The height of courage: 10th Mountain Division veterans tell stories of winter warriors

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By Vicky Gits

 Veterans in their 80s and 90s who were members of the 10th Mountain Division at its inception came to the Evergreen Lake House on June 8 to tell stories of the amazing winter warriors who changed the world and then came home to create Colorado’s ski industry.

A full house of 250 attended the event, "A Tribute to the 10th Mountain Division." Presentations included a slide show of vintage photographs and a Tom Brokaw video, as well as a collection of memorabilia.

Six service members representing 70 years of military history told 10th Mountain tales from World War II and Camp Hale, and later Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Russ Campbell, president of the Western Business Forum of Evergreen, produced the multimedia tribute, sponsored by the Canyon Courier and Evergreen Park and Recreation District.

The age range of the vets varied from 20-something to 90-plus, but the speakers all agreed that serving in the 10th Mountain Division was a defining experience that shaped their lives forever.

Judging by the similar accounts, life in the military is physically harsh, unpredictable, dangerous and tedious in every war or era. No matter the decade, the equipment ranges from primitive to inadequate, by and large.

But the adventure, the scenery, comradeship and the victory over adversity made the hardships and risks of military life more of a joy than a detriment for the men of the 10th Mountain Division.

Earl Clark: The '40s

Earl Clark of Denver traced the beginning of his adventure as a member of the 10th Mountain Division to the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Three months later, the Russian Army invaded Finland. "It was the birth of the idea we should have military capable of winter warfare," Clark said.

The Finns' performance was so inspiring that U.S. authorities decided to create the 87th Mountain Infantry, just 22 days before Pearl Harbor. The regiment attracted enlisted members from the American Alpine Club and the Ski Patrol. The search for a training camp led to Colorado's Eagle River Valley and the opening of Camp Hale in November 1942 after just six months of construction.

Clark remembered learning to ski using the now-obsolete Arlberg system, which was developed by the Austrian army for Austrian troops. "We trained with a weight on our back, which means standing straight up over the skis and rotating left and right," he said.

Sleeping comfortably was a challenge.

"The two-man tents were awful. They were made of green silk, and our breath condensed on the inside. We preferred digging a trench in the snow and lining it with evergreen boughs," Clark said, showing photos of sagging two-man tents and skinny young soldiers wedged in snow cribs.

Incredibly, "there was not a single vehicle designed to go over snow, in those days," Clark said. Well, there was something called "the weasel," which was nothing more than an Army Jeep outfitted with a track like a mini-tank. "It was a disaster. They rolled down the ski slope."

Instead of snow machines, the soldiers had mules. In fact, 3,000 were stabled at the camp. "They played a fantastic role," Clark said.

The slog from Camp Hale to Aspen in three days was considered an extreme trip, Clark said, commenting on the outfit's safety record. "How is it we never lost a man to an avalanche?" he said.

Clark served with the 10th Mountain in Italy during World War II and was national president and founder of the Association of the 10th Mountain Division. He retired from the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co.


Dick Over, the '40s

Looking fit in his military uniform, Dick Over of Lookout Mountain still remembers the soldiers' white outfits and the white skis. The tops and pants were made of cotton and worn over woolen everything else: trousers, shirt, sweater and hat. It wasn’t much insulation for coping with temperatures of 40 below zero.

Soldiers carried everything in a rucksack that at first weighed 122 pounds. "So we learned to get rid of extra stuff," Over said. "We got it down to 60 pounds." The gear inspired the verse, "Ninety pounds of rucksack and a grubstake or two, and he'll schuss down the mountain like his daddy used to do," Over said.

Skis were made of solid hickory, heavy as logs, and came in two sizes, 7 feet and 7-and-a-half feet. The old-fashioned bindings consisted of cable, a spring and a heel sling fitting into a groove in the boot. Ski practice was held at what was then Cooper Hill and is now Ski Cooper using an old T-bar lift.

Trained as a radioman, Over carried a battery strapped to his chest and a primitive, leftover World War I radio attached to a ski pole.

The cliffs on the east side of Camp Hale reminded Over of the role of the rock-climbing soldiers in the assault on Riva Ridge of Feb. 18, 1945. "It was the rock-climbing that played a role in Italy, much more than the skiing. The fact we had so many good climbers led to the successful attack behind German lines," he said.

After returning from Italy, the 10th Mountain ironically was slated to invade the Japanese islands, and many were on transports coming back when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Over said. The orders were canceled, men returned to Fort Carson, and the unit went offline in 1945.


Bill Mounsey, the ‘50s

Longtime Evergreen resident Bill Mounsey had a storied military career that included fighting in the Solomon Islands and Austria, where he was assigned to command a mountain mechanized company defending three alpine passes from possible Russian invasion. He was in a group training in Lake Placid when the Russians invaded Finland. "I was the only man in the regiment that had seen skis," he said.

He also instructed and trained at Camp Hale in the '50s, when it was used in connection with the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command. His experiences led to a career leading backpack trips and preserving important Colorado wilderness areas.


Jim Gorman, the Korean War

When the Korean War broke out in 1951, posters sought recruits who would like to "ski all day long, climb mountains all day long and drink beer at night," said Jim Gorman of Evergreen.

Part of Camp Hale's second generation, the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command, Gorman found the pitch irresistible and joined up in 1952.

He taught climbing, downhill skiing, winter camping and survival, as well as glacier climbing in the Wind River Range in Wyoming.

The command also tested weapons systems and equipment upgrades. While testing an 81mm mortar cannon, a round exploded and sent 10 pieces of steel shrapnel into Gorman’s frame, leading to five weeks in the hospital. He also survived an airplane crash that destroyed the plane.

There were three training centers: Japan, Alaska and Germany.

"We all tried to get to Berchtesgaden (a German national park in the mountains), but we never made it," Gorman said. "We were testers and trainers, not fighters and warriors. The 10th was."

Scott Phillips, the Iraq era

The 10th Mountain Division was disbanded after the war and reactivated in 1985 at Fort Drum, N.Y., where Colorado native Scott Phillips joined the unit. Redesignated as light infantry, able to ship out in 24 hours, the 10th Mountain was the most deployed unit in the Aarmy from 1985 to 2001, Phillips said. Troops went to Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti.

As a division member, Phillips was sent to Iraq in 2003, where he conducted kill or capture missions, provided security for special forces and trained with Kurdish freedom fighters. In the summer 2004, he thought he was going to West Point but was rerouted to Bagdad, where he joined the reconnaissance and sniper teams involved in urban warfare.

Ryan Davidson, 2006 to 2010

When Ryan Davidson joined the Army in the fall of 2006, he was somewhat alarmed to be assigned to Fort Drum, the farthest base from his home state. "Then I saw the words ‘10th Mountain,’ and I thought, 'I'm going to be in good hands,' " Davidson said. "These are some awesome dudes."

In December 2008 the Army sent him to Afghanistan.

"No army has ever conquered Afghanistan, and here we were to do what everybody else had failed to do," he said.

As usual, the equipment was less than confidence-inspiring, meaning Humvees, rather than the mine-resistant vehicles that came later.

Davidson served in intelligence, then base operations and construction. He remembers securing a landing zone for touring singer Toby Keith, as well as the day a mortar exploded only 25 feet away. He gave a tribute to a colleague who enlisted as a non-citizen, became an enthusiastic soldier and tragically lost his life only four months after becoming an American.

Davidson is the son of Evergreen insurance broker Mark Davidson.

"What I learned was the 10th Mountain Division gave me an opportunity to serve with the finest women and men in the world," Ryan Davidson said in conclusion.

Contact Vicky Gits at vicky@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042.