The Miss Montana Returns to Mann Gulch to Honor Smokejumpers
It was 70 years ago, August 5, 1949 that 13 firefighters perished in the Mann Gulch Fire north of Helena just off the Missouri River after parachuting into the area from the C-47 aircraft that is now the Miss Montana.
Pilot Bryan Douglass provided details of the commemoration activities that span two days.
“It started yesterday (Sunday),” said Douglass. “We had a static display and then took a scenic flight over Mann Gulch as kind of a test drive for today. There were some important people on board. We had the niece and nephew of one of the firefighters who perished, the Dietterts, the niece and nephew of Eldon Diettert, so it was pretty emotional to them. We were able to take the niece on the flight yesterday and the nephew Scott is on the flight today. They were really touched by the turnout.”
Douglass described the activities that occurred on Monday.
“Today, we had a little static display here on the guard ramp with the National Guard C-130 out of Great Falls along with a bunch of helicopters from Helena,” he said. “There was a good turnout today and the governor stopped by, but more importantly, the recently crowned Miss Montana Mo Shay and we got some pictures of here in the Miss Montana plane.”
Douglass described the memorial flight that took place on Monday morning, the actual 70th anniversary of the Mann Gulch Fire.
“We took off with 13 wreaths that were made and donated by a Missoula company called Missoula Wreaths, and we’re going to be dropping those over Mann Gulch in three or four separate passes, just like they did 70 years ago, and we’re going to drop those at the base of Mann Gulch,” he said. “They talk about how Earl Cooley and Mike Dodge laid down in the open door looking out over the drop zone, and I was looking at that same door where those guys were laying.”
Douglass said, like the Normandy trip to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Mann Gulch flight was what he termed ‘living history’.
“This whole mission was devoted to honoring and remembering and hopefully passing on to the next generation that the sacrifices that our first responders have made, both in peacetime and in war,” he said. “This was a watershed event for the U.S. Forest Service that led to many developments and improvements to aircraft and jump technology that persist into today. Those practices keep a lot more people safer today than they were back then.”
Douglass said the smokejumpers were all young men; many were Montana boys and many were also World War II veterans.
Those killed in the Mann Gulch Fire include:
Robert J. Bennett, age 22, from Paris, Tennessee
Eldon E. Diettert, age 19, from Moscow, Idaho, died on his 19th birthday
James O. Harrison, Helena National Forest Fire Guard, age 20, from Missoula, Montana
William J. Hellman, age 24, from Kalispell, Montana
Philip R. McVey, age 22, from Babb, Montana
David R. Navon, age 28, from Modesto, California
Leonard L. Piper, age 23, from Blairsville, Pennsylvania
Stanley J. Reba, from Brooklyn, New York
Marvin L. Sherman, age 21, from Missoula, Montana
Joseph B. Sylvia, age 24, from Plymouth, Massachusetts
Henry J. Thol, Jr., age 19, from Kalispell, Montana
Newton R. Thompson, age 23, from Alhambra, California
Silas R. Thompson, age 21, from Charlotte, North Carolina