A citizen soldier looks beyond war

  • ABOUT-FACE: Ski training at Camp Hale in the Colorado high country, c.1943-44. It wasn't all swooping down powdered slopes

    William J. Bourke Jr., courtesty Denver Public Library
  • KICKIN' BACK: Members of the 10th Mountain Division

    William J. Bourke Jr., courtesy Denver Public Library

During World War II, three infantry regiments and a light artillery unit with mules came together to form a special unit trained for mountain and winter combat — the 10th Mountain Division. The training grounds, Camp Hale, took up most of an s-shaped valley at 9,200 feet in the White River National Forest in central Colorado.

I arrived at Camp Hale in the fall of 1943. I was 18 years old, a volunteer. The mountains were familiar, and the air had the same crisp fall taste that I’d grown up with in Wyoming. But everything else was different.

We volunteers, having seen National Ski Patrol literature or colorful articles in newspapers, had visions of swooping down powder-snow slopes, camouflaged in white. There were a few occasions at Camp Hale when we did just that. But there were many more marches along back roads or on the Tennessee Pass highway, when we carried the skis as inverted Vs slung from our packs. The Army way was not our way, but we adapted, learned and suffered through it, bitching and moaning.

For a while, on training missions away from barracks, we could dig holes in the snow, build fires and cut boughs to make luxurious beds. Then, orders from Division headquarters banned fires, and the forest supervisor of White River National Forest requested that we stop cutting evergreen branches. I don’t know what motivated the forester, or even if his action was wise. But it sticks in my mind because, in the midst of a desperate war, with D-Day just ahead, he dared to ask for some attention to the environment.

Winter ended, bringing a short spell of glorious mountain springtime before we were ordered to Texas for desert training. And then, in the winter of 1944-45, we saw Italy, and combat. Mountain packs and mountain jackets and mountain tents were left behind. We became basic infantry, Willie and Joe style, and fought terrible battles in the Northern Apennines, from Riva Ridge to Belvedere and on and on, one crest after another, until the breakout into the Po Valley. We left behind hundreds of dead, our own and so many others.

In the 1980s, the 10th Mountain Division Foundation, a private group founded to memorialize the division’s achievements, proposed to the Forest Service that Camp Hale be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1992, the secretary of the Interior granted that request.

That was a mistake.

When a site is listed on the Historic Register, its character must be kept consistent with a particular historic moment. Some of my comrades from the 10th interpret that to mean that Camp Hale must be "kept the way it was." But, look: The barracks are gone, the camp is a gravelly, weedy plain, showing traces of a grid of roads and suffering from drought.

We already have highways named after us, and a monument in our honor at Tennessee Pass — the long grade leading out of Camp Hale — and a high-altitude string of ski huts along 350 miles of trail between Aspen, Leadville and Vail. That’s enough.

We can be proud of our part in the worldwide struggle against fascism, and we can talk about that, if we feel like it, and if anyone wants to listen. We were a damned good infantry outfit.

That’s enough.

I remember how, on the line in the Italian Apennines, January, 1945, my platoon, having taken over a big stone farmhouse, got fed up with being cold all the time. We proposed felling a tree — something substantial, not just the twigs that kept the big kitchen fireplace glowing, heating nothing much other then the inglenook where the grandmother was privileged to sit. The head of the household agreed reluctantly, but insisted he would choose the tree. We went outside and the farmer scanned the snow-covered cropland margins and chestnut trees on nearby slopes. He pointed to a tree about 4 or 5 inches in diameter. We axed it down, cut it into lengths, and had heat for a day.

Looking back now, and then ahead, thinking about our country’s future, I see that Italian tree and the farm family in a different light: I see the stubborn resistance of a people rooted in place, looking into the distance, looking beyond war.

Now, we have a rare opportunity to do the same thing: We can give the Eagle River back to its mountains. What better way to honor the soldiers and the other millions who endured the fight? Let the river meander to build again its floodplain, adding slowly but surely more topsoil, another leaf-littered layer of life to cover the bare terrain that was Camp Hale.

This could be the 10th’s greatest contribution: Something dedicated, not to our glory, but to our country. A sign that, in the midst of terror and at the brink of a wrong-headed war, we stand for trees, rivers and floodplains.

Martin Murie, a biologist and novelist, writes from North Bangor, New York, at the edge of the Adirondacks.

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