TELLURIDE – With a main street parade that turns out the whole town, sonic jets booming over our box canyon, and a fireworks display that threatens to outshine those that soar through the skies over the nation’s major cities, it’s tough to beat Telluride for Fourth of July festivities.
But this Independence Day Telluride may even outdo itself when six special guests, veterans of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, lead the procession down Colorado Avenue from their perches on a Telluride Fire Department truck, reminding us of their heroism, ingenuity and self-sacrifice.
“We want to convey how special it is to have these guys in town,” said longtime filmmaker and Telluride resident Beth Gage who, with husband George Gage, won Mountainfilm’s Grand Prize for their documentary Fire On the Mountain that profiled the division’s wartime and civilian accomplishments when it premiered here in 1995.
“To me they are such heroes,” she said.
The 10th Mountain Division veterans: Hugh Evans, Dick Kaufman, John Tripp, Bill Hays, and Bob Thompson, all of Colorado, and poster artist Jacques Parker, who chronicled the mens’ saga in combat drawings and paintings, of New York, will be joined by a present day successor, “Boots” Dunlap, and come to town at the invitation of Mountainfilm in conjunction with its July 6 fundraiser at the Sheridan Opera House.
An encore performance of the Gage’s acclaimed film will be screened, followed by a Q&A with the soldiers.
“I think it’s going to be a very moving experience,” said Mountainfilm Executive Director Peter Kenworthy.
The U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division was an elite group of expert outdoorsmen who are remembered not only for their heroic efforts in Italy during World War II, but whose postwar endeavors are largely responsible for the growth of the modern ski industry and had dramatic and positive impacts on the Colorado landscape, recreation and environmentalism.
“They really led the way for environmental consciousness and conservation consciousness,” said Beth Gage.
After learning in 1939 that a unit of Finnish soldiers on skis had been able to push back two Russian tank units after the Soviet Union invaded Finland that year, Charles Minot Dole, the president of the National Ski Patrol, began lobbying the U.S. government to train soldiers in mountain and wintertime warfare.
Dole lobbied the government for months, eventually gaining an audience with the Army Chief of Staff in 1940, but it wasn’t until Dec. 8, 1941, the day following the attack on Pearl Harbor, that 87th Mountain Infantry Battalion, which eventually joined with two other regiments to become the10th Mountain Division, was formed.
The NSP recruited for the 87th, and later the Division, which included a mix of America’s best pre-war skiers and mountaineers, untrained college boys, and skilled European athletes fleeing Hitler.
They became the country’s first and only alpine military unit.
“To get in you had to have three letters of recommendation, said Beth Gage. “You didn’t just sign up, basically you had to be an outdoorsman, skier, rock climber…,” she said.
The 10th Mountain Division didn’t see combat until late in the war when it was deployed to Italy in late January 1945.
In February 1945 they made a nighttime, 1,500-verticle-assent of Italy’s “unclimbable” Riva Ridge where they ambushed unsuspecting German soldiers at the top in an offensive that paved the way for the liberation of Italy two months later.
The men of the 10th Mountain Division didn’t view the German soldiers they were fighting as Nazis so much as “mountain men just like themselves” who had been recruited to war, said George Gage.
“Their heart was in the mountains, not the war,” Beth Gage said of the enemy.
With their hearts also in the mountains, following the war the 10th Mountain Division returned home to the familiar
“They just started doing what they had been doing before the war,” said Beth Gage.
Ex-soldiers founded the ski resorts at Aspen, Vail, Sugarbush, Crystal Mountain, and Whiteface Mountain among many others, and played integral parts in the outdoor education and conservation movements.
David R. Brower became an executive director of the Sierra Club, Paul Petzoldt founded the National Outdoor Leadership School and Ernest “Tap” Tapley started the country’s first Outward Bound school in 1961, among the Division’s many post-war accomplishments.
The community can meet these special guests between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on July 4 and 5 at 137 W. Colorado Ave. where Jacques Parker will sign his famous 1943 ski trooper poster and silent auction items can be bid upon.
A reception for the 10th Mountain Division soldiers takes place at the Sheridan Opera House starting at 6 p.m. on July 6 followed by a screening of Fire on the Mountain at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50.
For tickets or more information, visit www.mountainfilm.org or call Jenny at 970/728-4123 x 11.