Pete arrives at Camp Hale
My destination was Camp Hale, an instant city of more than 800 buildings constructed by the army in the valley of the Eagle River. This was the training site of the newly formed 10th Mountain Division of skiing soldiers.
As Pearl Harbor had been bombed in December 1941 and the war effort was building, I had assumed I would soon be going into the service. But the draft board had given me a school deferment, and I spent a year taking a college prep course at New Hampton School in New Hampshire. After I graduated in 1943, I expected my army draft notice to be issued any day.
I initially preferred the Navy Air Corps, so I got the application papers from a navy recruiter and filled them out. But when I went to return them, a line of applicants snaked all the way around the building. So I went to see the army recruiter, instead, and quickly volunteered for the 10th Mountain Division. With the help of the National Ski Patrol, the army was looking for good skiers. I was chosen for the division and went directly to Camp Hale.
The camp consisted of row upon row of freshly constructed living quarters for some 1,600 officers and men, plus stables for 4,000 horses and mules. Black smoke billowed over the countryside from the coal-burning stoves and furnaces used to heat the hundreds of barracks. This was made even denser by the clouds of smoke that belched from the trains that hauled men and materials in and out of Camp Hale every day. A constant smog hung low over the valley, and soot often covered every surface, including rifles, tents, and uniforms. This pervasive air pollution caused respiratory ailments among thousands of 10th Mountain recruits – everything from the common cold to fatal pneumonia.
There were other hazards at Camp Hale, including the world’s first snowcats, called Weasels, which had been specially designed for maneuvering in snowy mountain terrain. But they were also dangerously top-heavy, and dozens of soldiers suffered serious injuries when the cats turned over without warning.
Frostbite was also a problem. A huge training maneuver in March 1944, called the D-series, required 9,000 of us to hike into the wilds to altitudes of 13,000 feet and undertake three continuous weeks of war games.
At one point a horrendous blizzard hit and the snowdrifts rose to 15 feet, making it impossible for mules or horses to move. Temperatures fell to minus 35 degrees, radio batteries froze and at least a hundred men were evacuated in a single day with frostbite. We would later joke that combat against the Germans was almost as bad as D-series training.
he following is the 16th installment of the Vail Daily’s serialization of “Vail: Triumph of a Dream” by Vail Pioneer and Founder Pete Seibert. This excerpt comes from Chapter Four, entitled “The War Years.” The book can be purchased at the Colorado Ski Museum, as well as bookstores and other retailers throughout the Vail Valley.