Monday, December 16, 2013

Raising and Deploying a Conservation Army

Note:  A longer version of this article appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Army Engineer magazine.  I have retained the original references list but retitled it “For Further Reading” since some of the sources listed were not used for the portions of the article that appears here.  Also, throughout this piece I refer to the “army” as the driving force behind the mobilization and deployment of the CCC.  In fact the War Department was the military agency tasked with the job of in-processing and caring for enrollees and the bulk of that task fell to the Army, however you will find instances of CCC camps being run by Marine Corps and Navy officers as well.
Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees, Fort Knox conditioning camp, 1934.

On March 24, 1933 the commanders of all nine Army Corps areas received a secret radio communique, warning of a potential task of national importance about to be delegated to them.  No doubt the message was received with some trepidation, angst and frustration, for the upshot of the broadcast was that the United States Army should prepare for a mass mobilization of men that would ultimately exceed that which was undertaken in connection with America’s involvement in World War I.  And yet, while many in the military may have cursed their luck in early 1933, by years’ end many would agree with the sentiments of Colonel Duncan K. Major who, writing in the July-August 1933 issue of Army Ordnance, noted that “Few military campaigns have equaled such a performance.  To the Army it offered a real opportunity.” 

What sort of message would cause the Corps area commanders to sit up and take notice?  Anticipating passage of the bill to create the Civilian Conservation Corps, the War Department sent word to all nine Corps commanders, putting them on notice that the initial tasks of in-processing, conditioning, organizing, equipping and transporting the new enrollees to their respective railheads would fall to the Army.  From the outset, and even as the first enrollees began to roll in following the passage of the legislation that created the CCC on March 31, 1933, the role of the Army was to have been limited, with control of the new enrollees reverting to various technical services such as the Forest Service and National Park Service at the earliest opportunity.  Given the world situation and the state of military preparedness in the United States in 1933, it is little wonder that even this supposedly limited military role met with concern both within the military and in civilian circles.

Many Americans, wary of burgeoning militarism overseas and with memories of World War I still fresh in their minds, opposed anything that smacked of increased militarism or rearmament at home and the status of the United States military, ranked 17th in the world, was a reflection of this broad sentiment.  In 1933 most Army units were far from fully staffed; George C. Marshall commanded a battalion that should have counted upwards of 1,000 men on its roster but which in fact could muster barely 200 men.  Not surprising then that within the military ranks the postwar officer corps questioned, justifiably, the military’s ability to undertake even a limited role in the mobilization of the CCC while still maintaining any sort of national defense posture in the process.
Letter to Cpt. James N. Luton, 323rd Infantry
informing him that his application for active
duty service with the CCC has been received.  1936.

And yet, that is exactly what happened, and more.  When it became clear that the agencies involved (Department of War, Department of Labor, Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture) would be unable to meet President Roosevelt’s goal of placing 250,000 young men in forestry camps by July 1, 1933, under the original organizational matrix, the Army assumed control of all matters except supervision of the work being done.  With its expanded role, the Army reluctantly found itself in charge of CCC enrollees all hours of the day except the time they were away from the camp working for the technical service – approximately eight hours a day, five days a week. 

The increased Army role cleared some of the logjams, but mobilizing and deploying enrollees continued to lag behind and it remained clear that the President’s goal would still not be met.  Again the Army was called in to formulate a plan.  Given less than 40 hours, Colonel Duncan K. Major, the Army’s representative on the President’s Advisory Council assembled sections from the General Staff and worked through the day and night of May 11th and into the early hours of the 12th to assemble the relevant facts, draw appropriate conclusions and propose a suitable recommendation that concluded with the following blunt proposal:

It is therefore recommended that if the decision is to place 274,375 men in work camps by July 1, 1933, the Director give the War Department its full mission at once, provide the means for its accomplishment and then protect it from all interference.  The means to be provided are: 1. $46,000,000 to be transferred at once; 2. An Executive Order waiving restriction on purchases; 3. The necessary instructions to the Department of Labor covering selection.

The updated plan was immediately approved by President Roosevelt and the impact of the Army’s further expanded role and greater discretionary power was almost immediate.  Whereas just 52,000 young men had been enrolled in the CCC by May 10th, national enrollment jumped to over 62,000 by May 16th, increased by another 8,100 men on the 17th and further increased by 10,500 men on the 18th of May.  Ultimately, the President’s goal to have a quarter million enrollees working in more than 1,000 camps by July 1, 1933 was met because the Army was given greater flexibility and the massive effort decentralized down to the level of the nine Corps areas.  In an article in the January-February 1934 issue of The Military Engineer Major John Guthrie, Corps of Engineers, reported the results of that effort with pride:

This whole movement was an unprecedented mobilization.  An average of 8,450 men per day was enrolled.  To accomplish the movements from conditioning camps (Army posts) to work camps, 211 special trains were used, carrying 64,196 men in 1,605 sleepers and coaches; of these, 55,130 men went from Corps Areas I, II, and III to the far west.  To equip and supply this tree Army of 314,000 men has been a tremendous job in itself.

The effort truly was unprecedented, but it was a drain on the Army’s resources.  All but two Army schools were closed, their faculty and students mobilized for duty with the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Of the 9,936 regular Army officers available when the CCC was established, 5,239 were called up for full time service related to the CCC, but there was satisfaction in a job well done and by mid-1933, even Colonel Major, initially a skeptic, was moved to write glowingly of the CCC mobilization for Army Ordnance.

Regular Army officers and an NCO at Camp Roosevelt,
the first CCC camp, 1933.

History records the War Department’s nearly decade long association with the CCC as an unparalleled success and despite rough patches, especially in the early months, and despite the public’s initial fear that the CCC would somehow become “militarized” by its connection to the Army, media accounts of the CCC eventually became heavy with military metaphors (“tree Army,” “soil soldiers,” “forests protected by ‘shock troops’ of the CCC”) and by the early 1940s the CCC’s effort was refocused on national defense work as the economy improved and enrollment declined, but always with an eye toward improving the enrollee, too.

Eventually, active duty officers were rotated out of CCC service, replaced by reserve officers from all branches of the military, many of them eager for an opportunity to hone their leadership skills and often out of work in their civilian professions, much like the enrollees in the camps they came to lead.  Despite the odd difficulty or adversity in the local camps all the way up to the Corps level, the record of the Army and the War Department in connection with the CCC is unmatched in our history.  The largest peacetime mobilization, the sustained deployment and provisioning of a peacetime conservation Army over nearly a decade and tangible improvements in military readiness are the legacy of the Army’s association with the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Military officers, active duty and reservists, gained valuable experience leading company-sized units, learned to manage and account for equipment, experienced the sad duty of dealing with sick, injured and dead enrollees and perhaps just as importantly, served as positive models for millions of men who became veterans in their own right because of the U.S. entry into World War II.  While there are no hard and fast figures to show how many CCC enrollees went on to serve in the military, one recent history claims the number may be as high as 90 percent.  Even if one estimates the number of enrollees who entered the military at a more conservative 50 percent, it still must be acknowledged that the other 50 percent likely entered the home front workforce where they put their newly learned job skills to very good use in support of the war effort.  In any event, the significance of the CCC is unquestionable and the role of the U.S. Army in the success of the CCC is equally undeniable.  Little wonder then that no less a figure than General George C. Marshall, himself a CCC district commander, a World War II leader, Secretary of State and Nobel Prize recipient said of the Civilian Conservation Corps:  “I found the CCC the most instructive service I have ever had and the most interesting.” 

Military staff at a CCC camp in Wisconsin.

Phoenix CCC District staff, 1936.

For Further Reading

Captain “X”, “A Civilian Army in the Woods,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, March 1934, 487-497.

Coffman, Edward M., The Regulars:  The American Army 1898-1941 (Cambridge, MA:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press).

Guthrie, John D., “The Civilian Conservation Corps,” The Military Engineer, Jan-Feb, 1934, Vol. XXVI No. 145, 15-19.

Johnson, Charles W., “The Army and the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-42,” Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives, Fall 1972, 138-156.

Maher, Neil M., Nature’s New Deal (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2008).

Major, Duncan K., “Mobilizing the Conservation Corps:  The Army Does a Gigantic Job in Record Time,” Army Ordnance, July-Aug, 1933, Vol. XIV No.79, 33-38.

Mays-Smith, Kathy, Gold Medal CCC Company 1538 (Paducah, KY, Turner Publishing Company, 2001).

McKoy, Kathleen L., Cultures at a Crossroads:  An Administrative History of Pipe Springs National Monument (Denver, CO:  U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2000).

 Pasquill, Robert, The Civilian Conservation Corps in Alabama, 1933-1942:  A Great and Lasting Good (Tuscaloosa, AL:  University of Alabama Press, 2008).

Salmond, John A., The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942:  A New Deal Case Study (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 1967).

Whittlesey, Lee H., Death in Yellowstone:  Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park (Lanham, MD:  Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1995).

Images from the author’s collection.
© Michael I. Smith, 2013


Monday, July 8, 2013

After the Sacrifice: A Grim and Dismal Business

While we might argue whether grief comes before numbness or vice versa, I’m inclined to think that inevitably grief or numbness will be replaced by collective amnesia.  Consequently, I feel compelled to put down some thoughts in the wake of the Yarnell Hill tragedy and, perhaps not surprisingly, the touchstone for me is a similar tragedy that occurred three quarters of a century ago in a Wyoming forest.  More to the point, I’m thinking of events that took place in the aftermath of that Wyoming tragedy and how they square with the events taking place in Arizona in the blazing, unforgiving summer of 2013.  In the midst of grief and numbness and before amnesia, there is a grim and dismal business that seems always to require attending to in sad situations such as this.

A photograph of 19 flag-draped body bags lying in the burn area emerged in the days immediately following the Yarnell Hill tragedy and in short order there has been debate regarding whether such an image is appropriate and whether it might be too intrusive.  While I rarely editorialize here, I will say in this case, that the sad image of 19 flag-draped forms is a fitting eulogy to young men who gave up their very existence in the fight against wildland fire.  I only wish things had been the same 75 years ago when flames overtook the CCC crews at Blackwater; however in their case, there were no flags, only canvas.  

I’ve chosen not to post the final image of the Yarnell Hill 19 lying near where they likely fell but anyone with an ounce of internet savvy will be able to find it.  On the other hand, I am posting a picture from the 1937 Blackwater Creek tragedy with the hope that it will generate some thought regarding how much things have changed in 75 years of forestry, firefighting and humanity. 

 In the hours immediately after the 1937 Blackwater blow up and its tragic consequences, fire suppression work all but ceased as crews fanned out into the burn to search for victims.  Most of the dead were discovered in the process of extricating another group – the living, the dead and dying – who had been trapped by the blow up.  With help from rescue parties, the scarred and fatigued survivors carried the dead and dying down to the lower fire camps where they were tended to before being transported to hospitals in Cody, Wyoming.

It strikes me that retrieval of the dead in cases like the Yarnell Hill Fire, as with other recent tragedies that have preceded it, must be undertaken as a mix of requiem and a search for investigative clarity.  There are honors to be rendered but also questions to be answered.  The impulse to mourn will be interrupted, abruptly and perhaps grudgingly, by the desire to find answers, to learn lessons and perhaps even assess blame.  I do not get the impression that such was the case 75 years ago on the fire scarred hillsides of a forest near Yellowstone National Park.  The body of Ranger Al Clayton and the six men who died with him were removed in the late morning and early afternoon of August 22, 1937 and a local newspaper reporter wrote of the scene:

Seven pack-horses, each with angular forms wrapped in canvas and lashed to the saddles, filed slowly out of the wooded ravine and stopped at the cars.  Over a hundred wide-eyed, ashen-gray youngsters, just ready to go to the fire line, pushed forward, drawn by a chilling magnetism to see what their former comrades looked like.

No flag-draped body bags, no honor guard processions, just canvas wrapped parcels somewhat ghoulishly exhibited for all to see in a grim processional.  In the midst of the death and fear – in spite of the death and fear - fresh CCC crews continued to arrive until at one point more than 500 men were fighting the Blackwater Fire.  By noon on Tuesday, August 24th the fire was listed as officially under control and on the following day the Forest Service supervisors began to release CCC crews to return to their camps and their regular duties.  Finally, on August 31st, ten days after the fatal blow up and almost two weeks after lightening started a seemingly inconsequential blaze, the last of the firefighting crews were disbanded, having constructed more than eleven miles of fire line in the process of extinguishing the Blackwater Fire.

Photos of the recovery of the Blackwater victims appeared in the August 1941 issue of Sports Afield and perhaps elsewhere and I am unaware of any backlash at the time.  Perhaps the passage of four years’ time helped dull the impact.  Perhaps the amnesia had already begun to set in by that point.  Perhaps the growing global carnage diminished Blackwater’s fiery cataclysm down to seemingly nothing by comparison.  Perhaps people simply had thicker skins 75 years ago.

I have argued that the dead of Blackwater have not received the same sort of recognition as their firefighting brethren who have perished on the fire lines in recent memory, but one thing seems constant over the decades.  Praised or unsung, the heroes have done their work and perished in the doing.  The dismal grim business remains for us, the living, to undertake and sadly that business won’t be quick or clean.
While there appears to have been no backlash following the publication of the photos of
the removal of those killed in the Blackwater blow up, one gets the impression from the
expressions on the faces of the men in this image that they were uneasy knowing that the
grim scene was being photographed.
You can read an earlier, more detailed post about the Blackwater tragedy here.

©Michael I. Smith, 2013

Buffalo Crossing Camp, Eastern Arizona

Buffalo Crossing Camp, Eastern Arizona