By Chris Rush
Several members of Oklahoma’s Janzen clan traveled to Bartlesville on a sunny afternoon last week to connect with a part of their family legacy and perhaps solve a mystery.
Steve Janzen came with the hopes of discovering whether the 1929 Ford Tri-Motor transport aircraft featured during this weekend’s 57th Annual Tulsa Regional Fly-In at Frank Phillips Field was the very same airplane his father jumped out of 70 years ago.
The late Gus Janzen, a native of Corn, routinely jumped out of a Ford Tri-Motor while serving as an early-day smokejumper during the World War II era. Steve, himself a pilot, flew his personal aircraft in from Enid. Brother Danny came from Nebraska, while another brother, Wayne, and mother Amie, arrived from the family farm near Okeene. Gus’ brother, Fred Janzen, came from Broken Arrow. They were anxious to see and catch a ride on the historic airplane.
Larry Harmacinski, who now pilots the rare aircraft, was able to share its history with the family.
Steve Janzen told The Examiner-Enterprise that his father was part of the Civilian Public Service, or CPS, as an alternative to serving active military duty. According to published history, the CPS provided conscientious objectors an option to military service during World War II. From 1941 to 1947, nearly 12,000 draftees, who were willing to serve their country in some capacity other than the armed forces, performed work of national importance at 150 CPS camps throughout the country.
“Our background is Mennonite,” said Janzen. “Back before, that was the historic position of the church.”
Mennonites, as well as members from other recognized religious orders, could be granted conscientious objector status based on deeply held moral convictions against killing and warfare.
Still eager to serve his country, the young Gus Janzen joined the CPS and trained in the very new and very dangerous profession of smokejumping in the Pacific Northwest. The need for manpower was great as most able-bodied men at the time enlisted, or were drafted, in active military service.
“They didn’t want be known as a ‘yellowbelly,’ or the bad word was ‘consci’ — conscientious objector — so they wanted to be in a position of contributing and doing something nationally important,” said Steve Janzen. “Their primary job was to try to protect the forests of the Pacific Northwest, which were at risk, because all the manpower was gone to war.”
Gus Janzen served as smokejumper from the early part of 1943 to the end of 1944.
“He got hurt, actually,” said son Steve. “He survived a streamer. His main chute didn’t open and he just had his reserve chute. He landed upside down in a pine tree. If you look at the smoke jumper training videos, it was a very complicated procedure to get out of the harnesses. It was like 15 steps they had to memorize and doing it upside down was a totally different experience.”
Instead of parachuting behind enemy military lines, Janzen and the other early smokejumpers parachuted into the close proximity of wildfires. Their mission was to beat back the flames before the fires could grow and destroy valuable forest land or threaten man-made structures.
Harmacinski confirmed that the Ford Tri-Motor was once owned by Johnson Flying Service, a private contractor hired by the U.S. government to provide aerial firefighting support. In 1942, Johnson Flying Service also trained more than 4,000 pilots for the U.S. armed forces.
“Johnson brothers out of Missoula, Mont. — they pioneered smokejumping and aerial firefighting,” said Harmacinski.
But according to Harmacinski, this particular Ford Tri-Motor was not used in the Pacific Northwest at the same time Janzen’s father would have flown and jumped. He said the airplane was used in Cuba and the Dominican Republic before returning to U.S. service in 1949. In the mid- to late-1950s, the plane went to Johnson Flying Service.
“They did have five Ford Tri-Motors at one time,” he said. “Johnson Flying Service did a lot of great work fighting fires.”
In those early years, smokejumping was transformed from an experimental project into an important profession that endures to this very day. During the same period, the U.S. did not have trained military paratroopers, so the Army’s 101st Airborne employed much of the smokejumper training which became the precursor to the successful D-Day paratroop missions.
Gus Janzen passed away Sept. 25, 2011 at the age of 91 in Okeene. According to an obituary published in the Enid News & Eagle, he was “instrumental in the early development of parachutes and skydiving techniques to place forest firefighters close to forest fires in the Pacific Northwest region.” He also was a light aircraft pilot.
Even though it was not the exact aircraft that their father had flown in seven decades earlier, the Janzen brothers were not overly disappointed. The family was all smiles during their brief flight aboard the Ford Tri-Motor as it lumbered through the skies above Bartlesville.
Rush writes for The (Bartlesville) Examiner-Enterprise.