August 5, 1949: Mann Gulch Tragedy

By Eben Lehman on August 5, 2009

On this date 60 years ago, the Mann Gulch fire in Montana’s Helena National Forest was first spotted.  This devastating wildfire would eventually claim the lives of 12 U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers and one fire guard, as well as burn close to 5,000 acres of timber and grasslands.  The tragic events surrounding this fire ensure that August 5, 1949, will forever be remembered within U.S. Forest Service and wildland firefighting history.

Hot weather and lightning storms the previous evening put Forest Service rangers in the area on notice that day, and around noon, the Mann Gulch fire was first officially reported.  Shortly thereafter, a plane carrying 15 smokejumpers was dispatched to the fire from Missoula, Montana.

At the time of Mann Gulch, smokejumping was a relatively new practice.  The Forest Service’s Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project had moved to the North Pacific Region (Region 6) in 1939 and switched its focus from aerial water drops to experiments with parachute jumping.  The first operational use of smokejumpers by the Forest Service occurred in 1940, but prior to Mann Gulch, no smokejumper had ever died fighting a wildfire.

Forest Service smokejumpers dropped over Sherman Gulch, Lolo National Forest, Montana, June 17, 1954.

After landing on the ground a half-mile from the fire, the 15 smokejumpers were met by James O. Harrison, a fire guard from the nearby Meriwether Canyon Campground, and the group headed down the gulch towards the nearby Missouri River to stake a safer position.  The dry conditions and high winds, along with a change in wind direction, caused the fire to suddenly expand.   The men’s route was cut off, forcing them back uphill while trying to outrun the swiftly advancing fire.   It was later estimated that during this blow-up stage, the fire covered 3,000 acres in 10 minutes.

Realizing the imminent danger, the smokejumper crew’s foreman R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge told his men to drop their heavy tools and run, with the fire at this point less than 100 yards behind them and closing fast.  Moving up the hillside, Dodge stopped to set a small escape fire, attempting to create a burned-over area that the fire would bypass.  He directed the men towards this safe area, but the rest of the group continued to flee uphill.  Two of the smokejumpers, Walter B. Rumsey and Robert W. Sallee, found a crevice in the rock wall at the top of the canyon and climbed inside.  The ferocious fire overtook the group.  Dodge, Rumsey, and Sallee would be the only survivors.

The events of Mann Gulch forever changed wildland firefighting.  The Forest Service would institute new training techniques and improved safety measures for its firefighters and smokejumpers.  The agency would also place more emphasis on fire research and the science of fire behavior, resulting in improved firefighting techniques and equipment.  These developments, though, will never overshadow the immense tragedy of this day for this group of brave firefighters.

A Forest Service smokejumper descends over Lolo National Forest, Montana, July 1956.

The Men who Perished in the Mann Gulch Fire:

Robert J. Bennett
Eldon E. Diettert
James O. Harrison
William J. Heilman
Phillip R. McVey
David R. Navon
Leonard L. Piper
Stanley J. Reba
Marvin L. Sherman
Joseph B. Sylvia
Henry J. Thol, Jr.
Newton R. Thompson
Silas R. Thompson

Survivors of the Fire:

R. Wagner Dodge, foreman
Walter B. Rumsey
Robert W. Sallee

For more information on the Mann Gulch Fire, take a look at some of the following sources:

  • The blog entry by FHS Historian Jamie Lewis, “Visiting Mann Gulch 60 Years Later,” recounting his recent visit to the site.
  • Two articles from Forest History Today:
  • The Forest Service History Collection at FHS includes several folders of materials on Mann Gulch, including copies of the testimonies presented before the Mann Gulch Fire Review Board, which convened in Helena, Montana, September 26-28, 1949. You can find some of those materials through links on our dedicated Mann Gulch history page.
  • Other sources of information include the book Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean, as well as the 1993 Forest Service research report generated as a result of Maclean’s pressing the agency for help in reconstructing the events.  For a more personal take, see Mark Matthew’s new book, A Great Day to Fight Fire: Mann Gulch, 1949, which draws on interviews with survivors and the victims’ families.
  • To see a visual record of Forest Service smokejumping history, take a look at the online Smokejumpers gallery from the FHS Photo Collection, as well as a clip of historic smokejumper film footage from the FHS YouTube Channel.

A group of smokejumpers about to take off in Ford Trimotor plane at Missoula Airport, Missoula, Montana for a practice jump, June 30, 1941.

10 responses to “August 5, 1949: Mann Gulch Tragedy”

  1. Carl Gidlund says:

    An error in your narrative. Pfc Malvin L. Brown, a member of the 55th Parachute Infantry Battalion fell to his death from a tree while on a letdown on a fire jump on Aug. 6, 1945. The all-Black battalion were smokejumpers during the summer of ’45.

    And Lester Lycklama, a McCall smokejumper, was killed on July 4, 1946 when the top portion of a ponderosa pine he was falling fell on him. The accident was on a fire near Council, Idaho.

  2. adam taylor says:

    wow, i gotta say what a heartbreak for those gentlemen and there families, even more the survivors that had to live to tell the unexpected tragic jump they experienced, at the same time, we all as fireman and students can learn quite a bit and have come a long way cause of tragic incidents such as this, my sincere condolences and i appreciate the sharing

  3. Fred Olson says:

    I found this site by googling “august 1945 Montana fire” which came from the lyrics of the song by James Keelaghan:
    Cold Missouri Waters on his album A Recent Future
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Keelaghan

  4. Drew Davis says:

    This day in history …

  5. Kevin Grady says:

    Only for the sake of accuracy do I point this out, The plane left Missoula enroute to the fire with 16 jumpers, which was a full “stick” for the C-47. It was a turbulent ride and one jumper who had gotten sick before on other flights was too sick to jump and returned with the plane to Missoula, He quit jumping very soon thereafter. As most of you know Harrison, the forest guard on the ground from Meriwhether, was an ex-smokejumper having quit the program to please his mother who thought it too dangerous.

  6. carl cummings says:

    Ford Trimotor 8419 was used by Johnson Flying Service of Missoula Montana for “smoke jumpers”. This Trimotor will be at the Air Zoo in Portage Michigan several times this summer. Rides will be available. Call the Air Zoo at 269 382 6555 for further information.

  7. Tara says:

    The link to The Thirteenth Fire is broken. The name of the pdf changed. Try https://foresthistory.org/publications/FHT/FHTSpring1999/Turner.pdf

  8. Pat Dailey says:

    Hello Jamie and Everyone,

    I just got back from a hunting trip to the “Beartooth Game Range”,,we were camped exactly 5.8 miles from the mouth of Mann Gulch where it meets the Missouri River…we GPSesd our track is how I know…anyway,,I am am a visitor to the gulch nearly every hunting season and the area never fails to leave me in awe. It can be howling wind, snowing or raining nearby but when going down to where the markers are its like God stops everything,,,literally no sound can be heard, just a complete stillness….that I have come to expect and appreciate very much.

    A friend and I rode horseback
    up to the highest point on the north ridge at the head of the gulch, hunting for mule deer and at the last moment decided to make a trip all the way to the river. We stopped at Stanley Reba’s marker and took a photo as it is the lowest on the slope and right on the main trail….always makes me said to think of him tumbling down that slope and into the hell that was that day.

    The day before doing this ride I reread “A Great Day To Fight Fire” so some of the personal stories were fresh in mind…also very said to see how close some of the jumpers came to gaining the north rim…….. never ceases to amaze me how steep that slope is…..

    Just thought I would comment on our trip….on the way out of the Gulch we saw a Mature Golden Eagle soaring in lazy circles, which was a good omen I think,,also two Mature Rocky Mtn Sheep Rams and a herd of mule deer,,,,up towards the head of the Gulch,,,,so in some respects I suppose life goes on in Mann Gulch,,,,,,,a very “special” place to visit for sure,,,,,,

  9. Vanessa M. Lambdin says:

    My father, George A Lambdin, born in 1930 and living in Spokane, WA, was about 15 years old and working as a theater usher and all-around worker when cars with men shouting through loudspeakers were heard up and down the city streets. They were calling for volunteer firefighters for an out of control blaze in the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana. Dad and his friend, George Banks, sought out one of those cars and asked the driver how they could join up. “Get in,” he said, and within minutes they were aboard a Ford Tri-motor airplane loaded with about 20 others and flying to Hamilton, Montana.

    They could see the fire from the air, and after landing, had an hours-long truck ride to a remote locale, where the rest of the journey to the fire lines was completed with mule-teams. At the fire line, they were given Pulaski hand tools (shovel on one end, pick on the other) and set to work on the steep slopes.. The fireboss was a ‘big ol’ Westerner’ who shouted his directions at dad, “Whitey, go do this,” “Whitey, go do that,” probably for the blond hair of his Norwegian ancestry. Dad was happy to get off his line after several days when the cook needed an assistant and chose Dad from the many who wanted the break from that hot, dirty, arduous labor of firefighting.

    He worked for a couple more weeks until the professional firefighters had things under control. The boys went home the same way they’d been brought to the fire, first getting paid in cash at the Ranger Station in Hamilton. They were paid for 24 hour days the whole time. He recalled he’d had a great time.

    This would not have been the Mann Gulch fire of ’49, but had to be ’45 or ’46, after the war as the theater’s assistant manager, Mr. Coleman, had served in Europe and come home. I can’t find any copy on it in any online source so far.

    Dad got his job back at the theater in Spokane, though he’d left with no notice. The owner, Mr. Rosenfield, agreed with his choice to go fight that fire and generally liked and trusted my dad as an employee. He worked with a girl named Ruth Brewer, who with her mom, dad and older brother had rented an apartment adjacent to Dad’s family when they’d all happened to live in Pendleton, Oregon in 1941. Ruth’s brother and Dad and his friends were playing football in the street when the news of Pearl Harbor caused all the citizens to pour out of their houses in shock. Ruth’s brother signed right up for the Army, and Dad looked him up at his training in South Tacoma at Camp Murray when his family moved there soon after for the work his dad found there. Must have been real soon, because Camp Murray offered about a three week boot camp and off the new GIs went to the fronts.

    He used his firefighting pay well: he bought himself a brand new Cushman motor-scooter, which he drove to two more years of high school, carrying his alto saxophone in front, and giving his neighbor, Clarence “Jack” Gilkey, http://apps.westpointaog.org/Memorials/Article/18549/, a ride on the back. The rider had to jump off at steep hillsides to push the one-cylinder scooter.

    Dad and his firefighting buddy, George Banks, once rode the Cushman down the Columbia River Gorge to Seaside, Oregon, sleeping on the roadside along the way. One night in the dark they chose a wonderful soft hill next to a sawmill… they awoke the next morning to find fire was burning the sawdust mound and it was right up to their bedrolls! They quickly clambored down the unburnt side of the hill and on their way to the sea.

    A slice of my dad’s life by proud daughter,
    Vanessa M. Lambdin