Though they were often accused of being yellowbellies, none of the conscientious objectors in Mark Matthews’s Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line lacked courage. Some, however, lacked common sense. Emery Garber, for example, once challenged a bull that entered his camp by slapping it across the eyes with his belt. He was thrown 15 feet and knocked around the airstrip. After his pals chased the brute out, Garber dusted himself off and boasted, “If you guys hadn’t got there when you did, I think I could have gotten away from him.” In another example, Dale Entwistle, upon reporting for parachute training, asked “About how high do you bounce when you hit the ground?” Finally, some good lines for the pacifists.
For the most part, members of our country’s various peace movements have been written out of the popular American narrative. The trend took hold early on. According to Matthews, initial drafts of the U.S. Constitution included a provision stating, “No person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service.” The constitutional delegation cut the sentence. Since then, conscientious objectors in the United States have been either scorned or forgotten. To this day soldiers and spies get all the best war stories, both in Hollywood and in the news.
Smoke Jumping is a welcome exception, as Matthews has discovered the moral equivalent to war in the burning forests of the Pacific Northwest from 1943 to 1945. His book recounts the story of the COs, or “conchies,” who volunteered to be the first to jump wildfires. In those days, when a draft board classified a prospective soldier 4E (the official designation for conscientious objectors), the conscript had the choice of performing noncombatant service in the military, doing jail time, or enlisting in the Civilian Public Service (CPS). Most petitioners from the country’s three historic peace churches—the Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren—chose the latter option. CPSers did the “work of national importance” formerly done by the Civilian Conservation Corps, tasks which included grading roads, cutting brush, building bridges and laying water lines. Paid just $2.50 a month, many found the labor boring and unfulfilling. Phil Stanley, a Quaker, called it “work of national impotence,” and after hearing that the Forest Service was looking to parachute men into the wilderness to fight fires, he wrote a letter to Region One Fire Control seeking a transfer. The camp not only accepted Stanley but opened 60 slots to COs, 20 from each of the peace churches. The first year, 1943, they trained at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station, the next two at Camp Menard, which was a mile north of the Ninemile Remount Depot at Huson. In all, 250 COs participated over three years.
Matthews first heard this story in 1994, as he was finishing his graduate work at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism. At the time he was contemplating his own pacifism and working summers as a wildland firefighter to pay for school. A friend told Matthews about a slide show on the CPS smoke jumpers at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center. From there, his reporting instincts took over.
Matthews contacted former camp Director Roy Wegner, then 84 and living in Missoula. Wegner had already self-published three volumes of testimonials from CPS smoke jumpers; Asa Mundell, another firefighter from those days, shared a fourth volume. These resources, plus interviews with other surviving CPS jumpers, yielded to Matthews part of America’s overlooked history. Matthews does his best to honor these tales by letting the men tell their stories in their own words, quoting from their letters and journals at length. However, the author rightly senses that if he lets any of the men go for too long they will rush past the best parts—the danger and the humor—and focus instead on their religious principles.
While Matthews pays due respect to convictions, he identifies his subjects above all else as people who yearn for heroism, the same as any soldier who goes off to war. Many COs, who had suffered such atrocities as being thrown from moving trains and combed with brooms in freezing showers, just wanted their tormentors to affirm their courage. Says CO James Brunk: “I thought that if I could get into the smoke jumpers there would be enough danger involved that people might realize that I was serious about my stand against war and not just some ‘yellowbelly.’” In an unsigned editorial from Static Line, the camp newsletter, a writer notes, “Each man admitted a flair for the romantic, a taste for thrills. Airmindedness was the standard.”
If Matthews work has a weakness, it is only that he takes a bit too long to get his men up in the air and then down among the flames. Once there, the book becomes a page-turner. These men were first-rate. An analysis by Matthews of only three regions indicates that their work saved the Forest Service $346,000, and that one smokejumper could equal the output of eight earthbound wildland firefighters. Even Sen. Burns might be impressed with that performance.
Mark Matthews reads from and signs copies of Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line at Fact & Fiction Friday, Sept. 22, at 7 PM.