Camp Hale history lives on with snow sports enthusiasts, industry
CAMP HALE — History is human stories, not just a string of dates.
If you’re a skier, snowboarder or outdoor enthusiast, then the 10th Mountain Division story is your story, says Dave Little and Jack Breeding. They’re with the 10th Mountain Division Living History Display Group and Foundation. Little, Breeding and Tom Hames were at Camp Hale on Saturday morning to pass along a little history, and a lot of stories.
“The 10th Mountain Division left huge footprints in the snow for the rest of us to follow,” Little said.
They skied everywhere, from what are now Vail’s Back Bowls all the way to Aspen.
“Basically, you had 15,000 guys skiing out of bounds,” Little said.
Vail’s Sandy Treat was there Saturday. He’s 94 years old today and trained and fought with the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. He still gives weekly lectures at the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum, usually at 3 p.m. Fridays. A while back, a German guy showed up who fought against the 10th. He and Sandy did not enjoy detente.
CIA training ground
Things you might not know:
The Army turned Ski Cooper over to the Forest Service but kept Camp Hale until 1963 for reasons that can now be told. For example, the CIA was there from 1958 to 1963, training Tibetan guerillas to fight the Chinese. Follow a road about 3 miles past the rifle range and you’ll spot ruins of cars and trucks where Tibetans learned to ambush Chinese convoys.
The 10th Mountain Division shipped out for Italy in May 1944, and they didn’t even take their skis with them, Treat said. After they arrived in Italy, one patrol went out on skis, but it was spring in the Italian mountains.
At the other end of the war, about 3,000 10th Mountain Division soldiers landed in the Aleutian Islands to drive out the Japanese. By the time they got there, the Japanese had gone, but the Americans didn’t know that.
It was foggy and so hard to see that the Americans somehow got into a battle with each other, Treat said.
Before they realized it, 30 U.S. soldiers had been killed, including Roger Emerson, Treat’s best friend.
Other interesting stuff:
• A soldier named Ralph was an archer and brought his gear with him to Camp Hale. He’d hunt small game around the area and took his archery gear with him into combat in Italy.
• This other guy was a snowshoe advocate, insisting they weren’t the boat anchors some people thought. He raced a skier on a cross-country course and won.
• That nifty hood tucked inside the collar of your ski parka? It started in Camp Hale as a backpack built into their coats. Same with the extra pockets on your coat and cargo pants.
• Skinning up a mountain required skins made from seal skin. Treat said before long, the Army ran short of seal skins, which come from the Pacific, which was controlled by the Japanese in 1943. So they had to think of something else. They did.
You can ski, too
Before World War II, fewer than 10,000 Americans were recreational skiers. It cost $30 to outfit one person with ski gear, and the average American’s monthly salary was $28.
At Camp Hale, more than 32,000 people learned to ski and most loved it.
When the war ended, the Army had more than 100,000 pairs of skis to dispose of. They did it for $1.50 for a pair of skis, a couple bucks for a pair of boots and a quarter for ski poles. At the same time, America’s post-war incomes were rising.
“It went from a rich man’s sport to one almost anyone could afford,” Little said.
As we all know, 10th Mountain Division veterans built the modern American ski industry.
When the war was still young, it took three letters to get into the 10th Mountain Division. Eventually the Army took volunteers, and finally drafted people.
The average World War II GI stood 5-feet, 7-inches and weighed 128 pounds. Their packs carried 94 pounds of gear — weapons, sleeping bag, tent, stove, three days of rations, 80 rounds of ammunition — a long and heavy list.
A medical battalion soldier might have his 94 pound pack, plus another 40 or 50 pounds of medical supplies. Same for the radio guys.
“You were going skiing with your twin brother on your back,” Little said.
If you fell, and everyone did, you tried not to fall on your face with that pack on your back, Treat said. You might not get up.
During filming of “Climb to Glory” about the 10th, one of their skiing actors fell and buried himself in the snow. All anyone could see was two skis sticking up out of the snow. It took four people to pull him out.
In today’s 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, gear is aluminum and magnesium metals, plastic and other lightweight materials. It has not lightened the load, Little said.
“Every pound we take off, the Army finds another piece of equipment for them to carry,” Little said.
Packs now can weigh 150 pounds, Little said. The soldiers are bigger now than they were in 1942, but …
“You’re still skiing with your twin brother strapped to you,” Little said.
“And the Army has the audacity to call them the light infantry,” Breeding said as the crowd chuckled.
Army at altitude
At one end of Camp Hale was a railroad depot where soldiers and everything else was delivered.
“Imagine you’re a soldier from flatlands California, it’s the first time you’ve seen snow, you’re given 100 pounds of gear, you’re at 10,000 feet altitude and now you have to walk 2 miles to your barracks. That’s kind of an interesting introduction to the Army,” Little said.
Food came through that railroad depot, materials, supplies … everything, up to and including the occasional trainload of girls for division dances. Leadville was officially off limits, but the siren song of bars, restaurants and potential female companionship was too much for some soldiers to resist.
Camp Hale cost more per square foot to build than any other camp. Everything had to be hauled in.
The Army had to bring 6 million cubic yards of fill before they could build the first building.
It was also the most expensive to maintain. It took 200 soldiers just to keep the coal fires lit in the 1,000 buildings so the pipes wouldn’t freeze.
In 1945, the Army decided Camp Hale was just too expensive, so it started to come down. They brought in 4,000 POWs and 1,000 soldiers from the Corps of Engineers. Between March and October of that year they leveled it. Everything was gone.
Camp Hale was home to 15,000 soldiers, 4,000 horses and mules and 250 nurses.
Soldiers came and went. The most left because of the Pando hack. Everything was heated with coal, and a cloud of coal smoke hung in the air. Soldiers developed a hacking cough, and if their lungs couldn’t function at 10,000 feet altitude, they were gone, Little said.
Frustration also drove soldiers away. Soldiers spent two years in Camp Hale, 1942 until May 1944. From the time the average GI hit basic training, he was listed as combat ready in six weeks, Little said.
“They’d say, ‘I came to this beautiful valley to learn to fight the Nazis, fight the Japs,’” Little said. “Their frustration level was pretty high. Guys left to join the Air Corps so they could get in the fight. Guys took a regular infantry position so they could get in the fight.”
Between combat replacements in Italy, about 4,000 guys, and guys leaving for medical or morale reasons, the 10th Mountain Division cycled through 32,000 soldiers, Little said.
And if you’re a snow sports enthusiast, you owe them all a little something.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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