Can’t remember, but two years ago I either did or did not send in a column about long-ago activity involving what had been a very hush-hush arrangement between the Forest Service Smokejumpers at Missoula and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Just a partial copy is all I find in my records, so I’ve decided to add some info and send it in now.
During the last week of May in 2015, the National Smokejumper Association released a list of former jumpers who served in often-dangerous activities of the CIA in what were once top secret U.S. government operations.
The information was obtained somehow by Rick Hanners, then editor of the Hungry Horse News, and sent to me as email. It was a list of names and a background article by Chuck Sheley, a former 1959 jumper from Cave Junction, Oregon.
The receipt of that information turned out to be an emotional jolt for me. There was information I had not known, and because when I was an instructor for the Smokejumpers during the ‘50s, we were not to reveal anything about our association with the CIA.
However, the biggest jolt was finding out how many good friends from those days were dead. I knew about some of them but not all. Old age got many more than America’s enemies did.
Following is a paragraph from Sheley’s article.
“It is common knowledge from many written sources that Smokejumpers have been involved in numerous far-flung operations, from Tibet and India to the Congo, from Cuba and South America to the North Pole, and from Arizona to Vietnam ... This war known as the Secret War became the final chapter in the lives of seven former Smokejumpers employed as Air America ‘kickers’ and one as a pilot. Further, there was a case officer who died in Bangkok, Thailand under suspicious circumstances and another pilot shot down in Zambia, Africa.”
Maybe there were a couple more. Who knows?
The startling thing here is that out of slightly less than a hundred of the world’s best technical parachutists who went on CIA missions, it appears there was close to a 10 percent casualty rate. I was vaguely aware of a couple of those losses but had no idea it was that high.
Sometime in the past I did a column on how getting seriously injured on a fire jump in the Salmon River Wilderness in 1954, then subsequently getting a radio announcing job while recovering, and meeting a beautiful girl from Whitefish, ended all my government parachuting activity.
Also in the past, there was a column on my being ousted from a 1950s program to train secret jet pilots because I was three weeks too old.
Had volunteered with Gar Thorsrud and Bill Demmons. We separated at the Great Falls airbase but got together in Washington, D.C. during the Kennedy administration and didn’t talk secret stuff.
Since that partial column was written two years ago, Gar has died but Bill is still alive. Talked to him from his home in Arizona about a year ago when he ordered a couple of my books.
I asked him flat-out, “Bill, did you ever actually fly a U-2?”
He thought a moment and then said, “I can’t remember.”
G. George Ostrom is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Kalispell.