New Deal veterans recall life in Roosevelt’s Tree Army

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Friday, November 10, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News

They served in the Army, the Air Force and the Navy Seabees. They have war stories and postwar stories. Yet it wasn’t a bond forged by World War II that brought these seniors to the American Legion hall in Marysville. They gather monthly because they are veterans of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

As young men, they saw no combat in the CCCs. The organization, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, was at war nonetheless. Its enemy was the rampant unemployment and economic despair of the Great Depression.

Between 1933 and 1942, nearly 3 million boys and men joined the service, nicknamed Roosevelt’s Tree Army.

It was a chance to work. Picks and shovels in hand, they hacked out roads, built parks, planted trees, prevented erosion and fought fires across the country.

More than work, it was a chance to survive. They got all the beans and stew they could eat, wore decent clothing, learned marketable skills, and sent most of the $30 they were paid each month home to struggling families. Most were between 18 and 25, but the corps also took in jobless World War I veterans.

Now in their 70s and 80s, CCC veterans are the grandfatherly figures celebrated in Tom Brokaw’s bestseller "The Greatest Generation." In retirement, they look back with sentimental smiles on the skinny boys they once were, and the months spent in fresh air and hard toil with the CCC.

Homey aromas of coffee and casserole filled the hall Wednesday as one-time CCers and their wives arrived for their monthly potluck. Mae Olsen, a Marysville widow, greeted old friends by name.

Olsen has been an organizer of the local CCC alumni Chapter 78 since the 1980s. She and her late husband Vic, a veteran of camps in Roslyn and Sequim, were instrumental in creating a CCC museum and interpretive center at Deception Pass State Park. Snohomish County CCers worked to turn stone bathhouses built by the corps at Bowman Bay into the museum, and the Olsens served there as summer interpreters.

Uncle Sam’s forest army wasn’t the military, but no doubt young men felt they’d joined the Army. The CCC work was organized under the departments of Labor, Agriculture and Interior, but the War Department housed, fed and outfitted the men.

"We did do military procedures," said Ed Bartholomew of Marysville, who spent his CCC stint on Orcas Island’s Moran State Park. "Every night, we’d muster at 5 o’clock. We’d take down the flag. We had to dress for dinner; we had Army dress."

There was marching, close-order drill and mess duty, too.

"I washed dishes, that’s the first thing I did when I got there," said Bartholomew, who later served in the Navy Seabees. "Then I was an officer’s orderly. An Army colonel was our doctor, and I made his bed, shined his shoes and served in the officers’ barracks where they ate."

Vince Carlson, 78, spent years in the Air Force, working at a dozen airfields in the United States and England. He said his real introduction to military life came in a CCC camp in Wisconsin.

Bob Wolfe, of Arlington, was 16 when he shipped off to the CCC’s Camp Darrington. "My mother had to lie to get me in," he said.

"The CCC wasn’t the real military," said Wolfe, 78, whose corps duty was on a trail crew. "I found that out later when I joined the regular Army."

Wolfe’s wife, Johnadine, said "a common thread you hear from them is, I’d probably have been in prison if it hadn’t been for the CCC."

The Civilian Conservation Corps planted seeds of discipline that served its veterans in their years to come. In nine years, the CCC left an astonishing legacy of parks, forest roads, campgrounds, fire lookouts and trails. Its other legacy is less concrete, a generation committed to duty and service.

Bartholomew is honored to spend a lunch hour with his CCC friends, many of whom are his elders. I was honored, too.

"These," he said, "are the people who built America."

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