Jumping into history
Born and raised in Missoula, Skip Stratton had never been to Washington, D.C., when he was selected as one of four smokejumpers who parachuted onto the Ellipse between the White House and the Washington Monument on June 28, 1949. "It was our five minutes in the limelight," he remembers. "Then we went home and got back to work." Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

50 years ago, Washington, D.C., got a drop-in visit from smokejumpers

"There won't be a forest fire, but if President Truman happens to glance out the window of the White House next Tuesday noon, he will see smokejumpers from Region No. 1 headquarters of the Forest Service at Missoula landing on a patch of grass a few hundred yards off.

"The show on the Ellipse, between the Washington Monument and the White House, will mark the first time that smokejumpers ever have been dropped east of the Mississippi River. An old-time Tri-Motor plane, with Bob Johnson, veteran of uncounted aerial rescues, at the controls, will be used to show the Easterners how it's done."

Missoulian,Thursday, June 23, 1949

They were war veterans - sturdy, reliable young men who studied forestry on the G.I. Bill and parachuted to forest fires when school let out for the summer.

Ed Eggen had 24 jumps to his credit, including one from a crippled B-17 over Berlin. He spent six months in a German POW camp. Bill Dratz was a combat engineer with Gen. George C. Patton during the war. Skip Stratton was a test pilot. Bill Hellman was an air service veteran, too - and the father of a brand-new baby boy.

They never knew why they were the jumpers picked to "show the Easterners how it's done." But they were eager for the opportunity.

"I was born and raised in Missoula, and had never been to Washington, D.C.," said Stratton, who kept a scrapbook of photographs, newspaper clippings and letters from the historic jump. "Heck, before the war, I had never been anywhere but Spokane."

So they stuffed their gear into the Ford Tri-Motor used in those days to transport smokejumpers to back-country fires, and left Missoula's Hale Field for the capital.

"We were crowded as all get-out in that plane," Stratton said last week.

Pilot Bob Johnson was at the controls. Bud Carls, a mechanic for Johnson Flying Service, was in the co-pilot's seat, responsible for maintenance and navigation. Photographer Robert Catlin was on board as well, and spotter-smokejumper Albert Cramer.

It took the slow-flying Tri-Motor three days to reach Washington. "If we got a head wind, we could see cars and trains passing us down below," Stratton said. Top speed was about 90 mph.

"And we could only fly in daylight," he said. "All we had for navigation was a compass and a map. Bob would take a heading and then follow himself on the map."

Somewhere in the Midwest - "in the flat country," Stratton said - they got lost. "Storms," he explained. "Then Bob saw a little town with a railroad running through it, and he peeled out and got about 50 feet off the ground and flew down that railroad track until we could read the name on the station."

"They had installed a radio for the flight, but Bob didn't trust it," Stratton said. "So when we'd get to the big airports in the Midwest, Bob would start circling to warn everyone that we were going to land."

"They'd have to clear the runway," said Carls, who spent 10 years with Johnson Flying Service. He is retired now and lives in Hamilton.

"Then the tower would use a light gun to tell us it was OK to land - green was the go-ahead light," said Stratton, who eventually spent 30 years with the Forest Service before retiring in Missoula.

Of course, Johnson wasn't accustomed to paved runways. "Back home, everything was dirt or gravel," Stratton said. "So he'd land the tri-engine in the grass and then taxi to the runway. He figured the pavement was too hard on the tires anyway."

"We attracted a crowd everywhere we landed," Stratton said. "People would come running."

"There were strange goings-on yesterday in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

At 1 p.m., an intense belch of smoke erupted on the Ellipse grounds. An old, tri-motored plane flew over at about 900 feet and two men parachuted out.

"The plane made a second pass over the bubble of smoke and two more men hit the silk.

"It wasn't an invasion, citizens, it was the United States Forest Service demonstrating how its smokejumpers fight forest fires in remote sections of the West."

"RIGHT">Washington Post, Wednesday, June 29, 1949

The demonstration jump made history by taking smokejumpers east of the Mississippi River and into a big city. More importantly, though, it made an impression on hundreds of business executives and news reporters gathered in the capital to fete the Forest Service's wildfire prevention efforts.

The businessmen already had donated hundreds of hours of free air time and advertising space to the Smokey Bear campaign - $24 million worth by one estimate. The Forest Service hoped to inspire continued support of its fire prevention work - and newfound support for its firefighting units, including the smokejumper program.

Thus the plan to drop four Missoula-based smokejumpers onto the Ellipse that connects the Washington Monument and the White House. The business leaders would watch via television from the National Press Club, "a big deal in those days," Stratton said. "We didn't even have television in Montana yet."

News reporters and others - the crowd numbered in the hundreds - watched from the Ellipse.

"As we circled the jump spot, we could see people coming out of all the government buildings," Stratton said. "They looked like ants."

Cramer, the spotter, was worried about the wind and an approaching thunderstorm. So he told Johnson to take the Tri-Motor lower - to about eye level with tourists peering out the windows of the Washington Monument.

"We were waving at each other," Stratton said.

Stratton was the first out of the airplane, shortly after 1 p.m., followed by Dratz, his classmate not so many years earlier at Missoula County High School. "Bill's parachute turned inside out, so he could not get hold of the guide lines," Stratton said. "He almost didn't get in. He just had to ride it out and hope for the best."

Hellman and Eggen followed on the next pass.

"They told us President Truman might be watching out a window in the White House, but we never knew if that was true," Stratton said. "He never called us or anything."

The jumpers suffered from no shortage of attention, though, as they were descended upon by dozens of newspaper, radio and television reporters. "The questions were just crazy," by Stratton's recollection. "What does it feel like? Do you jump right into the middle of the flames? Crazy stuff."

Then, while Johnson and Carls took the Tri-Motor back to Washington National and held court with the commercial airline pilots, the four smokejumpers climbed aboard a pair of convertibles for a celebratory ride down Pennsylvania Avenue and a luncheon at the Press Club.

"It was a little silly, and a bit embarrassing for a bunch of guys from Missoula," said Stratton. "But it was our five minutes in the limelight. Then we went home and got back to work."

"Four Missoula, Mont., smokejumpers parachuted into President Truman's back yard Tuesday.

"Anyone watching from the White House back balcony would have had a grandstand seat, but the balcony was empty. Forest Service officials directing the firefighting exhibition said they believed the president watched on a television set.

"The smokejumpers are employed by the Forest Service throughout the West to parachute into fire areas.

" 'Easiest jump I ever made,' said Ed Eggen, a veteran of 24 parachute descents.

"Lacking forest fires in downtown Washington for the demonstration, the Agriculture Department used smoke pots."

Missoulian, June 29, 1949

Skip Stratton was 27 when he made headlines with his historic parachute ride. Bill Hellman was 23. Ed Eggen and Bill Dratz were 26. All but Eggen were married men with young families. "Ed was the favorite of the women at the Agriculture Department," Stratton remembered. "He was this big handsome guy with blond hair and a great smile. They pretty much had him surrounded the whole time we were in Washington."

Of the four jumpers, only Eggen and Stratton are alive for Monday's 50th anniversary of the jump.

Dratz died of cancer a few years ago.

Hellman died six weeks after the jump in the trage

dy that made the most lasting headlines from the summer of 1949. Hellman was one of 12 smokejumpers who died - along with a ground firefighter - when they were trapped by a forest fire in Mann Gulch on Aug. 5, 1949.

Hellman, the smokejumper squad leader, survived the blowup, but was burned so severely that he died the next morning in a Helena hospital. His baby boy was just 6 weeks old.

Eggen worked but a short time longer for the Forest Service, then returned to his native Wisconsin. Friends say he doesn't talk much about his smokejumping days, but still exchanges Christmas greetings with some of his former co-workers. He could not be reached last week.

Stratton, by default but also by inclination, has been the historian of the group. His yellow-paged scrapbook preserves the 50-year-old clippings from the Washington Post, Times Herald, Washington Daily News and the Missoulian. He has the letter of appreciation on White House stationery dated June 29, 1949, and addressed to "Homer W. Stratton, United States Forest Service, Missoula, Montana."

"Dear Mr. Stratton:

"This is just a short note to tell you we are deeply appreciative of the splendid performance you gave the city of Washington last Tuesday. We are proud of having had the opportunity of meeting you."

"It was a big deal at the time," Stratton said last week. "But nowadays, it's kind of a lost piece of smokejumper history."

"For me, it was a highlight of my life," he said. "You just don't run into that kind of hoopla every day."

Monday - 6/28/99

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