aptly by Bob Sallee (MSO-49) one of the three survivors, about "how fast you could run."
The tragedy of this famous fire had dimensions and aftereffects I never understood, until Maclean brought them to my attention, and I did some research on my own. There was tragedy during and some years after the fire.
The only material witness who is still around and who was there is the DC-3 jump plane, now named Miss Montana. She has yet to say a word about the event so long ago over the Missouri River country in 1949.
In 2019, as many of us know, she flew to England and participated in the "Doug" Squadron (24 planes) that flew from Britain to France in a commemoration of the Normandy Invasion of 1944. She also dropped jumpers—both former military and smokejumpers. So, it was something of a good ending to a horrible event that started in 1949.
Before this, per Maclean, Miss Montana (though she didn't have that name yet) had flown to Africa and done some cargo hauling there. In 1954 she crashed in the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh carrying soldiers on leave; ten died from drowning and hypothermia. Planes on occasion can have more lives than people.
What I came to better understand after reading MacLean's book was the haunting death factor and that events cascaded long after the tragedy and smoke cleared. Twelve of the 15 jumpers died. Fifteen jumped into the fire; one former jumper had hiked in. The former jumper was James Harrison (MSO-47), who was a fireguard. He'd quit smokejumping the prior year because he felt, ironically, that it was too dangerous – or at least his mother thought it was too dangerous.
One of the jumpers on board that day declined to jump because he was ill and resigned from jumping when he returned to Missoula.
Twelve of the jumpers who landed had served in World War II. By way of old times, this reminded me a bit of the mid-70s when we commonly jumped with Vietnam War vets. It was my take that they transitioned to smokejumping because they liked the freewheeling lifestyle and adventure, and a life with a touch of risk. They were also not without blunt humor and, I think, needed the sense every day that they didn't know where they were going.
Jumping in Alaska seemed to especially suit them because regulations were few and far between, and those that were left were meant to be "bent" and "re-interpreted."
I remember Leo Cromwell (IDC-66) relating an incident in Alaska in the late '60s when a jump load was returning to Fairbanks in a DC-3.
Jumpers fully loaded with gear were sprawled over the floor with the cargo. Cromwell observed the jumper next to him take off all his jump gear, dump it on the floor, and walk forward to the cockpit, stepping around and over jumpers, whereupon he replaced the pilot and flew the plane. Leo later identified the jumper as Nels Jensen (MSO-62) who became a career pilot for the Forest Service.
The Mann Gulch jump spot that was chosen was a second choice because the first was thought to be too dangerous. Wagner "Wag" Dodge (MSO-41), the foreman, even had second thoughts about this spot because a helicopter could not land there in the event someone was injured and had to be airlifted out.
Of course, helicopters then were primitive and dangerous, basically whirling contraptions waiting to fly apart. But smokejumping accepted a higher risk factor in 1949. Risk was more of a way of life and you grew up with it, especially those who had grown up in the Great Depression and survived World War II.
I think we accepted a higher risk factor jumping in the '70s than perhaps the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management accept now, but maybe that's just how time works.
Anyway, when the smoke cleared later that day there were three survivors: Dodge, Sallee, and Walter Rumsey (MSO-49). Dodge died five years later of cancer and, no doubt, no little degree of PTSD. Dodge, of course, started a fire with matches that created a burned area in which he could lay down and survive.
Dodge had called his crew over to join him, but none did in the confusion of the firestorm. Instead they all raced for the top of the ridge and safety with a roaring fire drowning out communication. It was every man for himself for a run of about three-quarters of a mile—1,320 yards—up a slope that meant a vertical climb of about 140 yards. This all boils down to a really steep run, uphill, on a really hot day (about 97 degrees), dropping gear as you go, and tossing glances over your shoulder to try and see how much the flaming chaos is gaining on you.
Maclean estimated the run took about 16 minutes during an onslaught of winds that varied from 20 to 40 mph, in addition to the winds the fire created. Sixteen minutes might seem like a long time at first glance, but flames tend to warp the physical laws of the universe and compress them into seconds; or time stops completely as it did for 12 jumpers and one fireguard.
The Forest Service now has mathematical
models to help predict the physical laws of how fires move—where, when, and how they think. But I've spent my life around beasts, and I've concluded that fire is something of a beast that picks the lock of predictability and leaves its cage to sniff out lethal weaknesses.
Although Rumsey was one of the survivors of the running race along with Sallee, Rumsey ended up getting killed in a commuter plane crash in 1980 near Omaha.
The pilot of the DC-3, or Miss Montana, was Kenneth Huber. He was killed flying a DC-3 in Montana in 1964 when he was 42 years of age. Huber had dropped paratroopers in World War II in Europe.
Needless to say, the DC-3 in which he died didn't make it to the Normandy Invasion celebration of 2019. The federal fire scientist who investigated the fire, Mr. Harry Gisborne, died at Mann Gulch of a heart attack when he was there in 1949 trying to understand how the fire blew up.
The only guy who lived to old age was Sallee, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 82 years. He lived a full life after he won his race with fire and traveled to New Zealand, India, South Africa, and Algeria setting up paper mills.
Even Maclean did not live long enough to see his book published, and this after about 12-13 years of research. Stark numbers tell stark stories.
The spotter, however, Earl Cooley (MSO-40)—the "first" smokejumper in the jump program, along with Rufus Robinson (MSO-40), who jumped first into the Nez Perce National Forest on a fire in 1940—who had slapped the legs of the men just before they exited and burned in the gulch, lived a long life and passed away at the age of 98 in 2009 in Missoula. Earl and Rufus jumped just 37 years after the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight.
As a quick but relevant aside to our story, while Earl and Rufus were jumping fires out of Ford Trimotors, German paratroopers were jump-
ing out of Junker 52 Trimotors into combat and taking over countries. German Fallschirmojäger paratroopers captured Crete and key airfields in Norway in April 1940.
Fallschirmojäger roughly translates to "para-chutist hunters." The allies who fought them referred to them as the "green devils." They were elite and deadly.
The great paradox here is that the Fallschirmojäger forced the U.S. military to study smokejumper operations in Montana by way of a critical visit by Army Maj. William Lee in 1940.
He came to study smokejumper parachute training and techniques. Back then in the states, smokejumping was the only professional government body parachuting into anything or attempting to parachute into anything; don't worry about whether they were hitting jump spots or if all the chutes deployed perfectly.
Lee had been a peacetime observer after World War I in Germany and had seen the German military buildup. Lee went to Montana—after briefing President Franklin Roosevelt on the need for airborne troops— because the Germans, as well as the Russians, were already well ahead of us in the military parachuting game.
The American need to catch up subsequently led to an evaluation of smokejumping techniques and the birth of the U.S. Army Airborne units— starting with the 101st—and later various Special Forces parachuting units, some later trained at Missoula. In other words, an event on the other side of the world by German paratroopers caused a visit to Montana by an American officer who had briefed the president, which in turn gave birth to all future military parachuting in the U.S. armed forces.
Incidentally, a couple years later, Lee—by this point, a general—"developed the plans for the air invasion of Normandy on D-Day and had trained to jump with his men but was sent back to the states a few months before the battle due to a heart attack."
Just nine years after Lee's visit, which helped change the course of World War II tactics in Europe and the Pacific, we arrive at Mann Gulch. It is something of a miracle that Sallee and Rumsey survived their run to the top, even considering their excellent running prowess.
Maclean talks about going back to the site of the disaster 29 years later, in 1978, with these two men and walking the battlefield where fire had won.
Sallee and Rumsey had made it to the top of a low rock ridge or wall. Through the smoke and fiery wind, they found an opening they could squirm through to the other side which, as fate would have it, lead them to more impending fire because they had become surrounded. They escaped by moving back and forth across a rockslide.
When Laird Robinson (MSO-62) and Maclean visited the site with Salle and Rumsey, the latter two had trouble squirming through the same hole because of age and a few extra pounds. That's how tight it was and how close things were—how they almost didn't make it.
In my five summers of fighting fire in the west and Alaska (three as a smokejumper, two on helitack), I was on only one genuine life-and-death blowup. It was, thankfully, not as bad as Mann Gulch, but the same fire demons lived in the shadows—a steep slope, chance, grass and pines, squirrely winds, tall sheets of flame that stretched the skin over your cheek bones, dropped tools, and a long run to the top pushed by hope which in turn was pushed by a bit of doubt. I don't remember how many minutes we ran up the steep slope, but I remember it didn't seem fast enough.
This fire, a hot Class C fire (10-100 acres), occurred in central Idaho on the Boise Forest July 25, 1975, and was called the "Rattlesnake Fire." Two groups of Boise jumpers were dropped in two locations on different ridges in an attempt to flank it in rough, mountainous terrain. Our spotter that day was Bobby Montoya (IDC-62).
In my drop, four of us jumped in two-man sticks: Jerry Ogawa (MYC-67), Clarence "Ty" Teichert (IDC-55), Rob Talbot (MSO-69) and me. Only Ogawa and I are still alive as I write this.
I frankly don't remember a lot about this fire. I do remember that Teichert and Ogawa jumped first and hit hard on a steep slope of trees and grass in gusty wind. After recovering from their landing, they radioed Montoya in the jump plane not to drop any more guys because of unacceptable wind.
This somewhat useful information—through no fault of Teichert and Ogawa—got to Montoya right after Talbot and I got a slap on the leg and exited the plane. I sometimes reflect now that this episode seemed to telegraph how other things would come to me later in my life.
In our twisting and turning descent, I remember Talbot disappearing over a sharp ridge of pines. I missed the jump spot—wherever it was— and was grateful to have had Montoya spot us or I might have hit Montana and drowned in a beaver pond, or maybe knocked out a bull moose.
We dodged big, rolling logs at night that were on fire. We made miscalculations on the ground because you can't calculate everything that might happen on a hot fire, especially one in the mountains with canyons and their own wind patterns. Miscalculations and bad luck create the worst of outcomes, and I remember one such outcome regarding our plane.
The plane was the DC-3 (tail number 148Z) we jumped that day, which commonly flew jumpers out of the Boise jump base. It crashed in Idaho in June 1979—two years after I quit jumping— when it was on a non-jump flight carrying cargo, ten people and two dogs to Moose Creek, Idaho.
No jumpers were on board. The right engine caught on fire and fell off the wing immediately after the left engine quit.
A hopeless situation in a short flight where "hopeless" was not on the manifest. No doubt all passengers had stepped on board that day thinking they'd done everything right and that nothing could go wrong—indeed, that a bright day would bring nice things.
And I have no doubt the pilots, Whitey Hachmeister (whom I remember flying some of my fire jumps in 1975 and was a former major in the U.S. Air force) and John Slingerland (who had an artificial leg from an injury in World War II, Montoya recalled) walked around the old DC-3 that morning inspecting everything, making sure all the dents and oil drips were in the right places.
What is particularly amazing is that a gentle-
man on horseback witnessed the engine fall off the
plane and took a picture of it whirling downward,
Montoya recalled. The pilots tried to crash-land in
the Selway River in Idaho. They died, as did eight
They almost made it. There were two survivors—Charles Dietz and Bryant Stringham, along with a beagle.
I also remember reading that one of the first indications that they had not arrived at their destination at Moose Creek was a fisherman who saw the tail of the plane floating down the river; never a good sign. So 148Z, which had lived in the mountains dropping jumpers and cargo and flying through clouds of adventure, never had the chance to join Miss Montana at the Normandy Invasion celebration in 2019.
It seems that Moose Creek attracted mayhem back in 1959 as well. A Ford Trimotor jump plane with four jumpers crashed into trees at the end of the runway as a result of a gust of wind, and immediately caught fire. And as if that wasn't bad enough, a burning tree fell on top of them.
Two jumpers died of burns; the foreman made it. One of the burned jumpers sang a song at the crash site with his last breath and died.
Regarding our four-man jump in Idaho, Rob Talbot died at age 52 in his house in Seattle in 2001, after a career in law. Teichert, a junior high school science teacher, committed suicide in 1988 at age 53, using a rifle. He did so because he could no longer live with multiple sclerosis.
Sadly, and strangely, I did not find out that Teichert had MS until 2019 when I had lunch with Montoya and Cromwell in Albuquerque. You can sometimes outrun a fire, but you can't outrun MS.
Montoya and Cromwell told me Teichert's inability to run that day on the fire turned out to be the first indication that he had a medical problem, which was later diagnosed as MS after a visit to the UCLA Medical Center. The net of all this now— coming to life 44 years later—explained why, in
all the smoke and fire that day, I had lost track of Teichert in our run to the top and feared he was dead, perhaps along with the others as well.
As it happened, Ogawa and Talbot found Teichert collapsed on their run to the top. He had fallen and was lying by a tree, flame and smoke racing up from below and along the sides.
The thing about trying to outrun a fire is that you have everything to lose and the fire has nuthin' - it seems only a deadly game to the fire beast - and then you start losing momentum the further up you go. Meanwhile, the fire is only gaining momentum - roaring flames tapping you on the shoulder.
My biggest trepidation were pines crowning and exploding below me and at my same level on the slope, as the beast started racing upward ahead of me. As Maclean put it: "... there is no class on how to run from a fire as fast as possible."
Teichert told Ogawa and Talbot to leave him, but they refused, lifting him to his knees and dragging him to a rock outcropping and safety. A helicopter shortly made an emergency landing and carried Teichert to Boise where he was treated for exhaustion and smoke inhalation.
An odd thing happens when you think of someone who is gone. You don't necessarily remember what is important; you may just remember a key event or two. In Teichert's case, I always think of a lightning strike we jumped into on top of a tall, glaciated cliff.
Lightning likes such places. I did not. It was the cliff mostly and my concern of tumbling down it. I missed the cliff, hit the jump spot on top, and almost hit a tree.
Incidentally, I've seen a lot of rattlesnakes in North and South America, even a couple Fer-delances and a handful of Anacondas. In fact, I saw a horse in a bathroom once in Venezuela and I've seen piranha swimming past my boots, but I never once saw a rattlesnake on the Rattlesnake Fire.
Tragedies and near tragedies enjoy each other's company whether rattlesnakes are there or not. Maclean put it eloquently when he said young men "hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy."
This brings us to the Granite Mountain Hotshots—although there is a trail of other fire calamities before and after including airplane and helicopter crashes, chutes that didn't open, treetops that fell on people, and other "runs for the top" like the South Canyon Fire (also called the Storm King Fire) which killed 14 firefighters. The list goes on.
Good records apparently started in 1910 in Idaho with the Devil's Broom Fire, which killed 78 firefighters. This fatality list seems to have no end when you include the towns and civilians that have been overrun in recent years. But of course, what makes the Granite event stand out is that 19 young men perished in a hot flash of seconds after having left a safe area "in the black."
There were no survivors from the burnover; no runs for the top through smoke and fire and grass and pines, no hope. Their world collapsed in seconds.
They, like Wag Dodge at Mann Gulch, tried a burnout when they realized they were trapped and before they deployed their fire shelters. They also cut away some of the 10-foot-high fuel with chain saws. They knew the beast was coming like he'd never come before; they could hear his roar and feel him.
Dodge and the jumpers back then, of course, had no fire shelters and I doubt very much that it would have saved them anyway. (Fire shelters, as I understand, were first required in 1977.)
The Hotshots tried to do everything right— had trained for it—but everything went wrong. It was a last stand of fire shelters in a small clearing of tall brush and Manzanita that had no name.
A trilogy of desperate actions, called almosts, is when your last thoughts deny that the unthinkable is happening to you. The fire shelters and the souls in them lost. Pictures of the gruesome burnover show tattered, torn shelters.
There's still some truth and miscalculations buried in the ashes, some controversy and open spaces in a great many hearts. Both the Mann Gulch Fire and the Granite Mountain tragedies had movies made about them, and both sites now have plaques with names lamenting never-ending grief.
So, when I look at Mann Gulch and the other tragedies, I look through a special lens, something of a human lens, that leaves a landscape of personalities and how chance dealt them different cards, including the ace of spades called unfairness.
On the Mann Gulch side, I was particularly intrigued by David Navon (MSO-49). He captivated me because of what he'd been through years before his last jump at Mann Gulch. He'd been
a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II and jumped into Holland in 1944 to fight the Germans.
Who would have guessed that, just four years after Lee's visit to Montana, American units would jump from the sky to kill Germans which had, ironically, caused the evaluation of smokejumping and the birth of U.S airborne units?
Navon survived the Bastogne siege in the Battle of the Bulge and sustained wounds. After the war he earned a degree in Forestry from the University of California in Berkeley. He was on the road to a bright, well-earned future.
So, after all the combat, bullets and bodies, and German Panzer tanks, death tracked him down
in Mann Gulch, Mont., on a hot August day and showed him no quarter. Death had ceased caring and dealt him the worst ace of spades.
Navon was also Jewish; a Christian Cross had been mistakenly placed at his death site in the gulch. It was later replaced with a marble monument inscribed with the Star of David.
Navon died in the top end of the gulch and was one of the "Four Horsemen" who almost made it over the top of the ridge. But almosts don't count in the fire business. Navon obviously knew a lot about almosts and how to stay on the winning side of life.
Maclean cited the fact that, minutes prior, Navon had stopped to take a picture of the fire. This might seem odd to an outsider, but most of us have probably photographed fires when other priorities were knocking at the door. I wondered if Navon had gotten so accustomed to close calls that this seemed like just another close call, minus the bullets, and that everything would work out like it had before during World War II—if you just kept going.
Maclean cites testimony that a number of those who perished in Mann Gulch, after being struck down by the fire, raised themselves and took a few more steps before they fell into the ashes one last time.
The long and short of our Rattlesnake Fire is that we made miscalculations that did not tip us quite far enough to earn white crosses on a fire-swept mountainside. The ugly sides of the universe did not crystalize and record tragedy. We never crossed into the zone of almost made it.
When I get to the end of the trail and try to make sense of fire calamities—including, now, entire cities burning—I'm sometimes left with the impression that fire just brings a reckoning with
it and doesn't much care what you've done beforehand.
So, there you have it—the debris path of space and time leaving questions, maybes, what-ifs, and sometimes a few too bads in the almost made it zone. When I study the information on Mann Gulch, I'm convinced I would have joined the dark statistics and gotten a white marker somewhere on a charred hillside, maybe not even near the top.
A last footnote is in order regarding Mann Gulch. Maclean pointed out that there was an attempt to hide key information by the U.S. Forest Service to alter testimony—such as the watches of those killed and the times they died and important paperwork. This seemed to me an attempt to "simplify" the federal report and hide maybe a little ugliness in a bureaucracy. The problem is, ugliness is sometimes part of chaos, and chaos is the companion of fire.
A couple years back when I taught environmental science at Navajo Technical University on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, I would sometimes ask my students (mostly Navajo but other tribes as well, plus a Filipino—all from rough backgrounds) a hypothetical question: What deceased people would you choose to have lunch with, and what intriguing conversations would you seek out?
My students and I would discuss their answers after I turned on my imaginary time machine and dialed my imaginary knobs into past times and dates (no little task).
It was a contemplating question that demanded thought, but there was also humor and occasional Navajo hysterical laughter, which can be contagious.
I miss these kinds of conversations with my Native American and Filipino friends who have since gone off to new horizons. I wonder what the Mann Gulch bunch would have said over beer and a few slaps on the back, and what questions they might have asked and stories they might have shared in our time capsule.
Many students would reply that they would have liked to visit with a notable Native American leader or a famous scientist or philosopher who had passed away or visit perhaps with someone who knew "the old America" before the whites got here.
It was all about gaining wisdom and maybe understanding the universe a little better. Then they'd ask me whom I'd like to have lunch with in the long-ago past. Of course, they'd never heard of Mann Gulch or, for that matter, the Rattlesnake Fire. Some had heard of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Time gets away from us.
Something of a hidden message at the end of Young Men and Fire is Maclean himself. The editors put a picture of him on the back inside back cover. This, of course, a couple years after he died. This is customary for the author of a book, but usually it's a close-up showing a toothy smile or a steely look into the camera.
The picture of Maclean shows an old, grayhaired man with a carved face sitting in a wooden canoe on a lake facing away from the camera, mountains in the background, bending over and thoughtfully looking down into the water, contemplating. His right hand is touching an oar. I think he had figured out aspects of life beyond the book he wrote.
I would like to have had lunch with him.
Pictured above are Boise Smokejumpers in 1976 in front of their DC-3, tail number 148Z. Some of these jumpers later went to Alaska along with Redding and McCall jumpers as part of the "Down South Crew" to assist BLM jumpers in Alaska. This plane crashed into the Selway River in 1979 killing most of the people on board during a non-jump mission. Bobby Montoya, the spotter on the Rattlesnake Fire, is just to the left of the airplane door. Two spots below Montoya is John Snedden, in a light shirt with his arms crossed. Two spots in front of Snedden to the left, also in a light shirt with his arms crossed, is Leo Cromwell. Cromwell and Snedden conducted an in-depth study of historical Boise fire jumps now available on a website. Base leadership in addition to Montoya included Herb Corn (IDC-67), first row, fourth from the left; and John Cramer (MYC-63), standing at Corn's right. Ogawa is fifth from the left on the slanted top row, holding a picture of a jumper who was not present; Bill Mader is fourth from the left on Ogawa's right. Covered up by the first two rows of jumpers is a wooden ramp with a steel handrail leading upward to the jump door. On the side of this ramp were the words "Fly Fat Cat Airlines." It was a hell of an airline.
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Smokejumper Magazine Article
These thoughts started after reading Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire, which dealt with the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, and doing some thinking and walking afterward.