Jack F. Wilson died at the age of 101, just six weeks short of his 102nd birthday, in South Jordan, Utah on February 15, 2021. A former B-24 pilot in World War II, and subsequently Director of the National Interagency Fire Center, Mr. Wilson coordinated wildfire fighting efforts for the entire United States.
John Fredrick Wilson (Jack) was born on April 2, 1919 at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah to John Lorimer Wilson and Miriam Rebecca James Wilson. Soon after Jack’s birth, his father became an assayer at the Silver King mine in Park City, Utah. Jack spent his early school years at the family home on 39 King Road in Park City with his three younger sisters Cecilia, Miriam, and Charlotte. From childhood, eight months of his year were spent in Park City, but his summers were spent on the cattle ranch of his Welsh grandfather Walter James in Skull Valley, 20 miles west of Vernon, Utah. When Jack graduated from high school, his uncle Thomas James ordered him a new saddle from Pendleton, Oregon for a mustang, Tony, that Jack had tamed. On the ranch, Jack said that he “got to know the song of the coyotes, the stars, the smell of sage brush after the range, the sunset over Pilot Peak, and the solitude and peace in which to dream.” In Park City, Jack – despite his diminutive size- emerged as a strong competitor on the Park City High School basketball team due to his speed. In his school work he was fascinated with history, particularly that of World War I; little did he know that he would become a part of military history in the future.
Jack enrolled at BYU in the winter of 1937, commuting to campus from his Aunt Stella’s Payson home via bicycle and train. Jack wrote that at BYU “I was not a Mormon in Mormon country.” The following year he dormed with BYU athletes, and reported that “we almost beat Utah.” He then moved into Allen Hall, where, in the fall of 1940 Jack became increasingly aware of the specter of impending war, and so joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Jack received his pilot license, and continued his schooling to until the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 1, 1941. Jack enlisted in the Army Air Corp, reporting for duty on January 21, 1942, and was dispatched to Chandler, Arizona and thence to Visalia, California for further training. Finally, in Tucson, Arizona, Jack was introduced to a new mustang that he quickly tamed, the massive four-engine B-24 bomber. During a leave in El Paso, Texas, Jack was baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Jack became one of the top B-24 pilots in the Pacific theatre in the crack Jolly Rogers heavy bombardment group. He was tasked five days a week with his 10-person crew to fly a stripped-down B-24, with the bomb bays replaced by fuel bladders, on 12-14 hour flights to track the Japanese fleet in the North China sea. They often landed on fumes when they returned. Of his war efforts, Jack recounted “It was long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of intense terror.” After the war ended, he was tasked with assisting in the decommissioning of aircraft. He returned to BYU in 1947. In a Chemistry 112 lab he met a pretty nineteen-year old girl from Washington D.C. , Gwendolyn Gwynn. They began meeting for breakfast, but as Jack recalled, “While we had reached the hand holding stage, her large solitaire diamond was a grim reminder that she was spoken for.” Jack and Gwen were married in the Salt Lake Temple on November 20, 1947. Jack then returned to BYU to continue his master’s degree in agronomy.
Together with their baby daughter Wendy, Jack and Gwen then went to Rawlins, Wyoming where he took a job with the Bureau of Land Management. Wendy’s birth was followed by that of Elaine and then Barbara. Together with their three girls, Jack and Gwen moved to Pinedale, Wyoming, where he served as Area Manager for the BLM. They then returned to Rawlins where Laurel and their first son John Jr. was born. Jack then moved the family to Burley, Idaho where he became BLM District Manager and a member of the Pomerelle Ski Patrol. In Burley, their youngest child Jim was born.
In 1968, Jack and the family moved to Riverside, California where he headed the BLM District Office. There Jack again connected with the desert: “I loved the desert, the warmth, and the solitude.” While there, he became a strong advocate for the preservation of desert lands, and helped complete the California Desert Plan.
Jack was appointed Director of the Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where he led teams of pilots, dispatchers, weather forecasters, fire fighters and smoke jumpers to coordinate wild fire fighting throughout the United States. His skills were put to the test in 1988 when fire threatened to consume Yellowstone. Despite Jack’s earlier pleas to allow his teams to quickly suppress any fires in the National Park, Park officials decided to allow the fires to burn as they considered them to be a natural event. By the time the park allowed Jack’s teams, augmented by the military, in to fight the fires, over a million acres had been destroyed and several lives lost.
Jack retired in 1991 and in 1995 the Headquarters of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise was named after him. His mantra was always “all of us are better than any one of us.” In his final years, Jack devoted himself to family history and spending time with his family. He was preceded in death by his wife Gwen and his son Johnny, and is survived by his children Wendy Woods (Jackson), Elaine Knippers (John), Barbara Cox (Paul), Laurel Thomas (Gary), and Jim Wilson (Sharon), 16 grandchildren, and 23 great-grandchildren.
Our family owes gratitude to his faithful friends and caregivers Becky Frogley, Flip Michaels, Don Price, Mishawn Merrill, Alice Koatz and daughters, and Caroline McArthur, who kept him in his Boise home as long as possible.
Lastly, thanks to his children who each tenderly did what they could to care for their beloved father, especially daughter Barbara and her husband Paul Cox for all the wonderful love and adventure in their homes until 10 days before he left us. We shall miss him but he will always be with us by his actions, love, teaching, wit, jokes and care of mom.
Funeral arrangements are being made by Relyea Funeral Chapel, 318 N Latah St, Boise, ID 83706 with a viewing from 6:00 – 8:00 PM on Friday, February 26, and a virtual funeral being conducted on Saturday, February 27, at 10:00 AM (Mountain Standard Time) on Zoom:
(see direct Zoom link located below)
Meeting ID: 881 9025 2802
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In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the Public Lands Foundation (publicland.org) or the Wildland Fire Fighters Foundation (wffoundation.org).
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