10th Mountain veterans wow museum crowd in Vail
January 26, 2012
VAIL, Colorado – For the length of a song, Earl Clark and Dick Over were in their 20s again, loaded down with gear and equipment, ready to ski or climb to fight whatever enemy stood in their way.
Clark, 92, and Over, 88, were the strong-voiced singers of a 10th Mountain Division marching song, “90 Pounds of Rucksack,” for an appreciative audience at the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum in Vail Wednesday. The song came at the end of a presentation about the history of the 10th that included Clark and Over’s first-hand tales of how this country’s first “mountain infantry” came to be.
With Clark a little woozy from his trip from Denver to Vail, Over took on most of the story-telling. It started with group of young skiers including Charles Minot Dole, talking about how winter-camouflaged Finnish ski troopers had held off a vastly superior Russian force during an attempted Soviet invasion of Finland.
Dole and his compatriots tried to convince U.S. Army brass of this country’s need for ski troopers, and got nowhere fast. But a letter from Dole to President Franklin Roosevelt finally got the army’s OK for an experimental 1,000-man unit, with soldiers coming from the still-small U.S. skiing community. Every prospective member needed three letters of reference to get into the new unit.
“It’s the only time in history someone ever needed three letters of reference to get into the army,” Over said.
The first troopers had mostly nothing in the way of equipment – the only winter gear the Army had was in a warehouse in Alaska, and it was left over from World War I. And at first, Great War hand-me-downs had to do for radio equipment, too.
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A photo of Over with his radio gear showed a young man with what looked sort of like fly-fishing gear. The rod was actually a gigantic whip antenna first designed to be carried on horseback.
“I still ski with a slant,” Over said.
But the 10th did eventually get a base to call home. Between April and November of 1942, the army straightened the Eagle River through the Pando Valley, then built 1,000 buildings, along with a water system and electricity.
The new Camp Hale was remote, but there was still a federal highway and a railroad line running through the valley. And Aspen – then a nearly-dead silver mining town – wasn’t far away, if you took the direct route over the mountains.
Even the “modern” gear the troops eventually used was woefully inadequate for winter training at almost 10,000 feet. The two-man tents were made from parachute silk that didn’t breathe. The breath from two men would then condense and freeze on the tent roof.
“That made getting out of your sleeping bag half-naked pretty exciting,” Over said. But that made the soldiers adept at building snow caves for winter bivouacs.
The soldiers had skis in two sizes, “seven feet and seven feet-six,” and their white winter camouflage was just white cotton the men wore over their woolen hats, shirts, pants and socks.
Then there were the backpacks – known then as rucksacks.
Fully loaded with Army-regulation gear, the packs weighed 122 pounds. Clark was known as “118 pounds of fury” in his army days.
“We got it down to 60,” Over said. But by the time the soldiers were armed and combat-ready, the packs were back up to 90 pounds or more.
Then there was the training, winter and summer, in the mountains between the Climax mine and Aspen. There was skiing, of course, but an armed man on seven-foot skis can’t really carve turns, so the downhill training was mostly snowplow-style riding down the fall line.
Since quick-release bindings weren’t even a dream at the time, that meant a lot of broken legs were treated in the Camp Hale hospital.
After all their training in skiing and climbing, when the 10th did see action, it was brutal. The division lost more than 1,000 men with 4,000 wounded during World War II. Over’s voice cracked a bit when he showed a picture of himself with three comrades training at Camp Hale. None of the three made it home.
A crew from Ski Butlers ski rental, all younger than 30, came to the presentation to help haul chairs. All were amazed by the stories Clark and Over told.
“I didn’t know anything about these guys, but they’re awesome,” Devin Longacre said. “It was intense stuff. It was great to see the personal photos you don’t normally see.”
Matt Hogan said he was happy to get an up-close look at two of the men who went to war on skis.
For their part, Clark and Over said they’re happy to share their stories as long as they’re able. It’s an important part of American history. And 10th Mountain Division veterans became the backbone of the fledgling U.S. ski industry after they’d returned home.
Clark just gave up skiing last season, and it’s just a couple of years now since Over gave up his instructor’s job at Winter Park.
Pete Seibert’s dad, Pete, was one of Vail’s founders and a 10th Mountain Division veteran. Seibert probably knows as much about the division as anyone who wasn’t actually in it.
After the presentation, Seibert said he’s heard “90 Pounds of Rucksack” plenty of times.
“But I didn’t think I’d hear these guys sing it,” he said. “It was great.”