Rather Than War: The Role of Conscientious Objectors in Smoke Jumping during WWI


Smokejumper training photo by Phil Stanley, 1945.By Shandy Lemperlé, R1 archivist

When the idea of dropping people from planes to fight fires was first suggested in 1934, it was considered a “hare-brained scheme.”

Nevertheless, this idea was revisited in 1939 as a Forest Service experiment, with Glenn Smith and Francis Lufkin making the first practice jumps outside of Winthrop, WA, in Region 6.

In 1940, permanent camps were set up in Winthrop and Ninemile, MT, and on July 12, 1940, Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley made the first fire jump on a fire in the Nez Perce National Forest.

Smoke jumping soon proved to be not only feasible, but also cost-effective. Already in the first years of the program, the Forest Service saved thousands of dollars by getting crews to wildland fires faster, which in turn often allowed them to contain the fires before they spread out of control.

By the early 1940s it was clear that the burgeoning smoke jumping program was a valuable asset to the Forest Service, but it almost immediately hit a road block. With the United States’ entry into World War II in 1941, the Forest Service experienced a significant loss in personnel. Earl Cooley, by then the project foreman, remarked, “Just when parachuting men into fires had proved practical, we were hit by shortages of men and equipment.” This shortage was filled by a seemingly unlikely source: with the help of the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program, which provided conscientious objectors to war a legal alternative to military service.

Conscientious objectors (COs) are opposed to war for religious and/or philosophical reasons. During World War II, most COs came from one of the three so-called Historic Peace Churches (Mennonite, Church of the Brethren and the Religious Society of Friends). COs interpret the commandment, “thou shalt not kill” literally, and prefer the way of peace. The Burke-Wadsworth Selective Service Act of 1940, which established the first peace-time draft in United States history, also contained a provision for COs, declaring that those who, “by reason of religious training and belief [are] conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form,” would instead participate in “work of national importance under civilian direction.” The Civilian Public Service program was established to provide and manage this work of national importance.  

Phil Stanley, a CO from a Quaker church, first learned about the smoke jumping program while stationed at a CPS camp in Coleville, CA. When Stanley learned that the program was experiencing a shortage of personnel, he wrote to Alex Lindh, Director of Region One Fire Control, proposing that Lindh recruit smokejumpers from the CPS camps. Lindh responded positively to Stanley’s suggestion, and in 1943, 60 men were chosen from a pool of over 300 volunteers.

After reporting to the smokejumper camp in Ninemile, MT, these COs underwent intensive physical training and practice jumps.  

Smokejumping photo by KD Swan, 1944.As CO Phil Neal noted, “To be a good jumper, one needed inner peace.” Once they were fully trained they began jumping to fires and proved their worth putting them out, all while being paid a measly $5 per month. The CPSers rarely complained, however, and continued to fight fires for the Forest Service until the camp was disbanded in April, 1946. Cooley reasoned that the returning GIs would have resented having COs as trainers and superiors and so the CPSers returned to their families and their lives from before the war.

Without the service of the COs, the Forest Service would have likely had to discontinue the smoke jumping program during the war years. During the COs’ years of service, smoke jumping evolved from an experiment to a full-fledged program that saved the agency thousands of dollars annually. It also provided the COs with a valuable experience that they carried with them for the rest of their lives.

Conscientious objector Luke Birkey said of his time as a CPS smokejumper, “I’d do it all again. I was convinced that the Jesus way of non-violence was right. My understanding of this was far too narrow and provincial or incomplete. But CPS became a time of evaluation and maturing as I lived closely with people of conviction but varied backgrounds and perspectives. It was a time to learn, to increase vision of what it meant to be a follower of the Prince of Peace and to be more socially responsible. My fellow CPSers helped enormously in this process and I’m profoundly grateful.”

Shandy Lemperlé is scheduled to give a lecture on the role of COs in the smoke jumping program on Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 11:30 in room 263 of the Regional Office.