GATES OF THE MOUNTAINS — One by one, 15 smokejumpers hooked their static lines to an anchor cable and stepped to the doorway of a C-47 on a broiling August Friday in 1949.
Spotter Earl Cooley tapped each man on the left leg and sent him parachuting to his destiny.
The Mann Gulch fire blowup on Aug. 5 would claim the lives of 12 of them, plus an unlucky 13th in the person of fire guard Jim Harrison, who was stationed nearby.
Seventy years later, even the three jumpers who survived — foreman Wag Dodge and rookie smokejumpers Walt Rumsey and Bob Sallee — are gone.
Dodge was the first one out of the plane. By far the oldest man in the Mann Gulch crew at 33, he was just 39 when he died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in a Missoula hospital in early 1955. Dodge’s ashes were spread over his favorite fishing lakes in Idaho’s Powell Ranger District.
Rumsey, 21, jumped in the first three-man stick behind Dodge and squad leader Bill Hellman of Kalispell. A seasonal firefighter from Kansas in previous summers, Rumsey was making his first jump on a fire. It’s sad and ironic that Rumsey was in a commuter airline crash near Omaha in June 1980 on a business trip for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. He was one of 13 fatalities.
Sallee (pronounced ‘suh-LEE’) was 13 days short of his 18th birthday when he escaped the flames with Rumsey that day. He’d lied about his age to get into the smoke jumping program. Sallee was the lone survivor of Mann Gulch who was still living on the 50th anniversary of the Mann Gulch fire in 1999 and the 60th in 2009. Sallee died in a Spokane hospital in May 2014 after open-heart surgery. He was 82.
Cooley, the spotter, was Mann Gulch’s connection to the birth of the U.S. Forest Service smoke jumping program. He and Rufus Robinson made the first fire jumps in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in 1940. That was at the start of a 24-year career in smoke jumping, the last 13 as superintendent of the jump base in Missoula.
Cooley’s book “Trimotor and Trail,” published in 1984, included the most detailed study of the Mann Gulch fire and its aftermath until Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire” was published in 1992, two years after Maclean’s death.
Cooley passed away in Missoula in 2009 at age 98. Sallee’s death five years later left the world just one physical tie to the 1949 fire: the Johnson Flying Service airplane that dropped the men on Mann Gulch.
The DC-3/C-47, a survivor of two crashes itself, is making history again for the Museum of Mountain Flying as Miss Montana. It recently returned from World War II commemorations in England, France and Germany as the lone ex-smokejumper transport in the D-Day Squadron, and will be on hand in Helena Sunday and Monday for a Mann Gulch commemoration.
If even a seasonal creek ran down Mann Gulch, it would empty into the Missouri River to the west. The ridges that enclose it are hundreds of feet high, steep and hostile. Long rock slides run down the north slope where the men were caught by fire. The slides are separated by hogbacks that block views up and down the gulch. This unforgiving terrain was the stage on which the tragic drama unfolded.
The fire, when the jumpers arrived from Hale Field in Missoula, was high up on the southern ridge and covered 50 to 60 acres. The jump zone chosen from above by Dodge and Cooley was in the bottom of the gulch near its head on the east end. Dodge estimated it to be a half-mile from the fire. Starting around 3:50 p.m. the 15 jumpers landed safely and began gathering their gear.
In the years and decades that followed, Dodge, Rumsey and Sallee relived publicly what happened next through interviews, recorded conversations and formal hearings and statements.
“It was approximately 5 p.m. when all the cargo was retrieved and camp established below the jump area,” Dodge said in a sworn statement for the Forest Service in 1951.
The general movement of his firefighters was along a side-hilling path toward the river.
“The plan was to get behind the fire, which seemed to be moving in an easterly direction as the wind gave it momentum,” Rumsey said in a 1961 written statement.
Dodge headed up the south slope to meet Harrison, the fire guard, near the fire. A former smokejumper from Missoula whose mother had convinced him to give up such a dangerous occupation that summer, Harrison had hiked over the south ridge from his post at Meriwether guard station.
Dodge put squad leader Hellman in charge of the crew “to pick up some subsistence and water before starting down the canyon.”
“Climbing 100 yards or so up the slope the fire was on, we met Dodge and the smoke chaser (Harrison) coming down,” Sallee said in his sworn statement in 1951. “I heard Dodge say something to the effect that we had better get out of that thick reproduction because that was a death trap, and he instructed Hellman to take the crew back across the north side of Mann Gulch and head down the gulch to the river.”
Said Dodge: “Harrison and I returned to our camp area (in Mann Gulch), from where I could see the fire had started to boil up, and I figured it was necessary to rejoin my crew and try to get out of the canyon as soon as possible.”
He figured it was around 5:40 p.m. when he and Harrison caught up with the rest of the men. Harrison and most of the others were dead by 6 p.m. or shortly after.
“Dodge led us on a gradual climb back up the north slope of the canyon going west,” Rumsey said in 1961. “This gradually brought us out of the canyon and up to where we could see the fire burning on the other side. The fire was burning fiercely and we could hear the roar of the flames.”
“We continued down the canyon for approximately five minutes of travel before I could see that the fire had crossed Mann Gulch and was coming up the ridges toward us,” Dodge said. “I then reversed our direction and started to return to the north, up the northwest side of Mann Gulch, climbing as we went.”
“I hadn’t noticed that the fire was any worse than when we left the cargo assembly spot,” Sallee said. “When Dodge turned the crew back up the gulch was the first warning I had that there might be danger of the fire trapping us.”
Sallee and Rumsey were last in line before the turnaround. “We were traveling in that position because we were each carrying an unsheathed saw," Sallee said. "When the head of the line switched back, Rumsey and I cut across and dropped right in behind Dodge.”
Rumsey: “We continued up toward the ridge in an orderly manner. We reached a rocky place and Dodge told us to get rid of the saws and packs. We also shouted to the rest of the boys to ditch their equipment. Somewhere along the line I remember Dodge saying something about ‘getting out of this fire trap.’
“As far as I remember there were three men ahead of me, Dodge, Hellman and Diettert. I was getting nervous as I could hear and see the flames behind us and on our side of the gulch.”
Eldon Diettert, a Missoula County High School graduate, turned 19 that day. Rumsey said he was fleeing with a shovel and Pulaski in hand.
“I took the shovel from him,” he said. “Shortly afterwards I leaned it against a large pine. I was beginning to realize the danger about this time. We could see flames across the gulch but could see no fire on our side. However, we could hear a loud roar below and behind us.”
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Dodge said he’d reached the approximate area of their camp up the gulch when he determined the fire was closing too fast to continue to flee.
“I stopped the crew and explained to those nearest me (at least eight men) that we would have to burn off a section of the light fuel and get into the inside in order to make it through,” he said. “In my opinion all my men were still with me or very close and no stampeding was occurring.”
Rumsey: “The fire was upon us now, and Dodge realized we all couldn’t make the ridge in time. He motioned and yelled for us to gather around him as he explained his escape plan. I was near enough to see his lips moving, but I couldn’t hear his voice as he shouted to make us hear above the terrifying roar.”
Dodge: “After setting a clump of bunch grass on fire, I made an attempt to start another, but the match had gone out and upon looking up, I had an area of 100 feet square that was ablaze.”
In “Young Men and Fire,” Maclean wrote about his visit to Mann Gulch with Sallee in 1978. They climbed to what they believed to be the spot of Dodge’s back fire 29 years before.
“I saw him bend over and light a fire with a match,” Sallee told the author. “I thought, With the fire almost on our back, what the hell is the boss doing lighting another fire in front of us?’ ... We thought he must have gone nuts.”
Rumsey: “I remember thinking what a good idea Dodge’s escape fire was and I also remembered how a fire often stops, or at least slows down, when it reaches a high ridge. I thought if I could only reach the ridge I would be safe, and if I couldn’t reach it, I could always duck back to the left into Dodge’s burnt-out area and save myself. I looked back now and saw three men silhouetted against a sheet of red flame. I didn’t look back a second time.”
Much of the post-fire scrutiny of the Mann Gulch disaster centered around Dodge’s “escape fire,” an unfamiliar if not unprecedented tactic at the time. One of four recommendations that came out of a four-day board of review the following month, on site and in Missoula, was that training should include “the use of the escape-fire method of avoiding catastrophe, even though occasions for and opportunity to use this method are relatively rare.”
Rumsey followed his friend Sallee up the final yards to a small opening in the stony reef on top. Diettert, he said, “fell away to the right and out of sight.” Hellman disappeared in the smoke to his left.
Sallee: “When we came to a crevice in the rock ledge, Rumsey and I climbed up through the crevice while Diettert swung along under the rock ledge to the right. When I got above the rock ledge and while I was waiting for Rumsey to climb up to where I was, I looked back down in the direction in which I had last seen Dodge. I saw Dodge jump over the burning edge of the fire he had set and saw him waving his arms and motioning for the other boys to follow him.”
Dodge: “Upon walking around to the north side of the fire I started as an avenue of escape, I heard someone comment with these words, ‘To hell with this, I am getting out of here!’ and for all my hollering, I could not direct anyone into the burned area. … Within seconds after the last man had passed, the main fire hit the area that I was in.”
It was about 5:55 p.m., Dodge said.
“I lay down on the ground on my side and poured water from my canteen on my handkerchief over my mouth and nose and held my face as close to the ground as I could while the flames flashed over me. There were three extreme gusts of hot air that almost lifted me from the ground as the fire passed over me. It was running in the grass and also flashing through the tree tops.”
By 6:10 p.m. he dared to stand up.
“My clothing had not been scorched and I had no burns,” Dodge said.
Years later, Maclean interviewed Rumsey and Sallee. He said both remembered as they went up the last hillside thinking only: “My God, how could you do this to me? I cannot be allowed to die so young and so close to the top.”
He said they could remember “hearing their voices saying this out loud.”
After first Sallee, then Rumsey, squeezed through the rock ledge, they scrambled down the other side of the ridge, toward what would become known as Rescue Gulch. Flames still chased them.
“It seemed we were covering 15 feet at every step,” Rumsey said. “I tripped and fell headlong into a currant bush, hardly caring whether I got up or not. Sallee paused and looked back for a second and I got to my feet. On we went. … The smoke was so thick we could see only a hundred or so feet ahead. The ridge had slowed the fire but only for a minute.”
Exhausted in the 100-degree heat, Rumsey and Sallee took refuge in a rock slide 75 feet wide. They weren’t sure if that was big enough. The fire was roaring at them on three sides.
“We saw a form staggering through the smoke ahead of the flames,” Rumsey said. “It was a huge buck deer exhausted and with his lungs seared by the hot gases and smoke. He slumped to the ground a short distance from our sanctuary in the rocks and died.”
When the fire finally passed, the two heard a yell. They had trouble locating Hellman in the smoke, some 30 yards to the west. He was badly burned and would die in a Helena hospital the next morning.
On the Mann Gulch side of the ridge, Dodge also heard a cry. Below and to the east, he found 24-year-old Joe Sylvia of Massachusetts, a Marine and third-year smokejumper who’d reported for duty in Missoula just four days earlier. Sylvia too succumbed the next day in the hospital.
Diettert, Harrison and nine others died on the mountain.
Ten days after their Mann Gulch jump, Rumsey and Sallee were dropped on a two-man fire in Pattee Canyon near Missoula. Four days after that, they jumped with 14 others on a fire near Plains. According to an article by Carl Gidlund (Missoula ’58) in the October 2005 Smokejumper Magazine, Aerial Fire Depot records in Missoula indicate Rumsey also jumped on fires on Aug. 27 and Sept. 4 — in all four within a month after the horrors of Mann Gulch.
In the same article, Gidlund quoted Steve Rumsey of Colville, Washington, as saying his father “went out of his way to avoid talking about Mann Gulch.”
Walt Rumsey had periodic nightmares that his son said he believed were related to the killer fire, but “to the best of my knowledge it didn’t unduly affect his life, although he did mention survivor’s guilt a couple of times.”
It wasn’t so easy for Bob Sallee, who sat in on the same interview with Gidlund in 2004. The boy of 17 was 73 by then. He said he’d been “an emotional exile” since Aug. 5, 1949.
“I think it’s because of Mann Gulch that I don’t feel sorrow or elation like other people seem to,” Sallee said. “When my grandparents, parents and my first wife died, I couldn’t cry. I just took it numbly.
“And since Mann Gulch, I force myself to stay away from emotional situations.”
Coming next Sunday: A special section on the Mann Gulch disaster and its aftermath