Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Truck Drivers in the CCC: There Was a Lot Riding on their Work

Statistically, the most dangerous daily activity facing CCC enrollees was injury or death caused by vehicular accidents.  Trucks transported enrollees to and from the work sites.  Trucks often brought lunches and extra supplies to the work site during the day.  Trucks carried enrollees into town on the weekend to take in a movie or to attend dances and trucks transported the enrollees back to camp when the fun was over.  Trucks transported company equipment between camps and trucks moved enrollees from summer camps to winter camps when the weather got cold, often moving them back the other direction in the spring.  No matter what the type of work being undertaken in the camp – forestry work, erosion control, construction of park improvements, or installation of irrigation systems – drivers were always the backbone of the effort. 

An enrollee stands next to his battered truck.
To be sure, in the first formative months of the program, the CCC lacked a robust safety program, and by October 1933 it became clear the organization had a safety problem.  Director Robert Fechner expressed dismay over the number of fatalities due to accidents in the CCC, but despite his admonitions, the record did not improve and talk turned to the creation of a formal safety program.  Finally, in April 1934, with the strong support of the War Department and the technical services like the Forest Service and the National Park Service, a formal safety program was adopted.  Under the program, CCC Safety Division representatives visited each camp.  William Rutherford, a US Forest Service foreman working in a camp on Colorado’s western slope, wrote home and mentioned that an inspector had recently visited camp and was upset that enrollees were jumping out of the backs of trucks before they’d come to a complete stop.  At some point, Rutherford found himself tasked with the job of managing the camp’s truck fleet, insuring the drivers were properly trained and maintaining their vehicles.  Safety committees were also established in each camp and by the middle of 1936 the death rate for CCC enrollees had been reduced to a point that was lower than that in the Regular army and lower for young men in the same age group in the overall population of the United States.

Grease rack, CCC camp Vale, Oregon, circa. 1940
Truck drivers were required to maintain their equipment and expected to operate it in a safe manner.  For example, in the camp at Vale, Oregon, Saturday’s were given over as time for drivers to service and maintain their trucks, which they did, using a large grease rack, built especially for the task.  A driver’s safety record and driving ability were documented and often referenced as part of their discharge paperwork; in part as a means of showing prospective employers that a particular young man had proven himself behind the wheel in the CCC.  
Merle Timblin (holding canteen) stands by his truck while a CCC work crew loads up.
Merle Timblin recalled his work driving a truck when his CCC company moved from Williams, Arizona to Nogales, Arizona.  The trucks carrying the camp equipment and supplies made the trip in two days, stopping in Phoenix overnight before continuing their journey to southern Arizona the next day.  Today, thanks to the interstate highway system, the trip can be accomplished in under a day, with time to spare for rest stops and sightseeing.
A truck driver’s code, issued to some drivers, including Merle Timblin, included the commitment to drive safely at all times and to strive diligently for a camp record of no lost time accidents.

To be sure, even with a strong safety program in the camps, accidents still happened and occasionally they were the result of misconduct on the part of one or more enrollees.  In these cases, the camp commander would convene a review board to determine the cause of the accident and, if necessary, levy appropriate sanctions.  Sadly, in the case of fatal accidents, the board would rule on whether the enrollee in question was at fault and whether the accident occurred in the performance of his regular duties.

A newspaper reports the sad details of a fatal truck accident near Wallace, Idaho.

The Death of Enrollee Rocco Martello, Yellowstone National Park, 1939
On October 3, 1939 a board of officers headed by Captain Harley Jones, issued findings in the matter of the death of enrollee Rocco R. Martello, who was a member of Company 3204 at the Nez Perce Camp YNP-5 near West Yellowstone, Montana.  Martello was a passenger riding in the back of a stake bed Ford truck returning to camp following an authorized recreation trip to West Yellowstone late on the night of August 12, 1939.  Approximately sixteen miles into the journey and within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, the driver was blinded by the lights of an oncoming vehicle.  In his effort to avoid a collision, the driver pulled the truck to the far right shoulder of the road, hitting a large rock, resulting in his loss of control of the truck, which careened over an embankment, rolling over in the process, coming to rest against some trees approximately 30 feet from the highway.  Enrollee Martello, seated on a bench seat in the rear of the truck was thrown from the truck and pinned to the ground by two trees that were uprooted by the rolling truck, the truck eventually coming to rest atop the uprooted trees and atop enrollee Martello. 
Captain Jones and the review board noted that enrollee Martello died almost instantaneously.  Additionally, the board ruled that the death occurred in the performance of duty and was not the result of Martello’s misconduct and that neither alcohol nor drugs were a direct or proximate cause of the fatality.

The board findings also include an affidavit from the driver of the truck, explaining the tragic details of the crash, noting that there were 23 enrollees in the rear of the truck and three, including the driver, riding in the cab.  The driver goes on to attest that he received no instruction regarding the fact that three men should not ride in the cab of a CCC truck.  Perhaps more tragic still, the driver admits to having had “about four beers” while in West Yellowstone that night, but goes on to claim that, “…there was no time in which I was not in full possession of my faculties.  I was perfectly sober when I started do drive the truck back to camp.”
The documentation available does not record what action might have been taken against the driver and it would be unfair to speculate now, some 73 years later.  It is enough to note that at least two lives were changed forever that night in Yellowstone National Park.  Today the incident merely serves to remind us of the burden carried by truck drivers in the CCC.

Motor pool, perhaps during vehicle inspection, CCC camp Vale, Oregon, 1940.

Proceedings of B/O, Enrollee Rocco R. Martello Findings, National Archives, Wash., DC.

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