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ARMY WINTER TRAINING BASE
WEST YELLOWSTONE, MONTANA

By Thomas L. Howell

View looking east at foundations and paymaster vault

PROLOGUE

This story is now being updated in 2016 to add some findings and to correct the story to the best of my ability.

I have made a couple of presentations to the Island Park Historical Society the past five years on this site. Then in 2013 I showed the site to the trustees and guests of the Idaho Heritage Trust. The board then decided to dedicate some funding to hire a professional researcher to go through the National Archives in Washington DC to see what further information they could come up with.

Of course we all want to know just how this fits into the history of World War II and how it coincided with the development of Camp Hale in Colorado for what was to become the 10th Mountain Division.

Since the 1940's, generations of locals and tourists in the Island Park, Idaho, area have driven by the old concrete footings and what appears to be two concrete vaults that have kept a silent vigil across from what was known for years as Valley View Truck Stop over looking Henry's Lake. Questions were always asked wondering what the buildings were and what was the demise of the site. Answers from the locals would usually be "it was an old Army Base during World War II that was being built for winter training and then shut down without reason."

If a person thinks about it, you begin to wonder what really happened? Had the project been completed, what would have been the size of the camp and which Army Unit would have been stationed there? How would an Army base have changed and impacted Island Park and the surrounding towns and areas? And lastly, what was the real reasoning behind the shut down and pull out?

Though the camp was located in Idaho overlooking Henry's Lake, it was known as the Army Winter Training Camp, West Yellowstone, Montana, which was the closest town and airport.

BACKGROUND STORY TO THE WINTER TRAINING BASES

As World War II began to unfold, on November 30, 1939, the USSR invaded Finland with a force of a million men supported by tanks, aircraft, and naval forces.

In Vermont, a group of men, Charles Minot "Minnie" Dole (founder of the National Ski Patrol System), Alec Bright of Boston and Roger Langley began watching news reels of the day. Particular attention was paid to how the vastly outnumbered Finnish Army did a phenomenal job of pushing back the invading Russians. Soldiers in white camouflage uniforms and mounted on skis contributed much to the early victories over the invading Soviets. It was a perfect example of men fighting in a winter environment in which they were entirely at home and for which they were trained. The Finns finally surrendered in March of 1940. By then millions of Americans had seen ski troops in action on the big screen.

This small group of men, headed by Dole, began a dedicated effort to convince the Army and the War Department that winter skilled and trained troops were an absolute necessity. Their initial meetings were met with total indifference.

With war on the horizon and behind the scenes, the Army did envision a global conflict. A worse case scenario, should Hitler succeed in Europe, would be an invasion of North America via the old invasion route: the St. Lawrence River Valley between the Untied States and Canada.

After talking with little success to lower officers, Dole, Bright and Langley finally secured a meeting with General George C. Marshall who, at that time, made a decision to look into the entire matter.

The whole subject of training and equipment was then explored. The Army thought that their "Alaskan Equipment" could be used, but a Quartermaster search revealed that equipment no longer existed. The Army's book on Alaska, in fact, was dated 1914. It became immediately obvious that a completely new start had to be made.

In mid 1940, Minot Dole writes to General Marshall stressing the importance of obtaining the correct equipment for mountain troops. He then offers to use the National Ski Patrol as the recruiting mechanism for finding experienced skiers to help train troops in patrol work on skis. Winter maneuvers had been practiced on a small scale by a few troops stationed in Alaska and Fort Snelling, Minnesota, using existing "general issue" equipment.

November of 1940, the War Department issues a directive forming ski patrol units at the bases including Fort Lewis, Washington, and Lake Placid, New York, with National Ski Patrol advisors reporting back on problems with equipment and camping techniques. More intense training is held by the 3rd Division's 15th Regiment at Fort Lewis on nearby Mount Rainer.

In April of 1941, the Army orders Colonels Nelson Walker and Charles Hurdis to investigate sites capable of housing a division of 15,000 men and suitable for year-round training of mountain troops. Robert Monohan of the U.S. Forestry Service accompanies them. They needed a site with mountains, a truck highway, a railroad, and 1.5 million gallons of water a day. Their first choice is a site near West Yellowstone, Montana, on the edge of Yellowstone National Park.

The following are two articles from the Teton Peaks Chronicle out of St. Anthony, Idaho.

ARMY STARTS SURVEY FOR 100,000 ACRE TRAINING BASE

August 14, 1941
Benedict confers with Engineers, Says Henry's Lake Site Ideal.

West Yellowstone, Aug. 8, 1941, Army engineers and civilian specialists check in here Friday to start surveys for what their commander said would be a 100,000 acre training base development "if and when Congress appropriates the funds."

An office will be opened here, and the engineers will carry on their surveys in the Henry's Lake section, according to Colonel Edward M. George, zone construction officer, the ranking officer. The group stopped Friday at the Madison Hotel in West Yellowstone. Others in the party besides Colonel George and Captain Merwin Smith, former assistant construction quartermaster plant in Salt Lake City, both from the Army headquarters at Ogden, were: H. H. Henningson, Omaha, Neb., consultant engineer, A.R. Jurden special engineer of the Union Pacific at Salt Lake City; George H. Shanley, architectural engineer, Great Falls, Mont., and J. VanTeylinger, architectural engineer, Great Falls. The four civilian engineers will work under Captain Smith in the West Yellowstone office, Colonel George said.

Surveys will start immediately, the officer added. "This development will cover approximately 100,000 acres in the Henry's Lake section of Idaho, and the proposed training base can accommodate 30,000 men" he said. He emphasized, "The situation is now in the advanced planning stage, but work cannot start until Congress has make funds available and the authorization is given by the War Department." The Henry's Lake section offers severe weather conditions ideal for training of U.S. troops for Alaskan service in the opinion of M.S. Benedict, Targhee National Forest Supervisor who conferred here six weeks ago with Army engineers from the San Francisco Presidio. The engineers inspected the terrain, and we furnished them with the weather data," he said.

"In my opinion, the Henry's Lake section is a perfect location. The weather is severe with sub-zero temperatures for most of the winter. The area has about 4 feet of snow and the many slopes in that area are ideal for training ski troops. There is mountainous country, too, which could be used for toughening the soldiers. High velocity winds sweep across the area on occasions during the winter, and of course, there has been considerable difficulty in keeping the highway open for traffic." Benedict said "the War Department operations would be mostly within the environment of the Targhee Forest land which would be available without cost. He expressed belief that a railroad development mentioned by the War Department engineers would extend over the seven miles from Big Springs.

STATE OF IDAHO PREPARES TO ASSIST ARMY

October 2, 1941

Building of a 35,000 man Army ski camp by Henry's Lake appeared certain Wednesday as the state and federal government architects rushed plans for the base which will cost an estimated $20,000,000. Chase A. Clark revealed the State Transportation Department has already ordered snow-clearing equipment to keep roads open to the proposed Army camp. The snowplow will be larger than any currently owned by the Highway Department. The Governor also revealed that huge telephone switchboards are also being in installed to handle communications when the camp goes into operation.

School facilities are also being planned for the influx of Army children. An application has already been approved for a multi-room log school to be built this winter for 75 children. Additional facilities are being planned for another 1000 children. The school will be built and operated with federal funds. The Governor said Idaho has agreed to build additional roads needed for the base. Highway construction costs would be considerable.

Although the base has not been approved, Clark said the amount of preliminary work undertaken by the Army assures that it was certain to be constructed.

Weather data of the proposed base shows that it would be one of the coldest in the northwest. The snowfall is very heavy and conditions are ideal training of ski troops. It would be constructed near West Yellowstone on state and federal lands.

SEND PLOW NORTH

A huge new rotary plow ordered by the highway department will be stationed in the winter on the road from Ashton to West Yellowstone, State Highway Director Johnson said Thursday. Plans to keep the highway open were finalized after the U.S. Army announced the construction of a 35,000-man ski-training base at Henry's Lake. The highway will be the main transportation route to the base.

Last year the highway was kept open with a smaller rotary plow owned by the State of Idaho. However, the winter snows were light and the equipment was able to do the job. During a hard winter, snow may pile as deep as 12 feet on the highway. Constant operation of the huge plow on the highway will be necessary to keep the road clear of snow, Johnson said.

NATIONAL ARCHIVES FINDINGS

January 27, 1941: A directive is issued by the Army to investigate possible mountain and winter warfare training sites.

Eighth Corp Area and the War Dept in conjunction with John V. Leighou, Forest Supervisor from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, investigated the Pando, Colorado, site. Ninth Corp Area worked with Albert W. Goshrell, Forest Supervisor out of Bozeman, Montana, to investigate the West Yellowstone site.

May 12, 1941: Reports are issued stating that two sites are acceptable. I have many documents and maps on hand spelling out the criteria for the selection of the sites, and in each case several different surveys were taken. A couple of different areas and valleys were considered before the final decision was made.

July 19th, 1941: Carl Robinson, Adjutant General with the War Dept, issues a report confirming the selection of the West Yellowstone site to build a camp to house 30,000 men.

(Memories from local residents ...

Construction began with the General Contract let out to Shanley, Van Teylingen and Henningson Architects and Engineers of Omaha, Nebraska, and Great Falls, Montana. Tents were erected all over the area to house the laborers that were hired from Eastern Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Captain Merwin Smith oversaw the project for the Army with a Mr. Smythe serving as on-site geologist. Officers and dignitaries stayed at West Yellowstone. Travel was either by flying into West Yellowstone, traveling by train or auto.

Howard and Lucy Young and their family ran Young's Valley View Ranch across the road from the construction site. None of Young's original building exists today, but it sat south of where the main building of Henry's Lake Station now sits. Their business consisted of a restaurant, hand operated gas pumps, and about 12 cabins which were rented out to tourists or whoever desired their services. Young's did quite well that year catering to and feeding the work crews of the Army Base. Feeding 125 men at one sitting was not uncommon.

Construction began on a large log building, which enclosed one of the existing paymaster vaults, possibly a matching building was to take in the other vault. The first buildings were to include offices for the architect and Constructing Quartermaster, a barracks, and a mess hall. Several other storage buildings of a lesser strength were also built. Materials were hauled over from the railroad at Big Springs.

Top of large underground room
Underground Room
Interior of underground room, purpose unknown!
Storage of munitions? Or furnace room?
Stairwell
A stairwell leading ... ?
Abandoned well casing on site
Abandoned well casing on site

Lee Jacobson, who managed the nearby Flying R Ranch for 35 years, remembers a well type structure that had a stairwell that went down in the ground at least three stories deep. Jean Young remembers maybe two or three military trucks among the many civilian trucks used by the Contractor. The Military felt so sure of the project that they had budgeted $10.00 an acre to buy up private property. When William Enget and his wife were starting to build a home on the east side of the flat, they were advised not to proceed and that the Army would be taking over the entire area within a matter of months. The Rassmussen family, who owned some farm and ranch land by the Henry's Lake dam, was instructed to leave and not allowed back on their property until the summer of 1942.)

August 25, 1941: A report by Lt. Col. A.J. Perry examines contractual and financial matters with the general contractors. The report expresses concern that two of the general partners are from Montana and another is from Nebraska. It states 50 men are working at the site for the contractor and 12 are working at the Great Falls office 275 miles away. The suggestion is made to concentrate all personnel on the site. The report also states there was an office set up in West Yellowstone and another at the armory in Idaho Falls.

The report also expresses concern over 10 motor vehicles rented from third parties for the work at rates too high. It suggests that other vehicles be brought in from other projects as soon as possible.

August 31, 1941: The Quartermaster representative reports a lot of confusion in the layout of the camp. It also notes that the architect still has not brought all his personnel on site.

Sept 1, 1941: It is noted that the Army is working with the architects in an effort to work out several issues that had arisen.

October 30, 1941: Col Nurse and others arrive in Idaho Falls. Investigation is being made in regard to the apparent excessive cost of engineering work for the project. Investigation is also being made regarding the authority and necessity for the construction of a temporary building for use as offices and living quarters for the employees.

Problems noted at the time were: poor administration and supervision, continual disagreement among the three partners as to matters of policy, and that the drawings were still being prepared in three different offices. It suggests that the standard Quartermaster drawings be radically changed.

Lt. Col H.B. Nurse reports seeing the temporary building under construction.

"It is a two story, T-shaped structure with a flat roof and has a basement in one wing in which a steam heating system was to have been installed. There are 40 bedrooms on the second floor for both male and female employees. Rather elaborate kitchen and dining room facilities were planned on the first floor in one of the wings. The building is entirely closed in, and very little of the inside work has been done. For example, no finished floors, partitions, plumbing equipment nor heating plant have yet been installed. A separate garage building has been erected. The estimated $60,000 has already been spent, and in my opinion, it would have cost at least an additional $60,000 to complete the building. I directed the Constructing Quartermaster to immediately stop all work on the building, and directed him to see that all material on hand was stored inside."

"On the afternoon of October 30th, I received a telephone call from the Office of the Quartermaster General in which a War Department letter was read to me. This letter directed that all advance planning for a reinforced triangular division at West Yellowstone be terminated and that in lieu thereof plans were to be prepared for a reinforced regiment of about 5, 500 men. The next two days were used in filing and bringing to a close all of the work which had already been done. It was found that the services of about 150 employees could be dispensed with, and these were given notices of termination."

"It is noted that the original $200,000 allotment has already been spent, as well as the $110,000 which was requested by the Zone Constructing Quartermaster. It was estimated that all of this money would have been expended by November 10th, and that architect would still be due $22,500 of their fee, along with $50,500 to cover payroll, insurance, taxes, and contingencies."

Conferring with Van Teylingen in regard to the scope of the work, a new site plan was completed for a reinforced regiment in which certain parts of the old plan were "salvaged." It is estimated that this salvaged part amounts to about 25% of the total of the new work. This plan was signed by me for the Quartermaster General, and Col. Nurse took it back to his home office in order to obtain signatures of the Corps Area Commander and the Zone Constructing Quartermaster.

Col Nurse, Mr Lawrence and I left Idaho Falls, on Tuesday evening, November 4th 1941.

Construction ceased when the deep snows arrived and the crews went home for the rest of the winter. The buildings were boarded up, locked, and no one stayed on as caretaker.

Although plans for a smaller base had been settled on in early November, apparently sometime during the winter the plug was pulled on the entire project.

AFTERMATH

The following spring of 1942 proved to be quite different. The salvageable materials were hauled off, and the materials not worth saving were burned and pushed into a trench and buried.

The Wineger's grandfather made the comment that "mule regalia" were also present.

According to the Young family, Preston approached the government to purchase the unfinished building originally intended for employee living quarters. The government refused the offer with no reason given and sent in a large tractor to demolish all the newly installed buildings. They were disassembled down to the footings that we now see.

The cancellation of the project caught everyone by surprise. The most popular reason at the time was that the Base was no longer needed and that the Army was pulling out. We can assume that following Pearl Harbor the Army was operating with some degree of secrecy.

WILDLIFE THEORY

So what really did happen? What was the real reason for the pullout? While construction was underway, several things were missed in the original assessment of the site. The officers who had selected the site failed to note that nearby Henry's and Red Rock Lakes were a refuge and breeding ground for one of the last remaining populations of the near extinct Trumpeter Swan.

After being hunted to near extinction by 1935, only 70 adult trumpeter swans were known to exist in the lower 48 states. By early 1941 David Condon, who served as Chief Naturalist of Yellowstone National Park, had finished his research and submitted a manuscript on the swans in the Park. In August of 1941 the US Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that there was a population of 140 adults and 69 cygnets. These were thought to be the only wild trumpeters in existence.

The Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge had been created in 1935 giving Dr. Ward M. Sharp the directive to protect the remaining breeding population of the swan. The establishment of a large Army Base in the Henry's Lake area would surely sit in the middle of the migration route of the large birds between Red Rocks and Yellowstone Park. Construction of the base had actually started before David Condon and Dr. Sharp were able to stand united and rally support against the project to safeguard the birds at Red Rocks Refuge which was only a few miles to the west of Henry's Lake.

"The swans also had an important ally in the person of Frederic Adrian Delano, a strong conservationist who also happened to be the uncle of President Roosevelt." FDR had appointed his uncle as Chairman of the National Resources Planning Commission in 1933, a position that he held for ten years. By 1941 Delano was 77 years old, but he was still was playing an important part overseeing conservation measures in Yellowstone Park.

Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, informed Secretary of War Harold Stimson of the "violent criticism brewing among wildlife interests and nature lovers", and appealed for the abandonment of the site. "To install a training camp in the vicinity of Henry's Lake, with artillery practice as one of its principal activities," he wrote, "is certain to endanger the future existence of these splendid birds. From a wildlife stand point, no more objectionable selection could have been made in the entire Rocky Mountain region."

Secretary of War Stimson at first refused to give up the site, but the opposition of naturalists and bird lovers at length caused him to yield. The Army abandoned the Base near West Yellowstone.

WHAT IF?

So what would have happened if the Army had stayed?

The Army assessed two more sites. One near Aspen, Colorado, proved too small; and another near Wheeler, Colorado, some eighteen miles from the nearest railroad was too remote. The base they finally settled upon was named Camp Hale located near Pando, Colorado.

The 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, along with the 86th and 85th from Fort Lewis, Washington, were assigned to Camp Hale. These came to eventually form what history now knows as the 10th Mountain Division. This Division, and its various elements, trained at Camp Hale until their deployment to Italy in November of 1944.

One can only study that what happened at Camp Hale would have happened at Henry's Lake. Camp Hale ended up having 1,022 temporary structures including barracks, administrative buildings, shops, stables, a veterinary center, hospital, and a field house. One bad side effect Camp Hale had to contend with was the air pollution generated by the burning of five thousand tons of coal per year to heat the buildings.

Henry's Lake would have been a post for training and testing men and weapons in severe winter conditions. Training maneuvers for skiing, rock climbing, and target practice, as well as exercises with as many as 5,000 mules and 200 dogs would have been common place. Heavy artillery practice with big guns on the east edge of the flat would have hurled their projectiles across Henry's Lake into the base of Mount Sawtelle and Red Rock Pass.

Trucks, amphibious vehicles, and other equipment were to be tested. During 1942 while at Fort Lewis, the 87th Regiment did the "top secret" testing of the Studebaker "weasel" on the snow fields of the Columbia Glacier in British Columbia.

As to the impact that the Base would have had on the local economy and the environment, the reader can draw their own conclusions. One can only imagine the impact several thousand troops out on weekend leave would have had upon West Yellowstone and the surrounding Island Park area.

One missed opportunity for Island Park was the establishment of a large school and hospital. An eight mile rail spur extending from Big Springs across Henry's Lake Flat to Henry's Lake Station would also have been built. Colorado also benefited by the veterans who, after spending time in Colorado's mountains, returned to establish the large ski resorts of Vail and Aspen.

So what became of Camp Hale in Colorado? The 10th Mountain Division was deactivated after World War II. Buildings at the camp had started to be torn down in 1946, and by 1952 only several of the original buildings were left. The Army cited the reason many World War II camps were disassembled was there was no longer a need and the maintenance costs of keeping up limited use camps was too high. The 10th Mountain Division, after being deactivated and reactivated several times, is now located at Fort Drum, New York.

Sources

"Adventures in Skiing" Charles Minot Dole
"The Last Ridge" McKay Jenkins Random House New York
"The Teton Peaks Chronicle" Aug. 14, 1941 St, Anthony, Idaho
"The Teton Peaks Chronicle" Oct. 2, 1941 St. Anthony, Idaho
www.camphale.org Camp Hale, Colorado internet
www.cr.nps.gov/nr/feature/va/2001/hale.htm National Register of Historic Places
www.10thmtndivassoc.org 10th Mountain Division Association, Inc.
"Center of Military History – United States Army The Corps of Engineers" Construction in the United States
"The Trumpeter Swan, It's History, Habits, and Population in the United States." Banko. W.E. 1960
Ruth Shea, Executive Director – The Trumpeter Swan Society - Maple Plain, MN
Memories of Jean Young Howell
Memories of Lee Jacobson
National Archives credit to the Idaho Heritage Trust for the funding

Written in 2004 and Updated in 2016

About the author

Thomas Howell, 4275 E. 1400 N., Ashton, Idaho 83420
Snakeriver4x4@ymail.com, 208-652-3450

"Ever since being a kid in the 1960's, in Fremont County, I remember my father telling me about the old building site. I have always been intrigued with military history and have studied my uncles' service during World War II. Now with the advent of the Internet, research has been expanded, enabling a person to reach well beyond their grasp into the past."

Thomas served with the National Ski Patrol at Bear Gulch Ski Basin from 1971 to 1976. He had the opportunity to ski at Sunset Lodge ski hill with the patrolman that reported safety concerns that led to the hill's closure. For the past 15 years, he has been serving with the Fremont County Sheriff's Office Search & Rescue Unit rescuing many a lost snowmobiler in the mountains where the troops would have trained.



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