Recounting the price paid for freedom
TENNESSEE PASS – It was here in 1943, where the 11,000-foot peaks and ridges divide the country into east and west, that the men of the 10th Mountain Division first came together.
Time, and the perils of combat in the Aleutian Islands and Italy, separated many of the “Soldiers on Skis.” Nine hundred ninety men from the infantry, artillery and other units that made up the division did not come home from World War II.
For them, an estimated 200 of their comrades, descendants and well-wishers gathered at the 10th Mountain Division Memorial on Tennessee Pass Monday for the group’s 44th annual Memorial Day Ceremony.
To retired Lt. Col. Earl Clark, who served with the division’s 87th Mountain Infantry, the ceremony harkened back to another day, one he said he will never forget. After exhausting assaults pushing north toward the Po River in Italy and neutralizing five divisions of German combat units, Clark said he and other troops were marching to Trento below Brenner Pass when they received word the war was over. It was May 2, 1945, Clark said, and it was the kind of news that made him pause and look at his hands.
“I never even scratched a knuckle,” said Clark, who grew up skiing in Wisconsin and learned mountaineering in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming after graduating high school. “What do I remember? Surviving. Many of our dear friends were lost. For some reason, I was spared.”
The memorial service, like the formation of the unit it honors, drew attendees from across the country and around the world. Veterans of the 10th and their families came from Missouri, Louisiana, Illinois and even Canada. A color guard of soldiers from the current 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, New York, and from the 10th Special Forces Group based at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs served as flag bearers. Military historian David J. Little, with his 10th Mountain Division Living History Display Group, part of a national organization that stages reenactments, tours and parades, served as master of ceremonies. The event also drew four of Her Majesty’s Royal Marine Commandos, the British equivalent of the American mountain soldiers.
They all seemed to share a common love of the mountains, winter and serving their country. It was these things that led Edwards’ Erwin Bachrach to join the Ski Troops. Born in Vienna, Austria, Bachrach said he earned his ski legs at school in Czechoslovakia. After emigrating to the United States, he joined the Army and completed basic training in Texas. But he wanted to join the new unit of mountaineering soldiers, so he got the required three letters of reference and applied. The next he knew, he was arriving at Pando in Camp Hale outside Leadville.
“They were looking for skiers,” Bachrach said. “The training was hard, but I loved it. I’ve skied more than 100,000 miles in the last 65 years. I’d still be skiing if it wasn’t for my knee.”
Bachrach pointed to three names on the 12-foot-tall, 14-ton granite monument that honors the 10th Mountain Division, and said he makes the pilgrimage to the pass in honor of them. He joined other veterans and families in laying memorial wreaths at the monument’s base. Bachrach said the wreaths, the monument and the holiday should serve as a reminder to America’s younger generations.
“It takes a great sacrifice to stay free,” he said. “Today, there is a great danger looming. A lot of other countries hate us for the freedom we enjoy. We must be prepared to make that sacrifice again.”
The ceremony was a somber affair. Appropriately enough, flakes of snow drifted in throughout the processions and speeches, beginning just as the bleachers filled and soldiers came to attention. The Lake County High School Band played the Star Spangled Banner and Taps, and many spectators were visibly moved by the show.
This Memorial Day wasn’t limited to wistful remembrances, but also included celebrations of camaraderie. The veterans of the 10th Mountain Division are a close bunch. While their most famous comrades are known for starting ski areas such as Vail, many went on to notable professions, politics and commerce. Most still are active in the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division, the 10th Mountain Division Foundation and organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars.
It’s the camaraderie that binds them, said John Engle. Engle joined other members of the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment’s L Company for a reunion in conjunction with the Memorial Day ceremony. It’s a friendship akin to family, Engle said, and “we’ve been corresponding for the past 57 years.”
“This guy right here,” said Engle, pointing to fellow L Company soldier Art Delaney. “That’s my foxhole buddy.”
The men and their associations organize various projects to keep the traditions and history of the unit alive. They raised funds to erect the Tennessee Pass memorial in 1959. They used the excess money to create a scholarship fund for children and grandchildren of 10th Mountain veterans. The groups take reunion trips to battlefied sites in Italy and Kiska Island in the Aleutians.
“Our Rocky Mountain chapter of the association still meets once a month,” said Neil Yorker, a Denver native who, along with his brother, Lloyd, served in L Company. “We’re all brothers.”
The ceremony closed with a fly-over by four F-16 fighter jets and, as if on cue, the sun returned and the snow was gone. The 10th Mountain Division veterans retired to their old training grounds around Ski Cooper for a picnic, to reminisce and hear more about how their memories will live on: A military history museum with a centerpiece dedicated to the division is scheduled to open in Denver next year.
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