Tuesday, March 8, 2016
The Smokejumpers of WWII
Have you ever parachuted out of an airplane? When I was in high school, several brave kids from our youth group did and fell in love with it. With my fear of heights, it wasn’t for me.
Because of my research about WWII, I am familiar with the airborne troops that parachuted behind enemy lines to fight. But I recently discovered stories about the soldiers and civilians who were smokejumpers during the war. A smokejumper is a firefighter who is parachuted into a remote area to combat wildfires.
The concept of smokejumping began in the mid-1930s, and was considered a “hare-brained idea.” However, by 1939 the Forest Service decided to experiment with the concept. The first jump was made in Winthrop, Washington. By 1940 two smokjumping base camps had been established – one in Winthrop and the other in Missoula, Montana. The program was very successful, and more camps were established across the western states. Soon war intervened, and the Forest Service lost a large percentage of its workforce.
The solution to the shortage of workers came from the Civilian Public Service, a governmentprogram that provided conscientious objectors with an alternative to military service by allowing them to participate in “work of national importance under civilian direction.” The men went through intensive physical training and made many practice jumps. Their salary was $5 per month, significantly less than other job paid at the time.
Conscientious objector Luke Birkey said, “I’d do it all again. I was convinced that the Jesus way of non-violence was right.” CO Phil Neal commented, “To be a good jumper, one needed inner peace.” For many of these men, smokejumping was a way to show they weren’t scared or lacked patriotism. Tedford Lewis said, “The motivation for a lot of us was to prove to society we’re not afraid to risk our lives, it’s simply the fact that we won’t take another life.”
Another group of smokejumpers were the men of the 555 Parachute Infantry Battalion (known as the Triple Nickel). Formed in November 1943 at Fort Benning, Georgia, this all-black unit was assigned to Operation Fire Fly, a civilian/military effort to combat the expected wildland fire threat from the Japanese balloon bombs.
Sergeant Walter Morris served with the 555. “It was a secret mission called Operation Firefly. We thought we were going overseas to MacArthur’s theater.” But when they arrived in Oregon in the spring of 1945, they discovered they’d be fighting the Japanese on the fire line. Even though the Triple Nickel fought twenty-eight forest fires during the 1945 season, none of the fires were attributed to the balloon incendiaries.
“We were the first and only paratroopers of color in 1944,” says Triple Nickel Association President Joseph Murchison. “It was the proudest period of my life, being in the Triple Nickels and doing something that nobody else was doing.” The 555th was deactivated on December 9, 1947, and most of its remaining personnel were reassigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.
A freelance writer for over ten years, Linda Shenton Matchett also writes historical fiction. She is currently seeking a publisher for her series about WWII war correspondent Ruth Brown. Visit Linda at www.LindaShentonMatchett.com.