Danny On – 1st Asian Pacific American Forest Service Smokejumper

WWII Paratrooper to USFS Smokejumper
From Aleta Eng, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

APAEA is recognizing Asian Pacific American Forest Service pioneer – Danny On, who began his career with the Forest Service in the mid-1940s; a time when the nation grappled with racial segregation and discrimination. Danny’s story is about a man beloved by his local community, respected as a talented Forest Service silviculturist, and sought after for his skills in photography. Danny was an exceptional, charismatic and passionate adventurer who immersed himself exploring the public lands that he managed.

Photo courtesy of Flathead National Forest.
Photo courtesy of Flathead National Forest.

While attending college in 1946, Danny trained as a smokejumper – an elite and self-sufficient firefighter that parachutes into fires in rugged terrain. Danny fought for his nation and would now fight to protect the nation’s public lands. The work was extremely arduous requiring excellent physical condition and mental alertness.

According to a Danny On profile story written by Jack Demmons for The Static Line (now known as Smokejumper Magazine), the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base located in Cave Junction, Oregon trained 24 new smokejumpers in 1946. Most of them were WWII veterans, including Danny. He jumped for the Siskiyou National Forest during the ‘46, ’47, ’52, and ’53 seasons. According to the National Smokejumper Association, Danny was known for his break-away and long delay parachute jumps.

Danny was born May 11, 1924 in Red Bluff, California.

Family photo, Danny is third from the left. Photo courtesy of Flathead National Forest.
Family photo, Danny is third from the left.
Photo courtesy of Flathead National Forest.

He served as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division during World War II.

From paratrooper to smokejumper. Photo courtesy of Flathead National Forest.
From paratrooper to smokejumper. Photo courtesy of Flathead National Forest.

In December 1944, during the historic Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium, Danny was severely injured. He was hit with shrapnel in the right shoulder. After returning from the war, he enrolled at Chico State College in California in 1945. He then transferred to University of Montana in 1946 and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in 1950 and a Master’s Degree in Forestry in 1952.

During Danny’s time in Cave Junction, he was a member of the local archery club – Oregon Caves Bowman. Fellow member Raymond “Rocky” Jones, 85, remembered that Danny was an avid hunter who made his own bow from bamboo similar to that of his hero, the famed archer Howard Hill. Danny was known for his ability to pull a stronger bow than anybody. During the Illinois Valley Jubilee, there was a contest to see who could pull a 95 pound (strength) bow called the “Deflator”. Whoever could pull the bow back 28 inches (approximately to the ear) would receive a prize. One after another, no one could pull the bow. It was Danny’s turn. Not only could he pull the bow back more than 28 inches but his strength caused the bow to break.

Once Danny received his graduate degree, he was encouraged by Forest Service colleagues to apply for a position in timber management. Danny received a permanent appointment from the Siskiyou National Forest. He then went on to work for the Deschutes National Forest, Kootenai National Forest, the Region 1 Office, and eventually joined the Flathead National Forest as a silviculturist.

“Danny excelled in everything he did, was a great friend, cook, skier, silviculturist and photographer, shared Ken Larsen, 82, retired timber management forester who lived with Danny for 10 years in Missoula. Neil Malkasian, retired Forest Service timber sale forester, remembers that “Danny always shared his knowledge with others, especially in photography and skiing”. Danny spent numerous weekends on nature photography trips amassing thousands of photos in his portfolio. An avid skier, Danny took Neil on his first helicopter skiing trip in the Canadian Rockies, a trip that Danny continued for several years.

Danny was a powder hound who often sought out backcountry caches, but also loved bombing down a ski run. He was enjoying a snowy ski day alone at the Big Mountain Ski Resort (now Whitefish Resort) on January 21, 1979 when he fell into a tree well – a depression formed around a tree trunk. Danny was found the next morning head first trapped in snow. He was just 54.

Following his death, colleagues at Flathead National Forest, including Ken Larsen and Neil Malkasian, formed a committee to create a memorial for Danny. The committee gathered ideas from Danny’s friends and Flathead National Forest employees. Because of his passion for skiing, the committee decided to build a nature trail named for Danny on Big Mountain. The Danny On National Recreation Trail opened in 1981; this popular trail receives more than 15,000 visitors annually.

View from the Danny On National Recreation Trail. Photo courtesy of National Recreation Trail.
View from the Danny On National Recreation Trail. Photo courtesy of National Recreation Trail.

The Danny On Trail extends 3.8 miles one way from the base area of Whitefish Mountain Ski and Summer Resort to its summit. Most of it winds through forests of Douglas fir, western larch, spruce, and fir while crossing grassy ski trails full of summer wildflowers. In late summer, plentiful ripe huckleberries make for an especially pleasing hike. Along the trail and at the summit, hikers enjoy vistas of the verdant Flathead Valley below them and long-distance views of mountains of Glacier National Park; the Canadian Rockies; and the Bob Marshall, Great Bear, Scapegoat, and Cabinet wilderness areas. The view from the top is 360 degrees of alpine wonder. – National Recreation Trail

Danny’s passion for public lands lives on today. Plants of Waterton-Glacier National Parks and the Northern Rockies and Along the Trail: A Photographic Essay of Glacier National Park and the Northern Rocky Mountain, published in 1979 and 1980, contain photographs Danny took during several trips to Glacier National Park. Both books are still available for purchase online. DannyOn-plantsbook Danny On's nature photography of Glacier National ParkDuring Danny’s memorial, his friend and University of Montana professor W. Leslie Pengelly shared this about Danny’s love of photography,“He loved the world around him – – the mountains in all seasons, the wildlife for which his special photographic skills made his name a local legend. The obscure “flower that bloomed and blushed unseen to waste its sweetness on the desert air” was not unseen with Danny around – – he knew where the interesting plants were and when they were likely to be at their best”.

“Danny was one of the most kind, generous and selfless people I have ever met – he gave freely of his time, money, skills, and possessions, along with his friendship to one and all, young and old, male or female, any color, any creed – he accepted them all and always gave them something”.– W. Leslie Pengelly.

Danny On, first Asian Pacific American Forest Service Smokejumper. Photo courtesy of Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum.
Danny On, first Asian Pacific American Forest Service Smokejumper. Photo courtesy of Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum.

 Danny – we thank you. You shared your love for public lands and made a path for others to follow. Your legend and spirit live on.

6 thoughts on “Danny On – 1st Asian Pacific American Forest Service Smokejumper

  1. In 1952 and 53 Danny On, while on a smoke jumping assignment in the Sisters, Oregon area, gave me a hand made Bow that I still have. He stayed with my family several times and even did a jump into the Rodeo Arena. He helped me pad the dash of my 1929 model A ford and install seat belts made from his old parachute harnesses that I still have. Also, I have a framed photo of the Three Sisters peaks in the Sisters ,Oregon area. I will always remember him as a friend and wonderful person.


  2. We first met Danny On while hiking a trail in Glacier Natl park in summer 1968. He immediately took us under his wing on a wondrous journey thru areas we would have seen were he not with us. He was kind, patient and incredibly knowledgeable. From that unlikely encountered came a friendship that lasted until his passing. Never had there been as generous and giving a person. It was an honor to have walked with him and he was a true blessing in our lives.


  3. My uncle was assigned to Danny’s unit G Company 502 Parachute Infantry Regiment as a replacement for soldiers killed in the D-Day invasion. He was assigned the bunk above On while stationed at Chilton Foliat in England. Danny sewed the Screamin Eagle patches on his uniform for him sort of a welcome to the company.


  4. As a kid,Danny was one of my early ski instructors on Big Mountain, with the Kalispell Ski Club. I only have fond memories of him. I have two winter Ptarmigan close up photos (11 x 14″) Danny took and signed. We have down-sized and I have no place for them. I’d like to sell them to someone who appreciates them the way I have. Let me know if you are interested


  5. I skied out of bounds on Big Mt with Danny by our side . We were young Native Americans that knew nothing of the glamour of the world, just , of what was presented to us . He always was present and watching over us , not engaging. I have always wanted a photo to put in our cabin in Glacier Park area . I’m only certain that place will be special . I have looked and know the photo will be the right one . Even though I didn’t know him, he knew me . And that is my inspiration to represent the memories I had of him . My value system is intact, and , in writing this … I feel there is a great answer. Not about value or possession., but of a love for a man that only inspired me to be .accomplished .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s