The birth of the 10th Mtn. Division |

The birth of the 10th Mtn. Division

Special to the Daily/Colorado Ski & Snowboard MuseAmerica entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As the U.S. military decided to expand on the concept of mountain warfare troops, they needed to find an appropriately large area to house the expected three regiments. An area located in Pando Valley between Leadville and the future Vail was chosen: Camp Hale.

The popularization of skiing throughout the 1930s promoted an incredible growth of the ski industry, particularly in Colorado and Vermont. Many of the young men who fell in love with the outdoors would later join the 10th Mountain Division, as America entered World War II and a need for mountain troops began to evolve.However, the increased number of skiers and the larger crowds on mountains meant more injuries. In 1937, Charles “Minnie” Dole realized this when he broke his ankle, and subsequently founded the National Ski Patrol in order to protect and serve snow sports enthusiasts. During the winter of 1940, Dole was sitting around a fire with a few American downhill skiing pioneers, discussing the Soviet invasion of Finland, which was quickly becoming an embarrassment for the Soviet Army. Dressed in white camouflage, the Fins would outmaneuver the Soviets with stealth raids on skis, then slip back into the woods, using their winter survival skills during the harsh weather.Dole recognized that America would need outdoor mountain troops in order to protect the country. He immediately wrote to the United States War Department and offered the National Ski Patrol (NSP) services to recruit and train men to fight in the wilderness. The Army had already begun to consider this, and ordered winter training for six divisions in 1940. These divisions tested materials and clothing for “winter warfare operations” and obtained ski equipment in order to begin instruction – but only “to lay a foundation for future winter training.” The NSP acted as guides, while civilian instructors taught skiing techniques.A combination of civilian instruction on winter survival, Dole’s efforts with the NSP, and a catastrophic 25,000 Italian troops killed in the mountains of Albania after having no winter warfare preparation forced the U.S. military to reconsider the need for a specialized mountain warfare division. In 1941, three different regions with three different areas of focus emerged: winter and low-altitude mountain training and alpine training in Wisconsin, Virginia and Fort Lewis in Washington, respectively. The 87th Infantry Mountain Regiment was activated at Fort Lewis, with nearby Mount Rainier available for ski training, and the 85th and 86th regiments later joined to complete the 10th Mountain Division.The men who arrived at Fort Lewis represented an incredible “who’s who” of skiing at the time. Skiers such as John Litchfield, Bob Parker, Steve Knowlton and Larry Jump came from New England colleges, while other big skiing names, like Friedl Pfeifer and Walter Prager, were European transplants. John Jay entered the 10th as one of the top ski cinematographers of the period. Many of the men at Fort Lewis possessed a love and respect for the outdoors, and were dedicated to skiing and other wilderness activities. Paradise Lodge, located on the south side of Mount Rainier, was leased for the soldiers, and the name “Paradise Lodge” truly symbolized how many of the men felt about being at Fort Lewis. “Paradise? Right on!” There was so much snow that year that troops could ski right out of their second- and third-story windows. Bob Parker, a 10th Mountain Division veteran and an icon in the Colorado ski industry, recalls: “When I arrived and saw these great skiers walking around Fort Lewis, I thought I was in heaven.” The Oregon Journal called this first mountain regiment the “Army’s greatest sports school.”The troops at Paradise Lodge cross country skied all around Mount Rainier while carrying up to 90 pounds of gear in their rucksacks. The combination of training at high altitude and consistently carrying large amounts of gear worked the members of the 87th and the rest of the 10th into great shape – but they did face some of the toughest training in the U.S. military.Before the troops left Mount Rainier, a group of them decided to make a trip to the summit. During this 12-day expedition, with John Jay as the photographer, the men realized a few very important winter survival skills. Using the cooking stoves inside the tents produced carbon monoxide, and some of the tents were no good during snowstorms. These soldiers tested almost 30 different types of ski and mountaineering equipment, discovered how to make shelter and food in winter conditions, and reached the summit of Mount Rainier.The creation of Camp HaleOn Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed and America entered World War II. As the U.S. military decided to expand on the concept of mountain warfare troops, they needed to find an appropriately large area to house the expected three regiments of 1,000 men each, which would make up a full division. An area located in Pando Valley between Leadville and the future Vail was chosen: Camp Hale.A railway ran directly through the valley, providing easy accessibility. In 1942, construction began and seven months later, Camp Hale was finished. Surrounding cliffs, mountains and its own ski hill made Camp Hale an ideal area to begin training mountain troops.After the 87th Mountain Regiment arrived at Camp Hale, Dole was once again asked to recruit mountain men to help fill the ranks. Using the NSP, as well as ski films shot at Mount Rainier and Camp Hale by John Jay, Dole recruited almost 3,500 men. He then opened up applications to civilian outdoorsmen, mountaineers, cowboys, and woodsmen – not just skiers. In order to be considered, an applicant needed three letters of recommendation attesting to their good health and skiing, mountaineering, or outdoor skills. As Earl Clark, a member of the 10th Mountain Division, recalls: “It was the first time in the history of mankind that you needed letters of recommendation to get into the infantry.” Famous athletes and hardy mountaineers rushed to join.On July 15, 1943, the 85th, 86th and 87th Regiments became the 10th Mountain Division, the only division ever trained specifically for mountain warfare. Their ranks were comprised of roughly 300 experienced skiers and mountaineers, 6,000 younger skiers, 3,000 draftees and 3,000 non-skiing staff.For more info on Camp Hale, the 10th Mountain Division, and their role in the ski industry, visit the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum on the third level of the transportation center in Vail Village.

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