Immigrant Stories: Life as a World War II soldier in Colorado, Alaska, Texas, Italy
Intro: Every November we set aside a day to remember our veterans and the sacrifices they make to protect us. But for people like John Tripp remembering is a constant. The photos on the wall of his study serve as a memorial to his “band of brothers” from the 10th Mountain Division and the time they spent sleeping in snow caves, training on the mountains near Camp Hale and freezing in the foxholes of Italy at the base of Mount Belvedere waiting for the command to charge.
John points to a photo of his bright-faced buddies and remembers something about each one of them. At 97, he is one of the precious few left to remember World War II and those that gave it their all.
He starts his story by remembering the trip with his dad, when he was 19. It was the first time he realized that his world was about to change.
Tripp: It was 1938, and my dad and I were up in Quebec, Canada, and there was an old fort on the hill behind our hotel that was built by the English. We went up there and, on our way in, a guard stopped us and told my dad he couldn’t take his camera inside.
Hitler was on the rise in Europe and the English and the Canadians had a much better idea about what was going on. My dad and this guy talked and their conversation made me realize that the Canadians knew more than we did.
That was when I started paying attention to what was going on in Europe, and I eventually decided that we were going to be in it some day, and I might as well sign up with the Army Air Corps. I went into training to be a cadet, but I washed out in October of 1942 with an honorable discharge.
Gallacher: Why did you wash out?
Tripp: I couldn’t fly because of my eyes. So I went home and ran into an old friend who was in the 87th Mountain Infantry and he convinced me to join. I stayed home a month and re-enlisted and ended up at Camp Hale.
By this time, the fall of ’42, we were involved because of Pearl Harbor in ’41. We were one regiment at Camp Hale. We weren’t part of what would soon be the 10th Mountain Division. In August of 1943, we were sent to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska.
The Japanese had moved in and had the islands heavily fortified with artillery and networks of underground tunnels. They had bombed Dutch Harbor off the coast of Alaska and were headed for the west coast of the United States. So we were part of a 40,000-man invasion force sent in to move them out. We landed at the base of a cliff on Kiska Island.
The beach was about 20 feet wide and littered with giant boulders, and then it went straight up to cliffs covered with tundra. Climbing in tundra is rough going. You take two steps forward and one step back because it’s so slick. We expected fierce resistance, but we were met with dense fog and silence. We kept waiting for all hell to break loose. It took us five days to realize that the Japanese weren’t there. Thank God they weren’t, or I wouldn’t be here.
Gallacher: What do you mean?
Tripp: When we got into the island and were able to explore the fortifications they had, we realized we would have had a terrible fight on our hands. They had land mines everywhere and fortified tunnels. Some of our guys went into one of the caves and rolled a big gun back and triggered a mine that killed them. A Navy destroyer hit a mine in Kiska Harbor and killed a whole bunch of guys. We lost quite a few men to the mines and friendly fire, but we still hadn’t experienced real combat.
We returned to Camp Hale and started training for our next assignment.
Gallacher: You wanted to be a pilot; what prompted you to choose the infantry the second time around?
Tripp: Yeah, I went from $75 a month down to $50 with the infantry. But it wasn’t easy to get into the “ski troops,” as they called it. We had to have three letters of recommendation to get into the Army, unbelievable.
They had to know we were used to skiing and living outdoors, and I was. I think I was the only one in my family who really loved the outdoors. I spent my childhood in Connecticut riding my bike in the summer and skiing in the winter.
Gallacher: What was Camp Hale like?
Tripp: They were just getting started. There were only about 5,000 people there, when we returned from the Aleutian Islands. I think it eventually grew to about 15,000.
Our training was intense. We had maneuvers that kept us outdoors for two to three weeks in subzero weather with no fires, living in tents and snow caves.
When we finished winter training, they shipped us to Camp Swift, Texas, for flatland summer training. It was hot. We had 25-mile forced marches and hikes we had to do in two hours with full packs, plus our rifles and ammunition. I carried a rifle for the better part of three years.
I was married at the time, so my wife and I had a little apartment in Austin right across the street from the University of Texas.
Gallacher: When did you find time to fall in love and get married?
Tripp: Well, I met Rene on a golf course in Denver, one weekend when I was on leave. We fell in love and got married. When I wrote my dad and told him what I was going to do he wrote back and said, “Dear John, any damn fool who takes on two battles at once, I have no sympathy for, whatsoever.” He had a good sense of New England humor.
Gallacher: Was it love at first sight for you.
Tripp: It was for me and Rene told me later that she went home that day and told her mother that she had just met the guy she was going to spend the rest of her life with.
Gallacher: The world was in chaos at the time so there must have been a real sense of immediacy about life and love.
Tripp: We were young and thought about the world in a different way than when we got older.
Gallacher: Did you ever think that you might not come back?
Tripp: You know I never gave that a thought. I didn’t want to get hurt, but I did.
Gallacher: So when did you find out where you were being sent when you finished training?
Tripp: When we were on the boat. We went through the Straits of Gibraltar looking at Africa and Spain and landed in Naples in the middle of the night. We got off and marched through town and boarded railroad freight cars and headed north.
We went through Rome and Florence and ended up in Lucca, a walled city. We camped outside the walls, they wouldn’t let us go into town. The Germans had occupied it, and they were still in the neighborhood, so we had to be careful.
Gallacher: Did you have encounters at this point?
Tripp: We went out a few times at night to see if we could find anything, but we didn’t. So we were in the Apennine Mountains in early January of 1945. There was very little snow, and it wasn’t as cold as we thought it would be, thank goodness. We pushed on into the mountains heading for Mount Belvedere. There had been a number of attempts to take the mountain before us, but we succeeded.
We lost quite a few guys on Belvedere (283 killed and 686 wounded). We weren’t there but a couple of days when the Germans hit us with everything they had. It seemed like they were always up above, shooting down on us.
On the morning of March 3rd, we launched a surprise attack and stormed up the mountain. That’s the day I got hit. We were moving so fast that we ran right by this German in his foxhole, and he hit us from behind. I got machine-gunned in both legs but there were other guys, near me, that weren’t so lucky.
Gallacher: What was that like for you?
Tripp: Getting shot felt like a bunch of bee stings. I slid down the mountain on my side because they were still firing at us. I crawled until I was out of range and got myself up and walked to a place where I could sit and have a cigarette and a chocolate bar. But, after that cigarette, my legs stiffened up and I couldn’t walk anymore.
A couple of medics finally found me and took me to the field hospital. I lost a lot of good friends that day. Some of them I had been with every day for three years.
Gallacher: How did you manage that trauma.
Tripp: I hear about post traumatic stress these days. Maybe some of our guys had it, but I didn’t. I just tried to erase a lot of it. I was married and had a daughter; in fact, she was born in January when I was in a foxhole in the Apennines. I finally got to see her eight months later. It was so good to be home.
Postscript: John and Rene spent the next 70 years together, raising four healthy children, running a successful business and watching Sopris sunsets from their deck. Rene died last year from Alzheimer’s.
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