Tales from the 10th: The 10th Mountain Division is born
The popularization of skiing throughout the 1930s promoted an incredible growth of the ski industry, particularly in Colorado and Vermont. Many of the young men who fell in love with the outdoors would later join the 10th Mountain Division, as America entered World War II and a need for mountain troops began to evolve.However, the increased number of skiers and the larger crowds on mountains meant more injuries. In 1937, Charles “Minnie” Dole realized this when he broke his ankle, and subsequently founded the National Ski Patrol in order to protect and serve snow sports enthusiasts. During the winter of 1940, Dole was sitting around a fire with a few American downhill skiing pioneers, discussing the Soviet invasion of Finland, which was quickly becoming an embarrassment for the Soviet Army. Dressed in white camouflage, the Finns would outmaneuver the Soviets with stealth raids on skis, then slip back into the woods, using their winter survival skills during the harsh weather. Minnie Dole recognized that America would need outdoor mountain troops in order to protect the country. He immediately wrote to the United States War Department and offered the National Ski Patrol services to recruit and train men to fight in the wilderness. The Army had already begun to consider this, and ordered winter training for six divisions in 1940. These divisions tested materials and clothing for “winter warfare operations” and obtained ski equipment in order to begin instruction – but only “to lay a foundation for future winter training.” The National Ski Patrol acted as guides, while civilian instructors taught skiing techniques.
A combination of civilian instruction on winter survival, Minnie Dole’s efforts with the National Ski Patrol, and a catastrophic 25,000 Italian troops killed in the mountains of Albania after having no winter warfare preparation forced the U.S. military reconsidered the need for a specialized mountain warfare division. In 1941, three different regions with three different areas of focus emerged: winter and low-altitude mountain training and alpine training in Wisconsin, Virginia, and Fort Lewis in Washington, respectively. The 87th Infantry Mountain Regiment was activated at Fort Lewis, with nearby Mount Rainier available for ski training, and the 85th and 86th regiments later joined to complete the 10th Mountain Division. The men who arrived at Fort Lewis represented an incredible who’s who of skiing at the time. Skiers such as John Litchfield, Bob Parker, Steve Knowlton and Larry Jump came from New England colleges, while other big skiing names, like Friedl Pfeifer and Walter Prager, were European transplants. John Jay entered the 10th as one of the top ski cinematographers of the period. Many of the men at Fort Lewis possessed a love and respect for the outdoors, and were dedicated to skiing and other wilderness activities.Paradise Lodge, located on the south side of Mount Rainier, was leased for the soldiers, and the name “Paradise Lodge” truly symbolized how many of the men felt about being at Fort Lewis. “Paradise? Right on!”There was so much snow that year that troops could ski right out of their second and third story windows. Bob Parker, a 10th Mountain Division veteran and an icon in the Colorado ski industry, recalls, “When I arrived and saw these great skiers walking around Fort Lewis, I thought I was in heaven.” The Oregon Journal called this first mountain regiment the “Army’s greatest sports school.”
The troops at Paradise Lodge cross country skied all around Mount Rainier while carrying up to 90 pounds of gear in their rucksacks. The combination of training at high altitude and consistently carrying large amounts of gear worked the members of the 87th and the rest of the 10th into great shape – but they did face some of the toughest training in the U.S. military.Before the troops left Mount Rainier, a group of them decided to make a trip to the summit. During this 12-day expedition, with John Jay as the photographer, the men realized a few very important winter survival skills. Using the cooking stoves inside the tents produced carbon monoxide, and some of the tents were no good during snowstorms. These soldiers tested almost 30 different types of ski and mountaineering equipment, discovered how to make shelter and food in winter conditions, and reached the summit of Mount Rainier.As the U.S. military decided to expand on the concept of mountain warfare troops, they needed to find an appropriately large area to house the expected three regiments of 1,000 men each, which would make up a full division. An area located in Pando Valley, between Leadville and the future Vail, was chosen: Camp Hale. Sources for this article 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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