Mark Matthews is a journalist based in Missoula, Montana, who since 1993 has worked as a seasonal firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. He brings a uniquely local perspective to the often romanticized slice of World War II homefront history known as smoke jumping. From 1943 to 1945, 250 American conscientious objectors trained and performed duties as firefighters at Civilian Public Service Camp Grand Menard near Huson, Montana. In addition to working at the smoke jumpers' base camp, some of the men traveled to assignments at spike camps in western Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and at fire lookout towers across the northern Rockies. Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line offers a sympathetic look at this uniquely western CPS experience, which shared its rationale and structure with the broader wartime Civilian Public Service program, but which offered more strenuous work as an alternative to military service than many other CPS locales and fostered strong camaraderie among the men who volunteered.
"If there ever could be a 'moral equivalent of war,'" Matthews argues, "then smoke jumping was it" (p. 265). He suggests that the smoke jumping program proved to be the "perfect" CPS arrangement, noting that drafted C.O.s came to their training at the Montana camp with high hopes for doing constructive, meaningful work, and that morale among the smoke jumpers remained high throughout the war. If there were discontented men in this CPS setting, Matthews has not managed to locate them - except for one, who thought that the camp was not an efficient use of public dollars. Overall, the CPS assignees were a heterogeneous, high-spirited group willing to perform government service in wartime, especially since smoke jumping was widely associated with ideals of bravery and sacrifice. Unlike CPS men assigned to many other camps across the U.S., the smoke jumpers enjoyed widespread support of local residents and mostly favorable coverage in the local and national media.
In researching the smoke jumpers' history, Matthews relied heavily on written accounts of CPS smoke jumpers themselves. Some of these, including a series of letters appearing in the book's appendix, date to the mid 1940s. Most of his sources, however, are reminiscences, collected and published by CPS camp director Roy Wenger, who with his wife Florence moved back to Missoula, Montana, in 1978 for retirement. Over the next quarter-century, Roy Wenger encouraged other former CPS smoke jumpers to write their memoirs, and he and his wife helped to organize reunions at five-year intervals. Beginning in 1990, Roy Wenger edited three privately-printed volumes of collected reminiscences. These, together with extensive interviews obtained before Wenger's death in 2004, are indispensable to Matthews's volume.
An additional set of interviews, with Earl Cooley, the National Forest Service trainer who coordinated the work of the wartime C.O. firefighters, provides still another affectionate perspective on the program. The CPS men won Cooley's respect over three years of hard work, but Cooley recalled feelings of stress and strain when the program was in its earliest phase, in 1943: "When I first heard we were hiring conscientious objectors, I considered joining the Army" (p. 110).
This book is aimed at audiences who may be unfamiliar with the historic peace church roots of the Civilian Public Service program. An introductory chapter sketches the history of conscientious objection in the U.S., beginning with the American Revolution. A second chapter outlines the traditions of the three historic peace church groups that collaborated in designing and sponsoring CPS — the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and the Society of Friends. The author, while providing contextual background for the C.O.s' decision-making, does not delve deeply into the historical past of these religious bodies; his account lacks nuance and contains inaccurate statements. His portrayal of the Civilian Public Service program as a whole is similarly flawed (for example, he overstates the number of CPS camps and units in the United States).
On the history of smoke jumping, however, which began in 1939 with U.S. Forest Service-sponsored parachute jumps, Matthews is a more reliable guide. His reporting of developing technologies and visionary planning among Forest Service personnel in the late 1930s and early 1940s underscores that the methods used by the earliest smoke jumpers, and soon taken up by their CPS replacements, were experimental and pioneering. Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line traces the often-naïve entry of conscientious objectors from a variety of backgrounds into a forestry culture with its own lingo ("hit the silk" as a euphemism for parachuting); its own tools of the trade (the pulaski axe-hoe for digging fire lines) and its own wilderness hazards (black bears, lightning, and fast-spreading fires). Despite the dangers and close calls, the CPS smokejumpers suffered no deaths, although a number suffered ankle, foot, and back injuries.
By 1945, as the war ended and CPS camps began to close, some National Forest Service officials briefly considered offering more permanent jobs to these seasoned workers. But as smoke jumper and trainer Earl Cooley noted, "if these men had been retained, they would have been supervising or instructing returning veterans who would have resented them" (p. 251). By the time the CPS men moved on to their postwar lives, the art and science of fighting fires in western forests had become well-established, with jumpers active in five states in public and private land holdings from 1946 onward.
Nearly two dozen photographs, a map of national forests in the northwestern states, and a preface written by former Senator George McGovern (a veteran of World War II who writes of his admiration for the faith and service orientation of the CPSers), round out this volume.
Rachel Waltner Goossen
Associate Professor of History