Rifle Heritage Center invites historian David Little to tell story of the 10th Mountain Division

President Joe Biden signs a declaration creating the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument in October 2022 at Camp Hale above Red Cliff. The monument is to honor the 10th Mountain Division soldiers who trained there to fight in Italy in World War II.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

It was a cold dark night on Feb. 18, 1945. Wearing full packs and carrying rifles, members of the 10th Mountain Division scaled a 2,000-foot cliff band at Monte Belvedere to surprise the Germans at dawn.

This was the Gothic Line in Italy, one of Germany’s last major defensive lines. High in the Apennine Mountains, the Nazis used slave laborers to build thousands of small fortresses heavily protected by machine guns.

But on this night, the 10th Moutain’s wager paid off, Colorado historian David Little highlighted in a Rocky Mountain PBS special, “Colorado Experience: Camp Hale.”

“The 10th Mountain soldiers having trained here in Colorado — training at 10,000 feet — were in superb physical shape and could actually advance up and over the hills faster than the Germans could retreat to their next prepared defensive position,” Little said in the special.

On Saturday, Little comes to Rifle to tell the epic story of the 10th Mountain Division — not just the U.S. Army’s illustrious World War II mountaineers but the driving force behind Colorado’s ski industry. Slated for 2 p.m., the free presentation takes place at the Rifle Branch Library, at 207 East Ave.

“One of the reasons I chose this is because I do feel people are interested,” Rifle Heritage Center Events Coordinator Betty Waldron said on Monday. “Especially now that it’s been made into a national monument, we’re very privileged to have something like this in our backyard.”

Camp Hale, officially designated as Colorado’s ninth national monument by President Joe Biden in October, was home to the 10th Mountain Division’s first training site. The U.S. Military began its construction north of Leadville in April 1942, and the site eventually trained 15,000 soldiers — some of whom were already experienced mountaineers and skiers.

“As you can imagine, 128 soldiers trying to do a left face on a seven-foot ski is sometimes a little humorous,” Little, speaking on the PBS special, said of the training.

By the end of WWII, the division would suffer 4,072 casualties, including 992 soldiers killed in action.  

Camp Hale nowadays — besides its federal recognition — sits practically barren. There are still berms where the shooting range was, but other than that its remaining infrastructure was dismantled by German prisoners of war.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, said during the PBS special that there’s in fact very little there except for a few faded signs near the highway.

“If you come by here you can see some structures,” he said. “But you have absolutely no idea that there are thousands of people that trained here.” 

Waldron said this is one of the first events the Rifle Heritage Center has hosted since the COVID-19 pandemic. In February, the center plans to host presentations on the Meeker Massacre and the attack at Milk Creek, as well a presentation on the famous mountain physician Doctor Susan Anderson.

“We’re back on track,” Waldron said. “And, hopefully, running strong now.”


What: The History of Camp Hale

When: 2 p.m. Jan. 14

Where: Rifle Branch Library, 207 E. Ave.

How much: Free


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