COLUMBIA FALLS — Jack Dunne knows it could’ve been him at Mann Gulch. Seventy years later he still insists that, had he been there, it wouldn’t have been.
Dunne was a World War II veteran in his fourth season of smoke jumping out of Missoula when a dozen jumpers and one other firefighter suffered fiery deaths at Mann Gulch on Aug. 5, 1949.
The Forest Service parachuting program was young, like most of the victims. Dunne, a wizened 23-year-old, was retrieving parachutes after a minor fire in northern Idaho 250 miles away when the inferno in the Gates of the Mountains blew up at around 5:30 p.m.
In a life-and-death scramble for the ridgetop above the Missouri River, foreman Wag Dodge stopped and lit an escape fire to divert the worst of the flames. He hollered at others to join him in his own burn. Either they didn’t hear him, didn’t understand him or didn’t believe him. None obeyed him.
Facedown in the ashes, wet handkerchief to mouth, Dodge survived. Only two others did. Bob Sallee of Willow Creek, just 17, and 21-year-old Walt Rumsey of Kansas squeezed through a crevice in the rimrock above Dodge’s fire and made it to the Promised Land.
Dunne knew Dodge. He'd seen him every morning at the smokejumper base at Hale Field in Missoula, whenever one of the two of them wasn’t out on a fire or support assignment.
From the first day he stepped on base in 1946, Dunne had been designated “tool man” and filer of crosscut saws, having sharpened those skills working for the Forest Service before he joined the Army as well as at sawmills, including J. Neils Lumber Co. in Libby, after his discharge.
“His (Dodge’s) job was taking care of supplies and the trucks, etcetera,” Dunne, now 93, said on a recent morning at the Montana State Veterans home in Columbia Falls.
“Wag Dodge would come walking by. He wouldn’t stop or anything. He’d say, ‘Good morning, Jack,’ and I’d yell good morning back to him. He kept right on going. He was a marvelous man.”
Dunne’s point through all these years was echoed by the late Norman Maclean in “Young Men and Fire: A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire.” That is, Dodge, an old hand in the young smokejumper program, was most valuable to that program as a fix-it man.
“He could do things with his hands approaching artistry,” is how Maclean put it.
“The foreman did all the buying and things like that, but he didn’t work in the training of these people," Dunne recalled. "The kids (on the Mann Gulch fire) didn’t know him.”
That’s why Dunne, the veteran, feels he would have survived.
“The foremen we had, and we had maybe three or four, they were good heads. They came up the hard way. Nothing was ever given to any of those people, and if they told you to do something, you did it,” he said.
“Now these younger guys, there was a couple of outlaws in that bunch, and they said, ‘Bull----. We’re not going to lay down and let that fire burn us to pieces.' As it turned out … that just wouldn’t have happened.”
There are details from ’49 that Dunne doesn’t recall as he did 35 years ago. In 1984 he was nearing the end of a long teaching career in Whitefish when he sat down with Jim Norgaard for an interview as part of the Smokejumpers 1984 Reunion Oral History Project.
Dunne told Norgaard that about a week before the Mann Gulch fire he’d been part of a crew that jumped on a fire on Edith Peak north of Frenchtown. He started cutting fire line with a saw, a job he preferred to do alone.
“If you don’t get a good partner,” he explained, “it’s work.”
A young jumper approached him and asked to help. Dunne demurred but upon the boy’s insistence finally consented.
“And the guy was good,” Dunne told Norgaard. “I mean, he was real good. The saw has a particular singing sound when it’s working right and it was an absolute pleasure with that man, and we walked all the way through the fire line.”
The young man’s name was Sherman. Marvin Sherman grew up in Darby, moved to Missoula in 1942 and graduated from high school there. He was a Navy veteran and rookie smokejumper.
Two weeks after impressing Dunne with his saw skills, the 21-year-old Sherman was on the jump list for Mann Gulch. He’s one of those who ran past Dodge’s escape line and perished.
In the 1984 interview, Dunne said he was dispatched to Bonners Ferry, Idaho, a couple of days before Mann Gulch. This time it was to help cart an injured firefighter out of the woods. Dunne said he was pushing the wheeled stretcher up a trail when it became stuck in a narrow gap through rocks.
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“Then one of the new men, he said, ‘Hey, just wait a minute,’ and he worked his way around the face of this rock … And he leaned over, it must have dropped 50 or 70 feet there, and … grabbed me by the arm and by the hand and between the two of us we drug the stretcher up through this crack in the rocks,” Dunne said.
“And I thought, well, there’s a good man, ‘cause he didn’t have to do it, there was other people that could’ve. But I’m gonna have to get to know him. So there was two good men.”
In his interview with Norgaard, Dunne didn’t identify the second man. The Idaho fire out, the smokejumpers returned to Missoula to wait for their next assignment. Dunne stayed to lead a crew that spent a day retrieving parachutes from the woods.
They stayed that night at the ranger station at Bonners Ferry. The following morning the ranger brought in news of the Mann Gulch disaster. Both Sherman and the young man who climbed around the rock to help him were on the fatality list.
“It hurt,” Dunne said. “It hurt quite bad.”
In a sentiment he echoed 35 years later, Dunne told Norgaard he believed the young crew’s unfamiliarity with foreman Dodge at Mann Gulch was a key component in their decision to run past the escape fire.
“Maybe they didn’t have confidence in him because he hadn’t been around that much …” Dunne said. “He told the crew what to do and the crew didn’t respond and, of course, (it’s) difficult to respond under conditions like that because it must have been quite frightening. And they chose to try to run out of that basin and they didn’t do it.
“If he had told me to do it, there wouldn’t have been any hesitation at all because he (Dodge) was very experienced and he thought well.”
That was Jack Dunne’s last summer as a smokejumper. He’d grown up on what he called the “mean streets of Butte,” and left school to join the Army Air Corps as soon as he turned 18 in late 1943.
After the war Dunne received his general equivalency degree, then a teaching degree from Western Montana College in Dillon. He raised a family while teaching at Hot Springs and Whitefish.
Daughter Cindy followed in Dunne’s footsteps as an educator, but also lived for years in the smokejumper world after she married Jack Babon.
Babon ran the facility crew at the Missoula jump base from 1981 to 1988. Earlier he spent four seasons fighting fires from the air. He rookied in 1975, the last year Johnson Flying Service owned N-24320, the DC-3 airplane that flew those young men to their deaths at Mann Gulch in 1949.
Babon says now when his future father-in-law was called to the rescue in Idaho in early August '1949, then volunteered to spend an extra day retrieving parachutes instead of returning to the base in Missoula, it spared him the Mann Gulch assignment and probably his life.
“Whenever you get in from a fire or detail, you go to the bottom of the list and work your way up to the top,” Babon said.
In a busy fire season such as 1949, when a jumper returned he might find himself right back to the top of the list. That so many at Mann Gulch were rookies who didn’t know Dodge or understand his motives in the heat of the moment is not surprising, Babon said. The rotation is a changing thing throughout the summer. Cohesion with a crew foreman is another thing that was addressed in training in the aftermath of Mann Gulch.
“I believe he and a few other guys were at the top of the list,” said Babon, a veteran of 72 jumps. “They were taken off the top and the next guys were moved to the top. They were so close to going.”
He also believes his father-in-law was fearless. You don’t fly 33 missions over the Pacific in World War II as a tailgunner in a B-29, and earn the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Meda if you’re not.
“Something like (Mann Gulch) is scary, but I’ve been through scarier things in the war,” Dunne said.
A tailgunner in a bomber, peering through a tiny opening at enemy aircraft and antiaircraft guns trying to do you the ultimate harm, is “about as scary as it gets,” he said. “You can talk to yourself and everything else under those circumstances.”
In the seven decades since Mann Gulch blew up, Jack Dunne has reflected on its lessons and comes up with the same conclusion.
“Of course I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and if you’re in the business long enough you’re going to see that,” he said. “If you’re fighting fire you’re going to get involved with the fire itself.
“But no, I would have come out OK.”
“Obviously, you needed to be here for me, Dad,” Cindy Babon said. “So thank you very much.”