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Telling the legendary history of the 10th Mountain Division

Starting in 1942 troops trained at Camp Hale, a thriving Army facility under the 10 Mile Range north of Leadville.

VAIL, Colo. — In the center of Vail Village, looking over the world class ski runs, is a soldier like no other. It is a statue of a skiing and climbing soldier from World War II. A member of the legendary 10th Mountain Division.

Starting in 1942 soldiers trained at Camp Hale, a thriving Army facility under the 10 Mile Range north of Leadville, home to about 15 thousand men and women.

More than 53,000 acres, Camp Hale was a small city with training grounds, ski runs, barracks, mess halls, stores, movie theaters, hospitals, and stables for livestock.

It’s where the 10th Mountain Division soldiers honed their craft and learned cold weather survival skills.

Credit: 9NEWS

It would all come in handy when they battled the Germans in Italy in 1945.

At 90-years-old, Francis Lovett remembers it like it was yesterday. He was a medic in the 10th Mountain Division and was part of those battles.

Most battles took place in the Apennine Mountains, where 10th Mountain Division troops first surprised the Germans on Riva Ridge in northern Italy.

About 700 infantry soldiers climbed 2,000 feet up sheer rock to surprise the Germans. The Germans thought the rocks face couldn’t be climbed, so it was left unguarded.

Francis says the Americans climbed at night and attacked during breakfast.

“Absolutely ruined their breakfast” Lovett says.

After taking Riva Ridge they continued to secure the top of Mount Belvedere. It took six days and was important because that’s where many of the highways were that had been used to move German troops.

The 10th Mountain Division soldiers pushed on toward the Poe Valley, making their way to Lake Garda, where they took over Mussolini’s villa.

It was May of 1945, and German Lt. General Hildenbrandt surrendered to Allied Forces.

“Literally surrendered his sword to General Hays” Lovett says. “And complimented him on his well-trained, hard fighting, slightly crazy division. And 15,000 Germans surrendered to us”.

Those battles in Italy became legend, but they came at a very high cost. The 10th Mountain Division lost 992 soldiers on the battlefields.

The name of each one is etched in granite on a Memorial at the entrance to Ski Cooper on Tennessee Pass near Camp Hale.

Each name a story, a memory, and a tribute to the soldiers like no other.

After the war, many 10th Mountain Division soldiers came back to Colorado, to the place they fell in love with years before.

Many developed the fledgling ski industry, starting ski areas in Colorado and around the country. Veterans from the 10th Mountain Division were involved with 62 ski resorts in the U.S., including Vail, Arapahoe Basin, and Aspen.

They also created ski schools, published outdoor themed magazines, and built up the climbing industry. They started the National Outdoor Leadership School, the Sierra Club, and other organizations to protect outdoor recreation and public lands.

Credit: 9NEWS

“Anybody who skis or snowboards today, they can look back at the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division and say that’s where it started, that’s where my love of the sport began," Military Historian Flint Whitlock said.  

“And for that I think the 10th Veterans will be forever remembered and thanked,” Whitlock added.

In October 2022, on a small stage set up at Camp Hale, President Joe Biden and other dignitaries spoke at a special designation ceremony. Camp Hale became the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument.

It was part of the Biden Administration’s commitment to protect and restore outdoor spaces and historical sites.

“They’re treasures and wonders that define the identity of us as a nation," President Biden said. 

It’s now up to the managers of the White River National Forest, along with interested parties to design a plan for the National Monument.

Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams believes the look of the area won’t change much, and it will remain a popular outdoor recreation area.

There will however be more of an effort to tell the story of the 10th Mountain Division Soldiers and the Native Americans who lived on the site long before it became an Army Training Camp.

And the land will continue to be used by the current 10th Mountain Division for occasional outdoor training activities. The current 10th Mountain Division is headquartered at Fort Drum in New York.

Veteran of the 10th Mountain Division, Francis Lovett, loves the new designation for Camp Hale as a National Monument. He believes that piece of land sums up the whole story of the Division.

“Just for the pleasure of being in gorgeous country that made things seem right. That beauty is everywhere, peace quiet, all the things we were fighting for – we have there.”

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