Tales from the 10th: A military camp rises in Pando Valley
The U.S. military reconsidered the need for a specialized mountain warfare division in the early 1940s, despite an official declaration of neutrality from World War II. A combination of civilian instruction about winter survival, Minnie Dole’s recruitment efforts with the National Ski Patrol, and the news of 25,000 ill-prepared Italian troops perishing in the Albanian mountains helped to form the beginnings of the 10th Mountain Division.On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed and America entered World War II. The U.S. military, preparing to enter the war, decided to expand on the concept of mountain warfare troops after the 87th Infantry Mountain Regiment was activated at the base of Mount Rainier in Fort Lewis in Washington earlier that year. Preliminary winter training for troops around the country had been in place since 1940. Chelton Leonard, a 10th Mountain Division veteran, distinctly remembers the day Pearl Harbor was bombed: “We were skiing in the Sierra Nevadas. We came off the mountain and were told about the Japanese attack. … Immediately everyone said, ‘Well, what are you going to do? Where are you going to go?'”And, as Bob Lewis, another 10th veteran, recollects, many of these athletes and outdoorsmen didn’t want “to burn in a tank or fall out of the sky, so we decided we’d enlist in the mountain troops.” To house the number of men required to make up a full division, the military needed to find a special camp large enough to accommodate the expected troops. An area located in Pando Valley between Leadville and the future Vail was chosen. 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 their own ski hill made Camp Hale an ideal area to begin training mountain troops.After the 87th Mountain Regiment arrived at Camp Hale, Minnie Dole was once again asked to recruit mountain men to help fill the ranks. Using the National Ski Patrol, 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. However, many avid skiers did join.To Newc Eldredge, a 10th Mountain Division veteran, “[Camp Hale] sounded like Sun Valley. And I said, ‘Gosh, that’s an outfit I’d like to be in!'”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. Sources for this story included:• David Leach’s 2005 senior thesis for Middlebury College, “The Impact of the Tenth Mountain Division on the Development of a Modern Ski Industry in Colorado and Vermont: 1930-1965.”• “Fire on the Mountain,” First Run Features/Gage & Gage Productions, 1995.• Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum archives.
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