Most people celebrate Memorial Day as the unofficial start of summer. Swimming, boating, picnics, you get the picture. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But let’s not lose sight of the holiday’s original intent: to commemorate those who lost their lives fighting for our country. Those like the men of the Tenth Mountain Division, who served in combat for only four months during World War II, yet who suffered the highest casualty rate of any US division in the Mediterranean.
Started as an experiment to train soldiers to fight in the most difficult, mountainous terrain in Europe, the Tenth trained at Camp Hale, Colorado, 17 miles north of Leadville. The camp, which lay at 9,300 feet, had four trails and the longest T-Bar in the country. Troops were taught to ski, snowshoe, and climb with packs and rifles as well as survive in the most brutal winter conditions. They lived in the mountains for weeks at a time, working in altitudes up to 13,500 feet, in five to six feet of snow and in temperatures that dropped to 20 degrees below zero at night.
All this well before the advent of today’s technical fabrics.
After training for two years, the Tenth participated in a series of actions that played a vital role in the liberation of northern Italy. The Division breached the supposedly impregnable Gothic Line in the Apennines and secured the Po River Valley. By the time the Germans surrendered in May 1945, 992 ski troopers had lost their lives and 4,000 were wounded.
After the war, veterans of the Tenth became the backbone of the postwar American ski boom. Monty Atwater, for example, went to Alta, Utah, where he established the first explosive avalanche control system. Friedl Pfeifer designed Aspen Mountain, started Aspen’s ski school, and ran the first racing circuit. And Pete Seibert became a member of the 1948 Olympic team and founded Vail.
The sacrifices and contributions of the men of the Tenth can not be denied. So this Memorial Day week, while you’re swimming and picnicing and welcoming in the summer season, take a minute to salute the Tenth, along with the many other veterans of our Armed Forces. Remember, they fought for you.
* This post originaly appeared in May, 2010. But some things are worth re-running.