Families of locals who served at Camp Hale during WWII hope to see it become a national monument
If longtime Steamboat Springs resident Nancy Kramer gets her wish, the sound of men singing “90 Pounds of Rucksack” in harmony will fill the air between Red Cliff and Leadville in the Eagle River Valley this Wednesday, Oct. 12.
“I started to kind of conceptualize what I would say if I was asked to speak. Most of the World War II veterans have passed, but some of the national guard members here and some of the modern camps know the song ‘90 Pounds of Rucksack,’” said Kramer, president of the 10th Mountain Division Foundation. “If I had my wish, we could stop and listen, and you could hear them singing it — it would just be this resounding chorus.”
The past several years, Kramer and the foundation have been pushing to make Camp Hale a national monument. President Joe Biden is expected to make his way to Colorado for a ceremony recognizing the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument on Wednesday.
For descendants in Steamboat Springs such as Kramer, the event is not only a chance to preserve Camp Hale for future generations; it’s an opportunity to honor the men who trained there before heading to Italy where their efforts in the Apennine Mountains helped bring an end to the war.
Kramer reported she received a formal invitation, and she is confident the site will be declared a national moment. If that happens, she said the group will be able to move forward with plans to showcase the site and educate the public about the role it played in the war.
“A lot of it is based in our interpretive plan. It’s totally conceptual, but (we are) looking at those elements, and what are the cool things that we can do to tell the stories and honor these men and what they did,” Kramer said. “It’s just as awesome.”
Today, Kramer understands just how important Camp Hale was to her father, William “Rope Sole” Robertson, who served as an Army medic in the 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, but rarely shared his stories about that time of his life. Still, she remembers taking a trip to visit the historical marker for the 10th Mountain Division at the entrance of Ski Cooper, at the summit of Tennessee Pass near Leadville, with her mom, and father several years ago.
“We got up to Leadville, and I think we went into the Legendary Silver Dollar Saloon and visited the museum there,” Kramer said. “Then we drove down the highway — my mom and I just as merry as could be, gabbing and doing our normal thing, and dad was just sitting in the back seemingly along for the ride.”
When they finally arrived at the monument, the importance of the place hit home.
“My dad could not get out of the car fast enough,” Kramer recalled. “All of the sudden, he starts touching these names. They were not just names carved into the granite, but the names of his buddies who were killed. … This was a far bigger deal than we would ever have thought, and it was stunning because he just didn’t talk about it.”
David Wren’s father, Gordan Wren, was a part of the 10th Mountain Division, preparing soldiers for winter combat at 10,000 feet.
“It involved a lot to get that number of people trained in mountaineering, and skiing, and winter warfare and all the things they had to know,” David said. “My father would be absolutely very thrilled to see that there was some recognition of a really substantial nature of what was accomplished at Camp Hale in total secrecy during the war effort.”
Gordan taught skiing at the Alta Ski Area in Utah before joining the 10th Mountain Division. David said his father was making good money as a private teacher instructing troops in the basics of skiing when he was called to serve, but he never resented going to Camp Hale or training those soldiers for what they would face.
“I don’t know if anybody matched the specs as perfectly as he did, because they were looking for skiers, rock climbers, mountaineers, and mule skinner’s, and he had all those skills in spades,” David said of his father. “Basically, he was assigned as an instructor during the war, and he was attached to British troops, and he taught them mountain survival, winter warfare, mountaineering and skiing because he was one of the best trainers with all of his skill sets.”
After the war, Gordan, who was a competitive Alpine and Nordic skier before the war, resumed where he left off.
“He tried out for the 1948 Olympic team, and he won the slalom tryouts, so basically he made every ski squad in Alpine, Nordic combined, cross country and jumping,” David said. “But when he got to the Olympics, he chose jumping because you couldn’t do both Nordic and Alpine.”
Gordan also managed ski areas in Loveland, Steamboat and Jackson Hole, and was a director and coach of a junior ski program in Reno, Nevada. He is also a member of the U.S. National and Colorado Ski Halls of Fame.
His son said Gordan was proud of what his fellow soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division accomplished in the war and his role in that.
“Those guys were also very quick to give each other credit,” David said. “When my father did talk about it, one thing that stands out it is the fact that there were guys from Mississippi and Alabama that had never seen a mountain before and that had never come close to snow before learning to go up on their skis and bivouac at 11,000 feet in the middle of winter.”
These men took the skills they learned in the Colorado Rockies to fight major battles in Europe along the formidable Gothic Line in places like Riva Ridge and Monte Belvedere.
“Just the fact that a lot of people put out very heroic efforts, and they were not raised anywhere around mountaineering, or skiing, or some of the other things that they had to do, was just incredible,” David said. “The spirit they had to sign up for that unit and to get through it, and not only survive, but excel — it wasn’t just mountain guys, there were other guys that volunteered and did extremely well.”
One of those guys was Charles Hogue, who was living in Meadville, Pennsylvania, before joining the Army in 1942. His son, Michael Hogue, said he doubts if his father was a skier before joining the 10th Mountain Division but added that it didn’t take long to get into his blood and lead him to Steamboat, where they enjoyed taking turns down Rabbit Ears Pass.
“They would come up to Steamboat, when they had time off, and play up here,” Michael said. “That’s how he met my mother.”
Charles went to Camp Swift in Texas with the rest of the division to train before leaving for Italy, where he suffered an injury in 1944.
“He was in the spring offensive going up through the Apennines,” Michael said. “He never got to the Po Valley. He was injured very early on.”
Paul Stettner Sr. and his brother, Joe, immigrated to the United States from Germany before the war started, and they joined the 10th Mountain Division in part because of their love of climbing.
“My dad was either 35 or 36 when he enlisted in the 10th (Mountain Division),” Paul Stettner Jr. said. “He was not in that main cadre of guys who spent two or three years at Camp Hale training. My understanding is he was just there to help kind of put the thing in mothballs because the main body of troops had already left. So he was sent to Camp Hale before going to Camp Swift down in Texas for more training, after which he was shipped over to Italy.”
Paul Stettner Sr. was an experienced mountaineer before joining the Army, and he fought alongside the other members of the 10th Mountain Division in places like Riva Ridge and Monte Belvedere, breaking down the German defenses that protected the Po River Valley.
“He had a terrific amount of pride in being a part of that,“ Paul Stettner Jr. said, adding that his father, who won a Silver Star, had the opinion that “these were terrific people in the 10th.”
Paul Stettner Jr. said his father would probably applaud Camp Hale becoming a national monument and that it would bring pride to the family.
That pride is also alive in the Schnackenberg family.
Like the Stettners, Rudi and Karl Schnackenberg came to the United States to escape Germany in the 1920s. The Schnackenberg family immigrated to the United States, and Rudi moved to Denver in 1927, where he was reunited with his three brothers and parents. Both Rudi and Karl were skilled outdoorsmen with skiing and mountaineering skills, so it was little surprise they both ended up in the 10th Mountain Division.
Rudi Schnackenberg’s love of skiing developed late after his friends introduced him to the sport on a trip to Berthoud Pass, where they put him on an eight-foot pair of jumping skies in a blizzard at age 16, according to “The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs” by Sureva Towler. Two years later, he was an instructor at the West Portal Ski Area, which became Winter Park Resort, and on a path to a skiing career that included ski patrol, teaching and coaching positions.
As the war unfolded, both Rudi and Karl ended up in the ranks of the 10th Mountain Division, where their knowledge was used to train many of the troops who had come from places without snow.
“I don’t know if he got drafted and then had the opportunity to go do that, but it definitely was right along with his abilities and what he had been doing before the war,” Rudi’s son, Larry Schnackenberg, said. “I’m not sure how that he ended up in the 10th Mountain Division, but it definitely was to his advantage and their advantage.”
Both Rudi and his brother were medics with the 10th Mountain Division, and when Rudi came back home, he returned to the ski industry.
“My sister kind of followed along being a ski instructor,” Larry Schnackenberg said. “I always used to joke with her by saying, ‘I’ll take care of the people that don’t pay attention to the way you teach them how to ski.’”
He said it is just one example of how the things his dad learned at Camp Hale and loved in life were passed down.
“We would go backpacking — my brother and my dad — and he’d like to go bushwhacking lots of times trying to find some of these lakes and off-road paths in the Flat Tops or wherever we were. Sometimes, I felt we were lost, and he would say, ‘No, we’re not lost. We just don’t know exactly where we are at this moment.’”
Larry Schackenberg said that “can do” spirit followed the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division home after the war ended, and one of father’s friends was Lawrence Jump, who founded the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in 1946 with the help of fellow members Earl Clark, Wilfred Davis and Merrill Hastings.
Jump was one of several members of the division who started ski areas in Colorado. Others were Walter Paepcke, who helped create Aspen Mountain with the help of fellow division veterans Friedl Pfeifer in 1946, and Pete Seibert, who founded Vail in 1962.
In fact, there is a long list of 10th Mountain Division members who went on to hold key positions in the ski and outdoor industry, and 30 members have been inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in recognition of their accomplishments.
Chester Backes, Company K, 3rd Battalion, 86th Infantry
William Bowes, Company A, 1st Battalion, 86th Infantry
Henry Buchtel, Division Headquarters, Captain
Roger Butler (Company E, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry)
Kirt Crowner (Company B, 126th Mountain Engineer Battalion)
Marvin Elkins (Company A, 1st Battalion, 86th Infantry)
Fred Furlong (Battery A, 605th Field Artillery Battalion)
Quincy Ginter (Company F, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry)
Hans Hagemeister (Company L, 3rd Battalion, 86th Infantry)
Charles Hogue (Company L, 3rd Battalion, 87th Infantry)
Arthur Johnson (Company E, 3rd Battalion, 87th Infantry)
Leo “Oley” Kohlman (Company K, 2nd Battalion, 85th Infantry)
Robert Krear (Company L, 3rd Battalion, 86th Infantry)
George Orrell (Company I, 3rd Battalion, 85th Infantry)
Crosby Perry-Smith (Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 86th Infantry
Wilbur Rule (Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 85th Infantry)
Karl Schnackenberg (Mountain Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop & 85th Infantry, Medical Detachment)
Rudi Schnackenberg (Mountain Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop & 85th Infantry, Medical Detachment)
Paul Stettner (Company F, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry)
Herbert Turner (Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, , 87th Infantry)
Gordan Wren (Service Company, 87th Infantry)
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