RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Richard Wright celebrated his 98th birthday on Dec. 10. He observed the 78th Pearl Harbor Day on Dec. 7.
Those two dates are related in more than their proximity on the calendar. The attack on Pearl Harbor is what led Wright to join the armed forces.
"After graduating from high school, my aim was to go into forestry," said Wright, who was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and grew up in California. "But then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor."
The attack on Pearl Harbor may have been the worst idea in military history. It inflicted the damage the Japanese intended. However, the result of the lives and equipment lost was the inspiration of a generation of men and women willing to do anything to defend their country.
One of those men is Wright, who immediately joined the Army and was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division. The training for the 10th Mountain Division was tough because the men in that division had to be tough.
Their training was often at high altitudes and in temperatures as low as 45 degrees below zero. Wright fought in two battles on two different continents. His first action came on the island of Kiska in the Aleutian Islands. The Japanese had occupied the island for about a year, and the Allied Forces were ready to take it back. Before the attack, Japanese forces secretly abandoned the island. They left in place land mines, trip wires and other traps for soldiers. The conditions were another enemy of U.S. Forces.
"It was so foggy that you couldn't see your hand in front of your face," Wright told the Rapid City Journal. "We lost several men to friendly fire because you would see something moving in the distance and not know who it was."
After securing Kiska, the 10th Mountain Division faced another problem. Predictions for the battle said about a third of the men would be killed. When they weren't, they faced a significant food and ration shortage on the island. They found some provisions the Japanese troops left when they abandoned the outposts.
"We found barrels of fish and cherries," Wright said. "None of us could stomach it. I don't know what they were soaking in, but we couldn't eat it."
After securing the island, they returned to the states for more training. During that training at Camp Hale in Colorado, Wright was hospitalized for the only time during his military service, but he didn't get a Purple Heart for this injury.
"I laid down one night to sleep next to a bush and it turned out it was poison oak," Wright said with a chuckle. "I spent almost two weeks in the hospital. It was miserable."
After Wright was released from the hospital, he and his division were sent to Italy. They were engaging the Gothic Line, a large cadre of Nazi fighters entrenched in the Alps north of Florence.
He said there were mines and trip wires everywhere and all of the towns had been destroyed by German artillery.
"When they were coming, it sounded like a freight train coming at you," Wright said of the powerful German weaponry. He recalled another time where he was on patrol with his Browning Automatic Rifle and saw a German staff car in the valley.
"Once we took over Mount Belvedere, we were pushing the Germans toward Po Valley," he said. "I was on patrol and I came over the top of a ridge and saw that staff car. I put some tracers in it. I shot at that staff car and he really tore up the road. I don't think I hit it."
Wright also recalled a time near the end of the war when his division was marching up a gully. They weren't expecting any enemies. Suddenly a sniper's bullet hit one of his best friends.
"He hit Walt right in the middle of his helmet. He was my best friend," Wright said. "I kind of lost it and I took another guy to help me find the sniper."
He said they came upon a small farm house with a loft apartment.
"We didn't know exactly what to do," Wright said. "We didn't want to just walk through the front door and get shot. So the guy that was with me shot his bazooka through the wall."
He said they walked through the door and found a man and his wife standing in the kitchen with a hole in the wall above them.
"We kind of felt bad, but they had an upstairs loft and we didn't know if there were Germans up there or not," he said. "We apologized to those poor people and we never did catch the sniper."
He said the shot that killed his friend Walt was the last shot taken at his division before the end of the war.
After the war ended, the Ski Soldiers returned home and kept skiing.
Wright was one of dozens of members of the 10th Mountain Division who came back to develop or work at recreational ski resorts. Wright got married and lived in California briefly before he and his wife moved to Aspen, Colorado.
Wright had spent a lot of time in Aspen while he was training at Camp Hale. He loved the skiing there most of all.
"It was pure powder all the way down," Wright said. "We knew we had to come back after the war was over."
Thanks to a very understanding wife, Wright was able to do just that. They packed up and traveled from California to Aspen where he immediately found work in the construction industry. He worked hard during the building season and taught skiing all winter.
But it wasn't easy at first. They were offered a room in his boss's hotel, but the wood lathe was removed from the walls and there was nothing in the room. His wife was supportive, but not that supportive.
"She said 'No way,'" Wright said with a laugh.
So Wright found a cabin for them to stay in. The roof's shingles were split, water came from an irrigation ditch and they had an outhouse. He was soon able to buy a lot in Aspen and built a home on it. They stayed in Aspen 30 years. Wright worked for a company that built a home for Gary Cooper in the mountain town and then went out on his own to run his own company.
Wright was a part owner of Little Annie and Richmond Hill resorts and ran his construction company for 30 years until he and his wife retired to New Mexico. His wife, Ester "Bobbie" Wright, died in 2016 at the age of 94. At that time, his daughter and son-in-law, Susan and Tom Bass, invited him to come to the Black Hills and live with them in Piedmont.
"He was still skiing in his late 60s and I couldn't keep up with him," Bass said.
Wright said he has had a good life and serving in the 10th Mountain Division was a big reason for that. Even though many in his group would never make it back from the war, he has no regrets about joining.
"I'd go back and do it all again," Wright said.