History lives: 43rd annual 10th Mountain Division Memorial Ceremony celebrates heroes, history | VailDaily.com

History lives: 43rd annual 10th Mountain Division Memorial Ceremony celebrates heroes, history

SKI COOPER — Every one of them is a story to be told, or a history lesson, and always a reminder to remain grateful.

Vail's Hugh Evans, 94, trained with the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale in 1943 and fought with the 10th through Europe. At the end of the 43rd annual 10th Mountain Division Memorial Ceremony on Friday, March 2, at Tennessee pass and Ski Cooper, Evans worked his way down a line of 89 fresh-faced Colorado National Guard members, shaking hands, smiling and wishing them well … a juxtaposition of stories recalled and stories yet to be told.

World War II veteran John Tripp, 98, was at Ski Cooper on Friday, March 2, smiling at pictures people showed him, answering questions and displaying his remarkable memory.

The gang's not all here

Friday's memorial ceremony at Ski Cooper began with their largest ski-down ever.

At the bottom, Evans, Tripp and others were mobbed by star-struck people asking them to pose for autographs and pictures.

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"What's it like?" people asked about the runs at Ski Cooper.

"It's groomed and we don't have to do it. When we were skiing we had to fill the sitzmarks," Evans laughed. (A "sitzmark" is the German/Austrian term for the hole or depression you make in the snow when you fall.)

"You were a pretty good skier back then!" someone asked Evans.

"Well, I got down the hill," Evans replied. "Skiing was very different, on wooden skies 7-feet 6-inches long, rope bindings and ungroomed slopes, and carrying a 90-pound pack."

"Were you ever cold?"

"Sleeping out in 40-below zero is a little cool," Evans laughed.

After fighting through northern Italy, Evans and other survivors returned from Italy to go fight in Japan. While they were headed back to America, the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb, Aug. 6, 1945, and the war ended. Their troop ship pulled into New York Harbor to the hero's welcome they deserved. Fireboats shot streams of water into the air, sailboats were everywhere. Soldiers looked over the sides, anxious to join the party.

"They were playing 'Hail Hail, The Gang's All Here.' We said, 'That's not true. They should not be playing that," Evans said.

Because, or course, their gang was not all there.

Yes, soldiers do too cry

Every time members and others of the 10th get together, someone reads "Soldiers Don't Cry," first published in the April 14, 1945, edition of The Blizzard, the 10th Mountain Division's newspaper. Each time they remember, and each time they cry, recalling so many who did not live to come home.

Alan wrote poetry before the war killed him, and the guy who created comic strips in the camp newspaper made everyone laugh, before the war killed him.

There was the guy who snatched up a hand grenade that a rookie dropped on a farmhouse floor and the pin fell out. He was about to throw it out a window, but another unit was just outside, so he ran across the room, hung his arm outside another window and the grenade blew his arm off. He told his wife he lost his arm in a training accident because the Army, in its less-than-infinite wisdom, categorized it as that.

Brutal simplicity

War is in its simplicity.

The enemy occupied the high ground. The 10th was ordered to take the high ground.

The enemy was willing to kill to keep it. The 10th was willing to kill to take it.

People died. It's how wars are fought. In 141 days of combat, the 10th Mountain Division saw 992 men killed and 4,100 wounded in some of the war's toughest fighting.

Many of these heroes marched straight from their high school commencement line to the front line. Some 10th soldiers were with the division from the beginning, when they were an Army experiment. Others were replacements who began fighting at Mount Belvedere and continued throughout Italy's northern Alps, one mountain to the next. They liked to say they had a worm's-eye view of Italy.

Recruits included Paul and Ralph Townsend, skiing brothers from the University of New Hampshire, their teammate Steve Knowlton, Glenn Stanley, Aspen founder Friedl Pfeifer, Arapahoe Basin founder Larry Jump and Torger Dahl Tokle, holder of the world's ski jump record at the time, 289 feet.

The flag at the 10th Mountain Division Memorial flew at half-staff atop Tennessee Pass during the Friday afternoon ceremony, rustling in the cool breeze that blew. As the crowd hummed "Taps," the flag was raised to full staff. People in the crowd called out the names of those lost to wars.

In 1945, the 10th Mountain Division distinguished itself by defeating Axis forces while scrambling up mountain peaks at night through the Italian Apennines, living up to its motto: "Vires montesque vincimus,"or "Strength to conquer mountains and men."

Yes, soldiers cry, and on Friday some were strong enough to.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.