ASPEN — John Tripp spent Memorial Day doing what he's done every year but once since 1957 — honoring his fallen comrades in the 10th Mountain Division at the top of Tennessee Pass.
The annual ritual gets more solemn as the years roll by, the 97-year-old Carbondale resident said, because of the dwindling number of his fellow soldiers.
"There's not many left," he said of World War II veterans in the famed mountain division. "There used to be a gang of them in Aspen."
One of his best friends while training at Camp Hale was Steve Knowlton, who moved to Aspen after the war and started the Golden Horn restaurant and nightclub. Tripp still has a picture of them among 10 young men on leave at Winter Park ski resort. Knowlton was supposed to be the best man in Tripp's wedding in March 1944, but he couldn't make it because of a blizzard. They remained friends until Knowlton's death in 1998.
Tripp has a trove of memories of 10th Mountain Division troops, some not suitable for print. The men who trained and fought together shared a special camaraderie.
"Oh yeah, there still is," Tripp said.
He has attended countless 10th Mountain Division reunions over the years and went to a couple in Rome with his wife, Rene, who is now deceased. Every three years, there's a big reunion somewhere that John tries to attend.
"Mostly it's the descendants now," he said.
Tripp grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, and skied the snow, ice and pine needles prevalent in New England.
"I started seriously skiing in 1938," he said. "I was about 17 or 18."
After World War II broke out, he joined the Army Air Corps in February 1942 as an aviation cadet. Poor eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot. He tried his hand as a navigator but, as he put it, he wasn't very good.
"I washed out," he said.
He received an honorable discharge and returned home. A friend encouraged him to join the 87th Mountain Infantry Battalion, which was later expanded to the 87th Infantry Regiment, during training at what was then Camp Carson (now Fort Carson near Colorado Springs). He ended up serving in L Company throughout the war.
Tripp's first deployment was at Kiska in the Aleutian Islands, part of a chain of islands extending west of Alaska. There had been heavy fighting on the companion island of Attu, and it was believed the Japanese army had even more troops on Kiska. It turned out they had fled the island under the cloak of fog and it was declared secure in August 1943.
Tripp returned to Camp Carson and in late 1943 and was shipped to Camp Hale near Leadville for extensive mountain training after the 10th Light Division was constituted and later redesignated as the 10th Mountain Division. They would head out for maneuvers for weeks at a time in harsh winter conditions to places such as Homestake Peak and Cooper Hill.
"The training and living, it was tougher than combat, in a sense," Tripp recalled.
Further training took him to Texas and Virginia before they shipped out to Italy in early 1945. His first combat as the head of a mortar section was at Mount Belvedere, which the allies had to clear before they could advance in the Po Valley.
After Belvedere, Tripp vividly remembered advancing to what was referred to as Punchboard Knob, so called because the German artillery riddled it with holes. The name, he said, was well-deserved. The slightest movement triggered German artillery fire.
As the troops continued north, Tripp was wounded in action in March 1945 when enemy fire raked both legs. He said it felt like getting multiple bee stings at the same time. He scooted himself on his butt down a steep hill to safety. Medics attempted to help him walk but his legs seized up.
He was assisted to an aid station, then a field hospital and then finally a hospital in Pistoia for recovery. He was awarded the Purple Heart and returned to L Company as the war in the European Theater was winding down. Tripp didn't dwell on the chances of getting shot again in the waning days of the war.
"I had no fear of getting killed," he said. "I didn't even think about it."
Tripp was discharged in November 1945 and joined Rene in Denver. She wasn't willing to live in New England, so he bought a business in Denver that reconditioned steel drums for oil and chemical companies.
The Tripps raised their four children in Denver — Judy, Jon, Larry and Bill.
Rene had visited Aspen while attending college in Boulder, so the Tripps undertook journeys to the mountains after the war. He said they skied in Aspen in winter 1946-47 when Lift One was christened. He also skied Vail in its inaugural year.
During his travels to the Roaring Fork Valley, Tripp became enamored with property on East Mesa, just off Prince Creek Road south of Carbondale. He asked rancher John Nieslanik if he would sell some land but didn't hear back for about a year, when the offer was accepted. He and Rene moved to East Mesa in 1969 and lived on their new acre of land while they built half of a house. After they moved in, John finished work on the other half.
The house is oriented toward the south, with majestic Mountain Sopris providing an in-your-face landscape and the Crystal Valley in the background.
John befriended local ranchers and did seasonal work for the Perrys, Nieslaniks, Cerises and Turnbulls. Picking potatoes is by far the toughest job, said the man who served as an infantry grunt and hoisted steel drums for a decade and a half.
Tom and Roz Turnbull have known Tripp for decades.
"He's just a joyous person no matter what he's doing," Roz said, "whether it's taking French lessons in Carbondale or helping a neighbor."
Clark Cretti has been Tripp's neighbor for 19 years and stops in at least once a week for a visit.
"His mind is so sharp about things," he said.
For example, with Qatar in the news this week, they used Cretti's iPhone during a visit to figure out exactly where the country is in the world and its size compared to states in the U.S. Tripp has an ongoing interest in world events, fueled by National Public Radio.
He's also gregarious — willing and able to strike up a conversation with old friends and new acquaintances.
"John talks up everybody when he's out and about," Cretti said.
John and Rene were well-traveled. They visited all seven continents, toured Europe extensively and returned to Italy "eight or nine times after the war."
Rene died in February 2016. They were married for 72 years.
John remains in their home and gained an appreciation for everything Rene did around the house.
He quit skiing at age 90 because of failing eyesight. However, he purchased an adult tricycle shortly after Rene died and rides occasionally into Carbondale on errands.
"He can't sit idle," Cretti said. "In many ways John's kind of my idol."
Tripp went to the 10th Mountain Division memorial atop Tennessee Pass with family members this year. They had a picnic after the ceremony.
"I brought the wine, of course," he said.
Memorial Day has been and remains an important time for him.
"I'm close to my friends," he said.
Although he misses the men he befriended during the war, it's clear he misses Rene the most. Someday his ashes will join hers on their property in the shadow of Mount Sopris, alongside the road to Cooper Hill ski area and at some other special places.
Tripp flashes his sense of humor when talking about the great beyond.
"You know why I'm not gone? Because he won't take me," he said while looking up. He then glanced down and said, "and he won't take me."