Letters from WWII, 10th Mountain Division

Gerry and his parents, Art and Hedy Cunningham at Camp Hale

My father, Gerald (Gerry) Arthur Cunningham, was on his honeymoon, camping on the Hudson River in Upstate New York in September 1942, when his draft notice arrived. His father traipsed up the river, which was in full flood, to bring it to him. Gerry had been skiing for years. He had paid for his outdoor activities in high school by manufacturing and selling inexpensive alternatives to the sealskin climbers that, in the days when even rope tows were rare, allowed the users to walk straight up the hill instead of laboriously herringboning up the slopes. When it became obvious that he was headed for the Army he applied through the National Ski Patrol for the newly formed 10th Mountain Division. After boot camp he joined the 87th Mountain Infantry Division at Ft. Lewis, Washington. Soon after he arrived the regiment moved to Camp Hale, Colorado. During his time in the Army he wrote my mother many letters through which he clung to the dreams they had for their life together. She saved these letters, but understandably her replies did not survive the war. For me as their daughter the letters provide a fascinating glimpse into the history, both global and personal, out of which the circumstances of my life grew. On this site I will share excerpts of some of those letters along with some of my comments, which are indicated by italics and/or brackets.

The letters are extensive, and at some point I realize the constraint of pages within my blog might not be the best format. However, until I figure out a better way, this page on my blog will enable me to share them with those who are interested. Because I am pasting them from a Word document, there will be odd characters instead of some punctuation, so I apologize in advance. I have done some minor editing for clarity, but the words are essentially those of a young WWII soldier.

To read the letters, click on the desired time frame at the upper right.

Here is an obituary that summarizes Gerry Cunningham’s many accomplishments other than dome building, written by Julie Johnson, longtime family friend and co-founder of Frostline Kits:

Gerry Cunningham, a legend in light weight outdoor equipment, died on May 15, 2010. Cunningham was a lifelong entrepreneur whose various inventions and enterprises have had a lasting impact on outdoor recreation in the United States. Friends and family who gathered in Ward, Colorado on July 11th to remember him and his wife Ann included those who knew him through mountaineering, backpacking, the Gerry Kiddie Carrier, sailing, and conservation. And it is a given that at least one person will be wearing a piece of clothing with his most ubiquitous invention, the spring-loaded drawstring clamp.

Born in Utica, NY in 1922 Gerry loved the out of doors. He hiked, climbed, and sailed whenever the opportunity came around. By his own admission he was a school dropout and never earned a college degree, but he was already making and selling outdoor equipment while still in high school. This ensured that he had equipment he liked and the cash to continue his outdoor pursuits.

Gerry’s fledgling business and his college education were both suddenly interrupted when he was drafted in 1942.  Coincidentally that notice came while he and his wife Ann Carman Cunningham were on their Hudson River honeymoon, using equipment he had designed. The honeymoon was over before it ever got started and his army career began, eventually leading him the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale, Colorado.

Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Gerry’s dream of making light weight mountain equipment was enhanced while in the service. Army equipment was abominable. Gerry swore when he got out of the service he would design and make a sleeping bag that would keep you warm, a pack that would hold everything you needed without all of it falling to the bottom, and a tent that would keep you warm and dry, none of it weighing a ton!

At Camp Hale Gerry also made connections with the community of outdoor enthusiasts that would help him establish his business. He met the Whittaker twins from Seattle, who later managed REI and took some Gerry equipment to the top of Mt. Everest. He learned about eastern U.S. equipment companies such as Camp and Trail Outfitters and Abercrombie and Fitch, who later helped him locate materials he needed for making his equipment. Art Draper, who later edited Ski News, was his top sergeant. He and the National Ski Patrol later supplied Gerry Mountaineering Equipment with the mailing list for its first catalog, which was mailed out in 1946 to 250 potential customers.

After leaving the Army, Ann and Gerry went back to Utica and lived with Gerry’s parents for a short time but were eager to get started on their own business of making light weight outdoor equipment. So they headed for California in a $50 used Model A Ford with rumble seat. They never reached their destination because they stopped in Colorado to visit Gerry’s 10th Mountain Division tent-mate, Bob Swartz. Taking his advice they drove along the Peak to Peak Highway above Boulder, Colorado and with $600 of the $625 they had, ended up buying the 20 acres on which they built their home and raised their twin sons and daughter.

During the years that Gerry designed and made equipment, they hiked and skied in the surrounding Colorado mountains. At the same time Gerry and Ann were building their business another husband and wife team, Roy and Alice Holubar, were running a business out of their basement selling outdoor equipment that Alice ordered from overseas while Roy taught at CU. Despite being business competitors, the two couples were friends and even supported each other’s businesses. Gerry helped the Holubars get Army surplus materials, and they in turn helped the Cunninghams build their house and later postponed publishing their first full-sized catalog until they were sure Gerry’s company was on its feet. Gerry equipment was strictly a catalog order company, but people soon discovered he lived a stone’s throw from Boulder.  They loved driving to his shop and pounding on his door to see what his latest designs were and what they might buy directly. Gerry hated this and decided to put a stop to it by opening a Boulder retail store.

Western Cutlery on Broadway just south of Arapaho was moving to the Eastern Industrial Park.  Their machine shop was available and the right size for a store. Gerry and one of his customers who knew outdoor equipment well, Dale Johnson, formed a business together. It took some doing to clean up the machine shop, paint the building, put up a Gerry sign and open the door, but the first Boulder Gerry store opened in 1958.

Gerry and Ann were avid mountaineers whose climbing expeditions ranged from Maine to the Sierra Nevada and north to Canada. Their 1952 expedition with Jerry More to the Canadian Rockies, on which they achieved some first ascents, was documented in More’s film Canadian High Adventure, which won a bronze at the Cannes Film Festival. Gerry’s initial product line catered to climbers, and their list of friends and customers included such mountaineering notables as Barry Bishop, Tom Hornbein, Lute Jerstad, Willi Unsoeld, Fred Ayers, Dick Irvin, Ed and Dolores LaChapelle, and almost the entire 1953 K2 expedition. One of Gerry Mountaineering Equipment’s most important innovations was the use of flexible exterior poles to replace an inner support. This provided a roomy interior and helped the tents stand up to howling high altitude winds exceptionally well. In 1953 prototypes of this tent went to the Hillary’s British Everest expedition and the American K2 expedition. Four of the survivors of the K2 expedition spent the night huddled in a Gerry Mountain Tent, with only part of the floor solidly on the ice shelf and the rest hanging over the abyss. After that, Gerry equipment was used by almost all the Andes and Himalayan expeditions of the next decade. The Himalayan tent, a larger version of the Mountain tent, was used by Jim Whitaker’s expedition on the first American ascent of Everest in 1962. When they discovered that their non-Gerry down jackets weren’t windproof, a dozen Gerry parkas were flown in by helicopter. Even the military was interested, using Gerry equipment for the Navy’s Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica. In 1958 the Strategic Air Command awarded Gerry a contract for 300 cold weather survival suits over Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean because only his fit into a space the size of a shoe-box. He used the same technology in 1963 to send sleeping bags down a four inch drill hole to three coal miners trapped by a cave-in at Hazleton, PA.

The product line quickly grew to include clothing, sleeping bags, down insulated garments to the well known Gerry Kiddie Carrier.  Having twin babies, living miles from any baby sitters, and loving to hike and ski, Gerry designed the first Kiddie Carrier, which used a piggy back position and was frameless.  That eventually evolved into the well known Gerry Kiddie Carrier with the graceful S curve frame. This created a far better experience for both parent and child than the only existing carrier on the market, the Hike-a-Poose, which had the child facing backwards way down on the carrier’s back. The potential market for the Kiddie Carrier was far wider than just the climbing and camping community, so Meg Hansson, a long time Antioch College friend who worked with him on the design, agreed to set up a spin-off company. Gerry Designs Inc. successfully marketed the Kiddie Carrier beginning in 1960. Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld both used one for their children. Since then almost a million babies have traveled wilderness trails and city malls in the Kiddie Carrier, which can still be found today by persistent online shoppers.

Gerry’s creative problem solving was applied to smaller items as well. The one with the most staying power has been the spring-loaded drawstring clamp, which is still very popular in today’s sports clothing and anything else that has a drawstring.  There also was the squeeze tube with the secure end clip, the elastic cord that snaps tent pole sections together, and the triangular shaped carabiner invented in 1950 which today you can buy in several colors for a key keeper. Gerry’s triangular design reduced the stress on the gate of the traditional oval shaped carabiner.  The great-dual use hiking pants which have legs that zip off was another of his great ideas and is still in use today, though the version he created was not very successful at the time.

More and more people were out climbing and skiing, some getting caught in avalanches so Gerry invented a Collapsible Avalanche Probe in 1962.  Soon afterward he patented his design of a non-welded joint tubular aluminum pack frame.  The CWD Pack construction patent followed.  His ideas and designs never ended.  Thousands of skiers, including the Winter Olympic Committee wore the light weight, warm Gerry Ski Jacket with the embroidered “G” in a triangle on the sleeve.  Gerry felt those ski jackets were probably his best known products.

Gerry’s course changed and in 1971 he resigned from the company he had founded when, as he put it, it was “too big and no fun”. However, he continued to be recognized in the outdoor industry. In 1973 he was elected to the National Sporting Goods Hall of Fame and the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show included him in its 1992 celebration “Industry Originals: Outdoor Pioneers 1900-1971.

Never lacking for ideas, Gerry immediately started a new business. Back in 1956, when had been in the business of light weight outdoor equipment for 10 years, his wife Ann had decided they needed a change.  The change was a vacation to the beach near what is now San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico.  This gave Gerry a chance to revive his love of sailing which later became the inspiration for additional business ventures. The first of his two sailing-related businesses was Blockits, which sold innovative kits for sailboat hardware that could be reconfigured at will. Three years after it was started, Blockits was sole to Davis Instruments. The second, Gerry Cruising Charts, involved surveying anchorages in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.  Around 1985 Gerry began publishing cruising guides for the Sea of Cortez and later the first accurate GPS navigation charts for the area. Just as in his backpacking years, Gerry’s message was about getting off the beaten track. Just a few weeks before his death he presented his last slide show, sharing some of the beautiful hidden anchorages he had discovered and charted with a new generation of sailors. His granddaughter Heather is carrying on the family business.

After leaving Colorado in 1973 Gerry and Ann moved to Arizona as “Designers-in-Residence” at Verde Valley School, where Gerry later became headmaster. He considered his work with young people “the most rewarding six years of my life.” From there he was appointed Director of Energy Programs for the State of Arizona by then-governor Bruce Babbitt. By the time he left that position he and Ann had begun building their off-the-grid earth-sheltered dome home in the hills south of Tucson.

Through his inventions and his commitment to communicating his ideas and values, Gerry has always promoted responsible use of our natural resources. He helped change the paradigm of how Americans perceive our wild lands. When he began Gerry Mountain Sports the Boy Scout Handbook taught how to cut branches and lash them together for camp furniture, and a heavy pack was reason for masculine pride. Gerry’s lightweight camping equipment and leave no trace philosophy promoted backpacking as an activity that was open to anyone and that would not destroy our wilderness. As early as 1949 he was presenting a slide show titled “25 Pounds a Week in the Colorado Rockies,” and his booklet, “How to Camp and Leave No Trace” was a staple of gear store counters and trade show talks for years. Gerry cruised the Sea of Cortez making his charts in boats powered by the wind with undersized outboard motors for emergency use only. As head of Arizona’s energy programs during the energy crisis of the mid-seventies he used a bicycle and public transportation to get to work and cut the energy bill of his Phoenix home in half. By the time he and Ann were living in their off-grid dome there was a new catch phrase to describe their lives. Long before the phrase was coined they lived a low carbon footprint lifestyle.

By living out his dreams and values, bringing his great gifts of intellect and creativity to all areas of his life, Gerry Cunningham had an impact on lives from sea level to the top of Everest, from dedicated mountaineers to families on vacation, from high school students in Arizona to three coal mining families in Pennsylvania.


2 responses to “Letters from WWII, 10th Mountain Division

  1. Matt Carman

    November 11, 2010 at 9:35 am

    Thanks for sharing, as his personal and family history is Invaluable

  2. Michael

    July 17, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    In 1973 I bought a Gerry Vagabound pack which I lugged on Scout trips, Europe in college, and in a fit of unreason, loaned to a girl I somewhat fancied at Humboldt State in 1980. She beat it up beyond recognition. I graduated and joined the Marines and was introduced to ALICE packs and other forms of physical punishments. I missed my Gerry pack. Last week I found a new and pristine version of the Vagabound online and quickly purchased it. It arrived a few days ago and I test drove it on a trail near my house in Oakland. I’m much larger than the boy who was in Scouts and college, but it fit and I found it perfect as I moved down the trail. Gerry Cunningham was a genius in my eyes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: