A Great Day to Fight Fire: Mann Gulch 1949


Mann Gulch, Montana, 1949. Sixteen men ventured into hell to fight a raging wildfire; only three came out alive. Searing the fire into the nation?s consciousness, Norman Maclean chronicled the Mann Gulch tragedy in his award-winning book Young Men and Fire. Still, the silence of the victims? families robbed Maclean?s account of an essential personal dimension. Shifting the focus from the fire to the men who fought it, Mark Matthews now provides that perspective.

Not until ...

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Mann Gulch, Montana, 1949. Sixteen men ventured into hell to fight a raging wildfire; only three came out alive. Searing the fire into the nation’s consciousness, Norman Maclean chronicled the Mann Gulch tragedy in his award-winning book Young Men and Fire. Still, the silence of the victims’ families robbed Maclean’s account of an essential personal dimension. Shifting the focus from the fire to the men who fought it, Mark Matthews now provides that perspective.

Not until 1999—the fiftieth anniversary of the fire—did people begin to talk openly about Mann Gulch. Matthews has garnered those thoughts to reveal how devastating the fire was to the firefighters’ family members, coworkers, and friends. In retelling the story of Mann Gulch, he draws on the testimony of the three survivors—including never-before-published insights from the last living member of the team—and interviews with former smoke jumpers of that era. The result is a moment-by-moment, heart-stopping re-creation of events.

The Mann Gulch tragedy provoked the Forest Service to develop safety equipment and training programs, but fighting wildfires is still a perilous job.

Matthews’ stirring account renews our respect for one of nature’s primal forces. A heartbreakingly human story, it still haunts a firefighting community—and keeps today’s firefighters forever on guard.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In early August 1949, a single bolt of lightning sparked a wildfire in Helena National Park in Montana. The so-called Mann Gulch blaze would kill 13 smokejumpers and change the course of American firefighting. Mark Matthews's narrative traces this rapidly moving calamity, recapturing the stories of the men who survived and the men who didn't.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806140346
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 3/20/2009
  • Pages: 280
  • Sales rank: 784,397
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

A former wildland firefighter and freelance journalist, Mark Matthews is the author of Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line: Conscientious Objectors during World War II and A Great Day to Fight Fire: Mann Gulch, 1949.

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Read an Excerpt

A Great Day to Fight Fire

Mann Gulch, 1949

By Mark Matthews


Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4034-6


Julie Reba

Pierz, Minnesota March 19, 1959

In her dream, Julie Reba stands so close to the string of men as they race up the steep slope that she could reach out and touch each on the shoulder as he passes. They all smile at her, even as they gasp for breath. Shirts soaked with sweat cling to muscular bodies, most of which have been toned in military boot camps and toughened by years of battle. But they never stop. In the deep gulch below, tongues of flame whirl hundreds of feet into the air. A scorching wind flattens the knee-high bunchgrass growing at Julie's feet, searing it to ash. A cloud of black smoke mushrooms into the tranquil summer sky. If Julie could feel the heat from the fire, as the men do, she would hold her hands to her cheeks to deflect the biting embers and ash. But she feels no pain.

As the last man in line approaches, Julie recognizes the soft brown eyes set in the big oblong face. Her husband, Stanley Reba, pumps his powerful legs like pistons, slightly dipping his broad shoulders as if he were a football player ready to burst through a defensive line. "Stanley," she says, "you're going the wrong way." But Stanley says nothing as he pushes past her, his feet kicking up loose pebbles.

The air about Julie suddenly flashes red and orange. Her hair bursts into flames; the strands detach from her scalp and cascade to the ground. Still Julie feels no pain, even as her white chiffon dress transforms into red-embered tissue paper and then to ashes that swirl about her like a swarm of flies. She mutely watches as the pale smooth skin of her forearm shrivels, blackens, and breaks apart, curling up into tight scrolls. But Julie yearns to feel the pain. She realizes that until the flames consume her, she can never escape this nightmarish vision. Or the one occurring on the hillside above. Julie turns in time to see the flames tackle her husband. When she trembles, the spell breaks and she opens her eyes.

Julie Reba takes a package from her dresser—a mail-order delivery from Sears, Roebuck and Co.—and carries it to her bed. After slitting open the brown paper wrapping, she gropes amid rumpled pieces of newspaper. When her fingers touch cold steel, she lifts out a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver by the tip of its shiny blue barrel as if she were picking up a dead mouse by the tail. Next, she locates the box of cartridges. When Julie pushes the button on the side of the pistol's frame, as Stanley had once demonstrated on his own pistol, the cylinder drops open. She appreciates how the bullet casings slide snugly into each chamber. After clicking the cylinder shut, she puts the loaded gun on the ruffled white chenille bedspread, then kneels down and drags a small suitcase from under the bed. The lid pops open as soon as she undoes the clasps, a pile of letters and photos spilling onto the floor. A plaque dedicated to Stanley, presented to her by the U.S. Forest Service ten years before, also tumbles out. Julie randomly picks up a single sheet of stationery and sits on the floor with her back against the side of the bed. Sometimes reading a letter from Stanley eases the depression that has paralyzed her mind since her husband died in the Mann Gulch fire.

"My dearest wife," she reads aloud.


Stanley Reba

Hale Airfield, Missoula, Montana August 4, 1949

Stanley Reba set down his pen and flicked a drop of sweat from the tip of his nose. The sun had finally set over Missoula, Montana, but the temperature still cracked 80 degrees. What should he write to Julie this time? About the heat, for sure. More regrets about abandoning her for the summer? Of course. But if there was any place he'd rather be than by Julie's side, it was here, in the midriff of the Rocky Mountains, working as a smoke jumper. The only thing missing, of course, was a fire to fight and a chance to make some real money. But with the dry conditions in the forests, he would see action soon enough. Stan glanced down at the piece of stationery. So far he had written only the date: August 4, 1949.

Two days before, Stan had completed a three-day compacted refresher smoke jumper training course at Camp Menard, an old CCC camp about thirty miles west of Missoula. After the last training jump, Stanley and his best friend, Joe Sylvia, had ridden in the back of a pickup truck to join the standby crew in Missoula. He and the dozen other jumpers on standby alert had chosen to bivouac on the lawn of the Missoula County Fairgrounds across the street from Hale Airfield rather than commute to and from the army barracks at Fort Missoula, about two miles to the southwest. Throughout the day Stanley had shaken out chutes in the parachute loft and repacked them on one of the long triangular-shaped tables expressly designed for that purpose. The loft, a long single-story structure, had once been a CCC barrack in Rimini, a small town a few miles west of the state capital, Helena. The army had taken over the CCC camp during the war to train sled dogs for rescue operations in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Near the end of the war a crew had dismantled the building and later reconstructed it at Hale Airfield.

The airfield was also home to the headquarters for Johnson Brothers Flying Service, which annually landed the contract to deliver the jumpers to the fires. Pilots like Bob and Dick Johnson, Slim Phillips, and Penn Stohr were the best at flying along mountain ridges and dipping into secluded valleys. They routinely landed the single-engine Travelaire and the Ford Trimotor on postage stamp–sized airstrips hidden in deep canyons throughout the Rocky Mountains in all types of weather conditions.

Stan looked down at his letter and wrote "My Dearest Wife."

Stan had missed a number of opportunities to jump two weeks earlier when lightning had peppered the 25 million acres of the Northern Rockies region, which included western Montana, northern Idaho, eastern Washington, and North Dakota. Sixty-four men had parachuted to fires in that first flurry of activity. A week later, thirty-four men had parachuted by twos and fours—in groups known as "sticks"—all across the Northwest, from the Gallatin Forest down near Wyoming to the Kaniksu up in Washington State. Even though the storms had ceased before Stanley's arrival, the scorching heat persisted, prompting the base foreman and project leader Fred Brauer to recall three work details from around the region to stand by at Missoula and at Camp Menard.

Stanley was excited about the prospect of getting on a fire, but his excitement had nothing to do with the romance of being a smoke jumper. Stanley had jumped the previous summer, and he knew the script. After a two-minute float down to earth via parachute, the romance ended when the jumpers turned into ordinary groundpounders—their term for regular wildland firefighters. Once they reached a blaze, they typically dug fire line for up to eighteen hours a day, slept on the ground, went without bathing for days, survived on C-rations and K-rations, and then often hiked out twenty miles to the nearest road. That's what romance got them.

Stanley was more interested in the money. With one summer already under his belt, he was earning $1.43 an hour. While he was on a fire, he would be paid for twenty-four hours a day. Plus, the clerks didn't deduct meal expenses when he worked a fire. With any luck he might achieve every smoke jumper's goal—earning more than $1,000 over the summer. No matter how much he missed Julie, Stan recognized that smoke jumping was their best chance to quickly save up a nest egg. Last summer he hadn't fared too well. In between rain, rain, and more rain, he had made only two jumps. And then, when the season finally got going in late August, he had sprained an ankle on a landing and pulled radio duty in the dispatch office.

"I hope things will be different this year," he wrote to Julie. "If I have a good summer, maybe we can move out of the trailer into a nice apartment."

Their trailer in Minneapolis stood near the campus of the University of Minnesota, where the couple had first met. They seemed an unlikely pair. Stan, at six feet tall, was a swarthy big-boned guy, weighing 190 pounds, the upper limit for smoke jumpers. Both his parents had emigrated from Poland and settled in a Polish enclave in Brooklyn, where Stanley developed his distinctive accent. Before the war, Stan had entered Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and played the linebacker position on the football team. He had left school at the end of his freshman year to enlist in the Army Air Corps, where he served as a radio operator and gunner. Despite an occasional subconscious scowl that passed over his features, a trait inherited from his stern father, Stanley seemed a very gentle soul. He loved music—everything from classical string quartets to Hank Williams and Tex Ritter—and poetry. Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" was his favorite poem.

Maybe it was the music and poetry that had brought the two together. Julie—fair-skinned, light-haired, and slender—was cultured and refined. She played the piano and drew realistic portraits and landscapes. Her family home in Pierz, Minnesota, was full of light, music, and interesting conversation. The two had gotten hitched in the fall of 1948 at St. Olaf's Church in St. Paul and set up housekeeping in the trailer. Stanley, who majored in forestry, was planning to apply for a job as a forester in New York's Adirondack Mountains after graduation. Julie was taking business courses and hoped to start a family once Stanley found steady work.

When the spring semester ended, Stanley left for the East Coast to finish his training in the National Guard. Julie later rendezvoused with him in Atlantic City for a belated honeymoon and then took the train back to Pierz. After Stanley earned his commission as a first lieutenant, he hooked up with his best friend from the university, Joe Sylvia from Massachusetts, and they traveled together to the Nagel household in the small farming community about 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.

André Nagel, Julie's eleven-year-old sister, was excited to see Stanley again. The big lug always took time to play with her. When André had visited the couple last fall in Minneapolis, Stanley had taken her to the Como Park Zoo. Last winter, when word reached the newlyweds that André was ill, Stanley had not hesitated to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive through a blizzard to Pierz, despite a series of impending school examinations. André always wore the locket Stan had given her at Christmas, and at mealtimes she finished the skins of baked potatoes because Stanley had once told her that the skins were the most nutritious part.

André also took a quick shine to Joe Sylvia. She found Joe, who stood only an inch or two over five feet, to be friendly, well-mannered, and generous. André enjoyed the way Joe and Stanley kidded around. To her, they almost seemed like brothers, despite their dramatic physical differences.

The night before Stan departed for Montana, Julie beckoned him upstairs to show off a new locket that sat upon her bureau. Inside the square silver box, she had pasted bits of velvet backing. Over the cloth, she had glued fragments of black and white photographs of her and Stanley that she had torn from larger snapshots. In his photo, Stanley smiled broadly as he casually leaned against a railing on the boardwalk at Atlantic City. Behind him, the ocean waves glimmered with reflected sunshine. In her photograph, Julie wore a white sundress, with the sandy beach as the backdrop.

"When I close the locket, you and I will always be looking into each other's eyes," Julie told Stan that evening.

At 5:30 the next morning, the two smoke jumpers sat down with the Nagels at the large kitchen table for a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, eggs, homemade sausage, and pan-fried potatoes. Frank Nagel had hinted that he might be able to find work for both young men that summer selling cars at his Chevrolet dealership, but they didn't take the bait.

Frank finally quit beating around the bush. "Isn't that smoke jumping rather dangerous?" he asked.

"Not really," Stanley shrugged. "I survived World War II, and that was certainly a lot more dangerous." Joe, a former marine, nodded in agreement. The father-in-law realized he couldn't argue with them.

As the Nagels washed dishes, Joe packed the duffel bags into the Chevy coupe that Julie's father had lent them for the summer. Frank had even provided two keys. After shutting the trunk, Joe turned to the dark-haired André and handed her his marine corps sharpshooter pin. The sixth-grader—who had already developed a crush on him—stood speechless.

In the living room Stanley kissed his wife good-bye and promised to send letters whenever he could.

So far, Stan hadn't missed a day of letter-writing.

As the light faded, he put the finishing touches on the epistle and slipped it into an envelope. A few moments later, an REO Speedwagon turned into the driveway of the county fairgrounds. The driver honked the horn, announcing the arrival of another detachment of smoke jumpers from Camp Menard.


Philip McVey

Camp Menard August 4, 1949

Philip Rolla McVey, the agile shortstop for the smoke jumper softball team, wiped his sweaty forehead with the back of a well-stained baseball glove and looked over at the runner on first. The baseball diamond at Camp Menard lay between the dormitory and the office. A ball hit over the barracks counted as a homer. There was one out in the bottom of the fifth. Score: smoke jumpers nine, mule packers nine. Eight o'clock in the evening and the temperature still topped 85 degrees. The game would go on until dark, a couple of hours away.

McVey crouched as the pitcher wound up and delivered the underhand pitch. The batter cocked his head, flexed his biceps, leaned forward, and watched the grapefruit-sized ball bounce a foot before the plate. McVey stood upright and pushed back his billed cap. He wore a pair of blue jeans and a faded blue navy workshirt with the tails tied in a knot at his waist, sailor fashion.

Some of the mule packers now at bat had been around since 1930, shortly after the agency began building the Ninemile Remount Depot on a square-mile ranch just a mile down the road from Camp Menard. The Ninemile compound included half a dozen clapboarded Cape Cod–style cottages that functioned as administrative offices, a bunkhouse, and a cookhouse. Cottonwoods, cedars, ponderosa pines, and junipers shaded the manicured lawns. Lilac bushes bloomed beside the back porches of the cottages. In the center of the enclave stood a massive barn that was constructed with hand-hewn beams and sported a concrete floor. A small stud barn (modeled after the main barn), a tack house, and a blacksmith shop were located in front of a series of paddocks where the mules were kept before being loaded onto REO Speedwagons. All the buildings were painted white and topped with green-stained cedar shingles. The CCC camp had been built later, and many young out-of-work men had helped erect the paddocks, dig irrigation ditches, and hay the fields. The smoke jumpers had inherited the haying chores after the CCCs had disbanded at the beginning of World War II.

At first, the Forest Service had leased a small airstrip on Sixmile Road, a few miles from the depot, to accommodate the planes that transported the smoke jumpers. But when the farmer raised the rent on the lease, the agency built its own grass runway in one of the back pastures of the depot. Now, with the Hale Airfield parachute loft, the building where jumpers hung out, folding chutes, sharpening tools, and preparing food boxes, Region 1 fire supervisors routinely detailed men to Missoula to be near the planes. But during training jumps, the Johnson Brothers Flying Service planes still made the thirty-mile flight from Missoula to land and take off from the back pasture at the Remount Depot.

In its heyday, the Ninemile Depot supported scores of pack strings that supplied firefighters with food, tools, and other supplies. But as the smoke jumper program expanded—along with the growing network of forest roads—the mules saw less and less work. Nowadays, one of the major tasks of the packer was to retrieve the jumper's equipment after a fire. One mule could carry one jumper's 150 pounds of gear. Many times, only two jumpers would be dispatched to a fire. Consequently, packing wasn't much of a profession anymore. The mules were being auctioned off, and recruits from the depot for the evening baseball wars were growing scarcer.

CCC Camp Menard lay a mile north of the depot. During training, which usually occurred throughout April and May, the jumpers shared two of the low wooden barracks while the overhead team of trainers occupied the third. Army cots lined the interior of the barracks. When from fifty to one hundred men gathered there, clothes hung from hooks and pegs and foot lockers peeked out from under the beds. Family photos and pinups of movie starlets rotated on the wall as men came and went for the two-week sessions. In the dining hall, long wooden tables and benches crowded the front half of the building and the cook had the run of the kitchen in the rear. A wash house stood beside each barrack. In all, 150 men rotated in and out of Camp Menard every spring.


Excerpted from A Great Day to Fight Fire by Mark Matthews. Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Julie Reba,
2. Stanley Reba,
3. Philip McVey,
4. Lightning,
5. Jim Harrison,
6. Fred Brauer,
7. Fire,
8. Bill Hellman,
9. Robert Jansson,
10. Eldon Diettert,
11. Leonard Piper,
12. Merle Stratton,
13. Henry Thol Jr.,
14. Earl Cooley,
15. Jim Harrison,
16. Marvin Sherman,
17. David Navon,
18. Robert Bennett,
19. Wagner Dodge,
20. Silas Thompson,
21. Robert Jansson,
22. Joseph Sylvia,
23. Wagner Dodge,
24. Walter Rumsey and Robert Sallee,
25. Bill Hellman,
26. Rescue Party,
27. Joseph Sylvia,
28. Lois Jansson,
29. Julie Reba,
30. Aftermath,
31. Survivors,
Note on Sources,

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