A solemn anniversary
Waist-deep snow covered the ground last Friday much as it must have some 60 years ago, when raw recruits steeled bodies and minds for alpine warfare in Europe and the Aleutian Islands.On March 7, the afternoon was perfect, peaceful as nearly 100 people bowed their heads at the 10th Mountain Division memorial at the entrance to Ski Cooper. They came not only to remember those young men who never returned, but in thankfulness for what they bought for all of us those many years ago."It is with gratitude we are here today, gratitude that we are able to live in this marvelous, marvelous free world that they were willing to fight for, to die for," began 10th Mountain Division veteran Earl Clark in the opening prayer of the 49th 10th Mountain Division memorial service.The service has been held every year since 1954 for the 992 "fallen heroes" who were killed fighting with the famed 10th during World War II in the Italian Theater of the Apennines and on the Island of Kiska. They were there only six months, but this elite unit dramatically captured key holdouts, such as Riva Ridge, and helped sway the outcome of the war in the region. On May 30, 1959, a permanent memorial was erected at the entrance to Ski Cooper, etched with each of the 992 soldiers’ names.Each year, 100 of those 992 names are read at the memorial. And on Friday, Hugh Evans, the executive vice president of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division, read 100 more of those names. The group’s "poet laureate," Earling Olmland, also read one of his moving war poems."You and I have come here again to share our mountain history," Olmland read. "we came to fight in Italy and then were bloodied in the war"Friday, veterans and family members came from around the country to "Cooper Hill," now Ski Cooper, and Camp Hale, just 7 miles to the south, where the 10th Mountain Division trained from 1942 to 1944. There are 21 chapters of the 10th across the United States, today, including the New England chapter, which has been attending the Camp Hale memorials for 27 years."This is where many of our deep close friendships were formed," explained Newc Eldredge, a 10th veteran of L Company of the 85th regiment who came with the New England chapter."Number one: we’re all skiers. It’s tradition," said Mac Mackenzie, the second president of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division, who organized this year’s New England trip. "It’s a second home to us."The Iraq parallelAs they returned this year to pay their respects to their fallen comrades, the possibility of war again loomed large. But today they hold a seasoned perspective of the triumphs and costs of war.Bob Parker, a former 10th Mountain Division member and one of Vail Associate’s first executives and marketing managers, said that his regiment alone experienced a 49 percent casualty rate during its brief, but fierce four months of combat. There were other regiments, he added, which had 100 percent casualties.Today, Parker questions whether the cost of war is worth it in the case of Iraq."I think (the war) is unnecessary and the problems with Iraq can be solved without war," said Parker, who now lives in Santa Fe. "What’s the cost difference between talking and having the war? In dollars, in lives, it’s huge."As Olmland read that day, "We never stopped to count the loss, we never really knew the cost"One WWII veteran on hand fought on the opposite side of the battlefield, but he strongly agrees."Next time, let the politicians who make the war, fight the war," said the German gent, who asked not to be named. Now an American citizen, and friends with several 10th Mountain vets, he fought with the German army’s equivalent of the mountain division in WWII, the Evste-Gebirgsjager (First Mountain Hunters), on the Russian front. "Today, when we meet each other, we have an understanding. We’ve lived through it."Parker is particularly concerned about what happens after a war with Iraq. "If we go to Iraq, we will end up occupying Iraq," he said. "Do you know how long U.S. troops were in Europe after World War II ended? Until 1955. What difference does it make whether they talk or start war; we’ll be there 10 years or more anyway."Parker climbed Riva Ridge with the modern 10th Mountain Division in 1995. "They are great young men. I just hope they can work in the Middle East without combat.""I lived through the war over in Europe. I don’t think it was necessary," agreed Johanna Swedhin the wife of 10th Mountain veteran Lloyd Swedhin. "Diplomacy doesn’t kill people."However Hugh Evans, who served in the 10th Mountain Division’s Company C in the 85th regiment, and who serves as the executive vice president of the 10th Mountain Division Foundation, offered a chilling parallel between the Iraq situation today and the German problem long ago."Going into WWII attitudes were almost the same as today," he said. "Many people, including myself, thought Hitler would be overcome by negotiations." Hitler, he pointed out, was not abiding by the League of Nations then just like Saddam Hussein is not following the United Nations’ directives, now. The American public then was not strongly behind President Roosevelt and any push toward war six decades ago, "until the Japanese woke us with Pearl Harbor. I think we have to trust our leaders, not wait for a wake-up call.""As soldiers, most of us totally hope the pure political posturing will go down the tube," said Clark, the first president and lifetime chair of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division and current president of the 10th Mountain Division Foundation (the non-profit entity). He pointed out that many of the children of 10th Mountain vets are now the officers in the armed forces, and their children are the enlisted men and women who will serve on the front line of war."The American people should back our military. We should support them and back them totally."No doubt each of the 25 Rocky Mountain veterans and the 40 or so New England veterans there last Friday must have hoped their sacrifice, and the ultimate sacrifice of their 992 comrades 60 years ago, would have brought an enduring peace. Yet they are realistic."Human beings, being what they are, can develop tragedy on the international scene," said Clark. "Tragedies are often solved by military action. It’s been that way since the dawning of the history of man. It isn’t new."Clark concluded Friday’s ceremony with a prayer and another poem, addressed to God, which is as poignant today as ever. "Please take care of them when they pass your way, the price of freedom they have paid."