Instead of soldiers, they fought fires

Conscience wouldn't allow them to do combat, so these men embraced a different kind of dangerous job.

Reading Mark Matthews's Smoke Jumping On the Western Fire Line: Conscientious Objectors During World War II led me back into my own history.

At the peak of the Vietnam War, I applied for conscientious objector status on religious grounds. In the end, a newly enacted draft lottery made that application process a moot one. But as I read Matthews's account of the experiences of these men, that classic debate – obligation to one's country versus commitment to religious belief – became vivid yet again.

In modern times, this refusal to serve must seem as archaic as the sight of Clark Kent looking for a phone booth. Certainly debate rages over the war in Iraq, but minus a draft these arguments lose the sense of personal struggle so well documented in this book.

Opponents of this war may find their patriotism questioned. But these World War II-era religious resistors experienced deep and personal animosity from the greater community.

As Matthews details it, they could expect to be called "yellowbellies." Some were challenged to fights on trains and in bars. Here men who were joining the active military taunted these so-called "cowards" to see if they would really practice their pacifist philosophies when punches began to fly.

Still others faced unsympathetic civilian draft boards that regularly asked chilling questions such as "What would you do if Hitler and his henchmen were to land in your hometown and threaten to rape your mother, or your sister or your wife?"

These men, for the most part members of what Matthews calls the "Historic Peace Churches" – the Mennonites, the Quakers, and the Brethren, – felt compelled by their religious upbringing to refuse induction into any war, no matter how strong the popular support.

Nearly 12,000 of them instead served their country performing jobs of "national importance" in a program called Civilian Public Service (CPS). While the majority of these worked in agricultural and forest conservation or in various types of medical settings, one group of 250 men volunteered and trained at CPS Camp 103 in Montana "to reach and confine wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service in five mountainous western states and Canada."

"Smoke jumping" (dropping parachuted firefighters into the vicinity of a fire) had seen its beginning in the late l930s. But these men, as Matthews tells their stories, truly functioned as "guinea pigs" to help develop the training, parachuting, and firefighting techniques that have since become standard practice for smoke jumpers. And it is these stories that give this book its vitality.

Matthews, a self-described "wildland firefighter" and one who claims to have "professed nonresistant tendencies since the Vietnam War era," first became interested in CPS smoke jumpers while a graduate student in journalism at the University of Montana.

The bulk of the book's stories come from a combination of in-person interviews and verbatim written testimonials from more than 100 former volunteers compiled by Roy Wenger, the director of Camp 103. After a detailed discussion of conscientious objection in the US and an overview of the teachings of the historic peace churches, Matthews moves into the heart of the matter.

Like their civilian counterparts, many Forest Service professionals did not at first greet these recruits with open arms. But because so many of the men had been raised as farmhands, Earl Cooley and the other trainers soon learned what physical specimens they had on their hands.

One civilian smoke jumper later called them "farm boys" who "didn't believe in using machines no way ... and ... took them shovels and saws ... and put a hump in their backs and never straightened up until morning when they had a fire line around the whole damn fire." They were, he concluded, "the world's champion firefighters."

Though physically tough, they needed to practice jumping from an elevated tower, making sure that they rolled properly once they landed. With these skills in place and using parachutes deemed slightly unfit for military use, they next had to learn to "hit the silk" from Ford Trimotor aircraft.

William Weber remembers an early jump this way: "...the next thing I knew I was looking up, the plane was leaving, and suddenly there was a jerk on my harness and the beautiful white parachute opened above me. What a feeling of ecstasy."

But what followed the jump into the fire scene lent a certain irony to the term "smoke jumper." Matthews writes: "Parachute jumps lasted only about two minutes, but a wildland firefighter often found himself swinging a Pulaski (a fire tool) for up to sixteen hours a day."

Mark Matthews is to be commended for making the stories the core of his book. There are no glorified special effects here. Nothing reported in this book comes close to the landings on the Normandy beaches.

Rather, these are tales that take us back to a simpler time. These are stories of everyday camp life, of long days spent struggling to put out wildfires, and each is told with a simplicity that rings true. This is the record of men who found adventure and pride as they embraced a role they could accept in the greater war effort.

While this book may never have the mass appeal of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation," it nevertheless presents a small piece of American history that richly deserves to be known.

Larry Sears is a freelance writer living in El Paso, Texas.

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