Eagle County: Camp Hale’s Tibetan connection
Ryan Summerlin April 9, 2008
CAMP HALE, Colorado ” To most people, Camp Hale is best known as the primary training site of the famous 10th Mountain Division, an elite corps of soldiers specializing in mountain warfare.
The 10th Mountain Division was responsible for enabling the 85th and 87th regiments to move on Mount Belvedere and the adjacent peaks, Mounts Gorgolesco and della Torraccia in Italy on Feb. 18, 1945.
Then, in March, the 10th Mountain Division launched an assault on German troops on Mount della Spe. In April they engaged the Germans once again at Tole. These victories, including a crucial defeat of the Germans on Riva Ridge, enabled the Allies to advance on the Po Valley where the German army finally surrendered on May 2, 1945.
During the war in Italy the 10th Mountain Division suffered nearly 5,000 casualties, including 978 soldiers that were killed in action.
Camp Hale, roughly miles 25 south of of Vail, was first selected as a training site as the War Department and the military began to focus on military preparedness for winter warfare. Some troops had seen limited training at Fort Snelling, Minn., but without a great deal of specialization.
In 1940, the American Alpine Club urged the War Department to begin more substantial winter training and initiated the search for a more appropriate training site. Minot Dole, the chair of the National Ski Patrol Association further encouraged such training.
In 1941 the government created the Mountain Winter Warfare Board to design and test winter equipment. Fort Lewis, Wash., was the first home of the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment that saw extensive training on the slopes of Mt. Rainier.
Still, the Army was looking for a more suitable location for winter and mountain training. The contract to construct Camp Hale was awarded in April of 1942 with a projected completion date of November 1942.
Ideal weather conditions and topography made Camp Hale a perfect place to train troops for high mountain warfare in adverse conditions. These are the same conditions that eventually led the CIA and Army to select Camp Hale for the training of Tibetan resistance fighters 16 years later after Camp Hale had already been decommissioned and effectively demolished.
During its peak, Camp Hale was the proud home of approximately 14,000 soldiers and 3,900 animals. In 1958 it became the covert training ground for scores of Tibetan Khampas (resistance fighters from Kham in eastern Tibet).
At that time, the CIA made it known that Camp Hale was off-limits to all civilian personnel and that, for security purposes, there was “atomic-related research” taking place in and around Camp Hale.
Prior to World War II, few countries aroused less interest at the U.S. State Department than Tibet. In fact, at the time that the training of the Tibetans was about to begin at Camp Hale in 1958, the CIA director, Allen Dulles, needed help finding Tibet on a map. One account has him pointing at the country of Hungary on a map of Europe and asking if that was Tibet.
In the early 1940s Tibet was still an enormous expanse of neutrality lodged between India, China and the Soviet Union. Tibet’s borders were all but impenetrable and it’s inhabitants said to live in willful isolation.
However, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U. S. suddenly had a great deal of interest in all of Asia, including Tibet, and the placed new importance on creating alliances that would facilitate the movement of war supplies from India to China. The question at the time was, with whom do we strike an alliance in order to gain access to Tibetan soil?
The 14th Dalai Lama, while considered to be the reigning “god-king” of Tibet was only six years old and China had long maintained that it had ultimate control over Tibet’s foreign relations while allowing it internal sovereignty.
The U. S. approached Chiang Kai-shek, the president of the Republic of China, who was willing to help the Americans in their fight against the Japanese while he was engaged in his own battles with Mao Tse-tung’s communist army. While Chiang Kai-shek was assuring the U. S. that he would help facilitate the movement of military supplies through Tibet, the Tibetan government was refuting China’s claim that it had the authority to initiate such help.
Finally, to clear up the confusion, the U.S. sent a two-man envoy to Tibet to meet with the Dalai Lama and his cabinet. In December of 1942 the Americans arrived in Lhasa and easily negotiated with the Tibetans a deal that allowed the U. S. to transport supplies through southern Tibet.
The Tibetans believed at the time that they were receiving in return the acknowledgment by the U. S. of Tibet’s independence from China when, in fact, the U.S. envoy to Tibet had no such authority.
By 1949, Mao Tse-tung had defeated Chiang Kai-shek and was now turning his attention to Tibet. Ignoring Tibet’s claim of independence, Mao’s army invaded from the east “on behalf of the people of Tibet” with the pretense that it was liberating Tibetans from feudal governance.
By 1956, the people’s Liberation Army had a tenuous hold on the eastern provinces of Kham, Amdo and Golok. Chinese-imposed land reforms in eastern Tibet attempted to replace the Tibetans’ most important agricultural staple, barley, with wheat. The experiment failed miserably with the result being that 500,000 or more Tibetans starved to death in what turned out to be Tibet’s first ever recorded famine.
Mao began the systematic destruction of everything Buddhist in eastern Tibet, including monasteries and the normal daily activities that were and still are an integral part of daily life. Monks and nuns were humiliated, tortured and executed.
Finally, the Khampas had had enough and initiated a guerilla war that soon spread to the Amdo and Golok regions. In 1959 the Chinese sought to check the insurrection by bringing in hundreds of thousands of troops. Mao made it abundantly clear that any claims by Tibet of autonomy were invalid and that the Chinese were now in complete control of Tibet and its affairs.
All the while the U.S., like most other countries of the world, continued to be impervious to the plight of the Tibetans despite the claims by a succession of American presidents that the U.S. would stand up for human rights where violations occurred.
Clearly, economic affiliations with China preclude the question of human rights to a large degree. Any foreign nationals wishing to do business with China find out quickly that the question of Chinese occupation of Tibet is strictly off-limits.
In 1956 a group of Khampa traders from Lhasa formed an underground organization that sent a small group of representatives to India to seek help from other countries.
There they met with the Dalai Lama’s older brother, Gyalo Thondup who had ties to the U. S. and who introduced the Americans to the struggle of the Tibetans against the communist Chinese.
This coincided with an ever increasing fear inside the U.S. of the spread of Communism throughout Europe. The U.S. now saw the opportunity to covertly do what it could to help stop or, at least, slow the spread Communism throughout Asia.
The CIA was assigned the task of assisting the Tibetans and the name “ST Circus” was given to the project that would, by many in the CIA, be deemed one of the CIA’s most successful missions ever.
Bob Winsett is a freelance photographer residing in Frisco, Colorado. Over the years he has mountain biked, hiked and skied in the Camp Hale area and first heard about the use of Camp Hale for the training of Tibetans during a presentation at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival in 1999.