Smokejumpers honored in Oregon

The parachute was originally developed as an emergency measure for getting out of an aircraft. But in the 1940s, the parachute was repurposed for another use: Getting wildland firefighters known as smokejumpers into remote locations.

The Siskiyou Smoke Jumper Base in Cave Junction, Ore., is the oldest surviving smokejumper facility. On June 23, the southern Oregon community will hold a ceremony to honor smokejumpers.

The base, located next to Illinois Valley Airport (3S4) about 60 miles from the coastline in rugged, heavily forested terrain, was established in 1943 and originally named after the town of Cave Junction. The name was later changed to Siskiyou after the Siskiyou National Forest where the base is located, explains Roger Brandt, secretary of the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum board.

Photo by Doug Beck

World War II was raging at the time and the forests in the Pacific Northwest were military targets. The Japanese launched incendiary balloon bombs that were supposed to land in the forests and touch off devastating fires. It was thought that military units would be called into fight the fires, weakening the United States’ defenses.

According to Brandt, the launch of the incendiary bombs involved an elaborate scheme of transporting a plane to the American coast in a submarine, assembling it on the deck, and then flying to the nearby shore to drop bombs in the forest. Other bombs were launched in Japan and carried across the Pacific by high-altitude air currents.

“It is believed that out of the 9,000 launched by Japan, about 1,000 reached the continent, some drifting as far inland as the central part of the country,” he said.

Most of the fires set by the balloon bombs were thought to have been extinguished by rain. The U.S. government tried to keep the existence of the balloon bombs a secret to avoid panicking the public.

The creation of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, a segregated, African American crew of smokejumpers, was also kept low key, because their job, in addition to fighting fires, was to find the bombs and dismantle them. “They were the only military unit in history to work as smokejumpers,” said Brandt.

The 555th was formed in December 1943 with about 20 members, he reported. The unit was stationed at Pendelton Airfield in Pendelton, Ore., “but most people didn’t know they were there or why they were there. They received very little publicity because of the secrecy surrounding their assignment to dismantle Japanese incendiary bombs.”

Photo by Jerry Schmidt

Although the bombs did not do much in the way of fire damage, one did cause six fatalities. On May 5, 1945, Archie and Elsie Mitchell and their five children went for a picnic on Gearhart Mountain in Southern Oregon, not too far from the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base. The children, ages 11 to 14, found one of the balloons lying on the ground. The bomb attached to the balloon exploded, killing all five children and Mrs. Mitchell. Today a memorial, the Mitchell Monument, is located at the point of the explosion, in part of the forest now know as the Mitchell Recreation Area.

The 555th, also known as the Triple Nickels, participated in 1,200 fire jumps, according to Brandt. “One of these resulted in the death of a medic named Malvin Brown who became the first smokejumper death in history,” he said. “He fell from an estimated height of 150 feet from where his parachute was snagged in the top of a pine tree near Roseburg, Ore., on Aug. 6, 1945.”

The Triple Nickles weren’t the only smokejumpers. During the war most of the firefighting at the Siskiyou base was done by a unit made up of conscientious objectors (pictured below). A conscientious objector is someone who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, and or religion.

Photo by Chalmer Gillin

“Many of these were Mennonite farm boys and most had never been in an airplane before,” said Brandt. “Conscientious objectors were not regarded with much respect due to their refusal to engage in war and were not paid for their work. They did odd jobs in town to earn spending money which, according to one account, was mostly spent on buying ice cream. When World War II ended, smokejumper jobs were given to returning veterans and conscientious objectors returned to their farm life.”

The first airplane used by the smokejumpers at the Siskiyou base was a Canadian-built Fairchild 82 that was privately owned, and contracted by the Forest Service.

Fairchild 82: Photo courtesy Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum collection

“The arrangement worked OK, but the fact that the contractor lived and kept his plane in a community located about 300 miles away made it difficult for fire crews to respond quickly to fires,” said Brandt. “The airplane had a slow air speed and smokejumpers recall it did not run very well. The plane crashed at Illinois Valley Airport in 1944 killing the pilot.”

After the loss of the Fairchild, the smokejumpers used a Ford Trimotor until the Army gave the Forest Service two Canadian-made Noorduyne Norsemen. The single-engine airplanes were sturdily built with wide landing gear that inspired the nickname “bow-legged buzzards.”

Noorduyne-Norseman: Photo by Nick Pauls

In 1953 the Noorduynes were replaced by the faster Twin Beech, but when more crew were added to the base, the Forest Service went to the larger DC-3 for transport. In the early 1970s, the fleet was upgraded to include a Beech 99 and a Twin Otter.

Smokejumpers in DC-3: Photo by Doug Beck

“These aircraft, along with the DC-3, were the primary transport aircraft until the base closed in 1981 and all operations were moved to two newer smokejumper bases, one located at Redding, Calif., and the other in Redmond, Ore., both of which were started in the late 1950s by crew members from the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base,” said Brandt.

After the Siskiyou base was decommissioned, the facility was turned over to Josephine County.

“This may have been what saved the historic base from being destroyed,” Brandt mused. “The other bases that were constructed around the same time were upgraded and old buildings demolished. The Siskiyou Smokejumper Base is now the only one of the four original bases that has its original buildings, making it the oldest-standing aerial firefighter base in the United States.”

Stuart Roosa, 1953: Photo by Bill Buck

A former Siskiyou smokejumper, Stuart Roosa, went on to become an Air Force pilot and an astronaut aboard the 1971 Apollo 14 moon mission, which was one of six missions to land on the moon. It was because of Roosa that the “moon trees” were created.

“Each astronaut was allowed to carry personal items in a small canister,” said Brandt. “Most carried family pictures, jewelry, and other items that would have the added value of having been to the moon and back. The experiences that Roosa had working as a smokejumper in the forested mountains of Oregon helped him decide to take tree seeds with him to the moon. He was able to stuff about 500 seeds from five different types of trees into the canister, which was about the size of a can of soda. After the mission, the seeds were planted and became known as moon trees. These were distributed around the nation during the United States bicentennial celebration in 1976.”

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