Saturday, January 8, 2011

I Sing The Intrepid CCC Enrollee

It’s easy to think of CCC enrollees as wide-eyed teenagers, plucked from familiar surroundings and dumped in the wilds of the American west and certainly that general scenario is borne out in the many personal histories that we have at our disposal. On the other hand, the recorded exploits of the young men in the CCC simply cannot be overlooked. The primary record shows scores of examples of individual heroism and self-sacrifice, indeed at least one Carnegie medal went to a CCC enrollee for his courage in saving fellow enrollees during a barracks fire.

In all likelihood, for every instance of selflessness that made headlines, there were many others for which word never left the camp or local community in which the act took place. Buried deep in the text of a personal narrative published in 1941 is an account of an action by a single CCC enrollee that typifies this notion.

Albert W. Jernberg’s book My Brush Monkeys: An Army Officer’s Story of the CCC is the account of one army officer’s stint as commander of CCC camps in the latter years of the program. Jernberg’s text contains occasional offhand comments that hint at a sense of superiority over his young charges, and given the era and the circumstances, such an attitude may be somewhat understandable. By the same token, Jernberg’s frequent praise of the enrollees seems all the more sincere given what might be considered a cultural or class bias on the part of the young captain.

One event recounted in the book is the inspiration for this blog post so I’ll quote it at length here:

Toward evening, after the crews had come in, it was discovered that an enrollee was missing. Pete instituted a search. After an hour they found the youngster fighting a fire, all alone. He had come upon a small roadside fire, caused by some careless smoker, no doubt, and as the wind was blowing strong, he no sooner killed it in one quarter when it sprang up in another. He could have left and summoned aid – and in that time the fire would have gotten out of control. He had chosen to stick with it and fight alone. When they found him, stripped to the waist and covered with dirt, he was tired out – at the end of his rope. But he had stuck to the job. With the help of Pete and the truck driver the fire was put out and the tired enrollee brought in.

The incident revealed to me the character of the American boy; the American boy – who can’t be licked. There was a job to be done – and he had done it, sticking to it, the odds all against him. I decided then that the rest of the world could have bigger navies and bigger armies, but while we had kids like that we had something! How could you lick the kind of spirit that brush monkey showed fighting that fire by himself?

Odds are that enrollee’s one-man battle against a small wildfire went unreported in the local press. Perhaps there was mention of it in the camp paper, maybe Happy Days picked up the story, but that’s doubtful. Certainly his fellow enrollees were worried when he was overdue back at camp and no doubt he was fed a decent meal even if he arrived back in camp after the mess hall had closed. Maybe, just maybe Captain Jernberg gave him the next day off as a reward for hard work. We’ll probably just never know for sure, but rest assured there were thousands more like him in the CCC and maybe, just maybe, we owe our success in a world war to them.

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Buffalo Crossing Camp, Eastern Arizona

Buffalo Crossing Camp, Eastern Arizona