Wings in the Rainforest

In his book, The Last Wilderness Murray Morgan wanders through the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula and provides a backdrop for a story I heard him tell more than once.

In the summer of 1917 an unnamed young man, weary of the soggy work as a logger in the temperate rain forests above Grays Harbor, dreamed of a drier form of glory. He was burned out on the brutality of timber cutting where a snapped choker line could take a man’s arm off like a gunshot and even the most severely wounded worker would be made comfortable with a whiskey shot until the shift was over and he would be transported down to where he could get medical care. He was sick of the clearcuts that looked like battlefields at dusk and cemeteries in the morning mist. The bunkhouse politics of Wobblies who talked about a world revolution and company loyalists who preached patriotism while spying on their co workers became just too much.

So, on leave in Tacoma, with a paycheck in his pocket, a few beers under his belt and a calling recruitment poster on a downtown telephone pole , the young man decided to join the Army and head “Over There” to the war in Europe. The newspapers were full of details about an Army post getting built on the prairie near Steilacoom. Mixed in with glamourous stories about movies stars and baseball heroics were photographs and articles about Yankee soldiers pulling the allies out of the fire. American ships and the awful home made meat grinding machinery of war were about to turn the tide and clouds of U.S. warplanes and pilots were going to own the skies. He just hoped he would get to the trenches of France before the whole thing was won and over. That October he was among the 60,000 recruits that mustered at the freshly built United States Army post called Camp Lewis.

He found himself in a chaotic but exciting situation, some things familiar like the bunkhouses and messes and some things completely new and bewildering like aptitude tests and skill assessment interviews with uniformed officers and assignment panels. He ended up in the Signal Corp that encouragingly oversaw military aviation but after that his role in the Great War was unclear. He figured he would work it all out and then get on with the pursuit of glory.

As the heavy rains of late winter 1918 set in the young man found himself in a freshly built bunkhouse that smelled of new cut cedar, cookhouse coffee and wood smoke. He was no more than five miles from where he had been a year before deep in the rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula. He had been ordered to a field squadron of the Spruce Production Division of the U.S. Army due to his experience and skills as a lumberjack. Native Spruce, it turns out, was an almost perfect material for building biplanes-light, strong and resistant to wind stress and bullets. Our young hero managed to maneuver himself into a position where he was working much longer hours for much less pay under much poorer conditions doing precisely the same thing in exactly the same place. So much for glory.

But it’s not as if our young hero didn’t achieve any measure of glory. The wings of American airplanes cut from the rainforests of the Olympics did help win the First World War and the skies over Europe. The Spruce Squadrons that never left the ground did help anchor aircraft manufacturing in the Pacific Northwest and they helped pioneer environmental conservation efforts like selective harvest and clearcut replanting. The wings of glory flutter before they soar it seems.

Here’s a breathtaking taste of the protagonist’s hoped for glory from the 1927 masterpiece film about First World War aviation, Wings

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