If you go
What: Tread of Pioneers Museum’s 10th Mountain Division exhibit
When: Today through March 31
Where: Tread of Pioneers Museum, Eighth and Oak streets in Steamboat Springs
Steamboat Springs Before they were put under glass at the Tread of Pioneers Museum last month, many of the artifacts installed in the exhibit that tells the story of the 10th Mountain Division were displayed proudly in Nancy Kramer’s home.
The medals earned by Kramer’s father were framed in a shadow box and hung prominently on a living room wall, and his wool shirt shouldered with a hand-sewn patch of the division was preserved in a closet box as a physical reminder of what the veteran accomplished in Italy during World War II.
“It’s kind of cool to see them all laid out and displayed like this,” Kramer said Wednesday as she looked at the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, clothing and artifacts left by her father, Bill “Rope Sole” Robertson, who served as an Army medic in the 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. “I’m still fairly young in telling the story of this division, and it’s always a great opportunity when I get a chance to share it. To see this exhibit gives me a sense of completeness.”
Robertson died more than 30 years ago, but Kramer continues to tell his story and share the accomplishments of an entire division of rugged soldiers. As she gathered up his things for the exhibit that museum curator Katie Adams said has strong ties to Steamboat Springs, Kramer said she continued learning about her father’s military service.
An elite group
Formed in 1943, members of the 10th Mountain Division trained on skis in the frigid mountains of Colorado, which eventually prepared them for 114 days of combat in some of Italy’s most brutal battlefields. After the war, many of the soldiers helped to establish some of the Rocky Mountain state’s most noteworthy ski areas, including the resorts in Aspen, Vail and Arapahoe Basin.
“I hope the people who look inside this display case appreciate the value and sentiment of the division,” Kramer said. “But I also hope the exhibit shows how valuable all of the men and women who serve this country really are.”
Those who view the exhibit will see firsthand the nuisances of 1940s military equipment that has been vastly upgraded in the seven decades since the start of WWII. A small brush soldiers used to clear snow off their cold sleeping bag is on display alongside the boots and gloves the soldiers wore during their intensive training at Camp Hale.
A vast collection
The exhibit in Steamboat also includes photographs and documents on loan from the Denver Public Library, which serves as the repository for all of the historic documentation of the elite ski troop.
Archivist Dennis Hagen, who works at the library’s 10th Mountain Division Resource Center, said the library safeguards 18,000 photos, hundreds of oral history interviews and diary entries from the division in about 350 boxes and in shelves on the sixth floor of the library.
And when descendants like Kramer call, Hagen pulls the stories of the veterans from the shelves. The repository is a valuable tool for Kramer, who said her father, like many of the 10th Mountain Division veterans, did not often speak about his service.
“Lots of them did not talk or share much of their military story with their family because they just didn’t think they would be interested, or the veterans didn’t want to relive it,” Hagen said. “When they get together as a group of veterans, they talk a lot, but when it came to their family, they didn’t share as much.”
In the repository, Hagen said files on the men range from half-an-inch thick to a collection of several boxes. In a matter of seconds, he is able to pull up Robertson’s file and see he was injured in combat on April 26, 1945, and that he fought in Italy.
“I get some absolutely astonishing feedback from (descendants) when I share a veteran’s story with them,” Hagen said. “It’s really amazing. I’ve managed to make an awful lot of people cry with these stories. But it’s neat to provide them because the information is so meaningful.”
Of the 32,000 men who served in the elite ski troops, 992 died in combat and more than 4,000 were injured in battles mostly concentrated in Italy.
As he peered at the exhibit at the Tread of Pioneers on Thursday evening, Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Alpine ski coach Mike Fairbrother took note of the gear the soldiers carried in combat.
“What these guys were doing in leather boots was incredible,” he said, adding that some of the designs embedded in the equipment still are used today, albeit in an upgraded form. “Everything here was exactly what you needed for survival. They didn’t have room for luxuries. I’m sure these guys went through incredible hardships.”
Hagen said he doesn’t have an exact count or register of the veteran ski troops who are still alive today, but he estimates there are no more than 1,500.
In May, longtime Strawberry Park resident and 10th Mountain Division veteran Bill Bowes died at age 88. In 2010, Steamboat resident Bonnie Murray’s father, Wally Barkeen, also a 10th Mountain Division veteran, died at age 98. Barkeen and Bowes attended a gathering of descendants at Kramer’s home in summer 2010.
“When you continue to lose the vets, it almost seems more important to tell their story,” Kramer said.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com