Term: Spring 2010
My dissertation examines the US Forest Service smokejumpers, wild land firefighters who parachute to fires in remote western forests in an effort to extinguish them rapidly. Begun by the US Forest Service in 1940, the smokejumping program quickly garnered national attention for the agency, and along with Smokey Bear, the manly, heroic smokejumpers provided a powerful popular symbol for the Forest Service’s battle against fire.
This dissertation blends gender and environmental history to investigate the smokejumper’s heroic, hypermasculine culture over time. Because the smokejumpers represent an extreme iteration of western masculine identity, they offer a unique lens into the complicated, evolving, and often contradictory relationship between American manhood and the natural spaces of the American West, a relationship that surprisingly few historians have explored.
One aspect of the smokejumper program that has never been documented is the personal accounts of the “Triple Nickles,” a group of African American paratroopers who served as smokejumpers during World War II. Very few of these incredible men have ever been interviewed and, given their advanced age, I was concerned that their stories needed to be captured.
“In 2010, I spent some time at Grey Towers as a Scholar-in Residence. Support from the Grey Towers Heritage Association and the US Forest Service gave me a peaceful week of writing and contemplation in the gorgeous, inspirational setting of Gifford Pinchot’s historic home, which was significant because I was writing about an agency program that Gifford would probably enjoy today! Additional support from the Forest Service and the Grey Towers Heritage Association has been made available so that I could conduct those interviews in a timely manner and include their oral histories in my research.”