HÉLÈNE ORIENTALE – During World War II, the mountains near Rimini hosted a group of specialized soldiers, training hundreds of sled and pack dogs for military purposes. Later this year there will be a new marker commemorating this history – thanks to the help of teenagers from East Helena.
Last week, 15 welding students from East Helena Secondary School worked hard in the workshop to assemble a metal frame that will eventually house a historical exhibit about Camp Rimini’s war dog reception and training center.
“We’re building a pavilion, just so people can go and see the story of what happened there and do all that stuff,” said Kaeben Bushnell, an EHHS junior. “It’s a pretty cool site to hang out.”
The students cut metal supports using a computer-controlled plasma cutting table, and they welded base plates to the large metal columns.
Teacher Casey Harris says he was looking for a community project his students could work on.
“We would like to do as much community work as possible,” he said. “The students really appreciate this, and it’s a great way for them to see their work around town and have their name tied to something.
Harris’ father is part of an honor guard with Montana Military Museum volunteer Dave Cogley. This is where the idea of collaborating on a Camp Rimini marker was born.
Camp Rimini was originally built as a Civilian Conservation Corps facility in the 1930s. Then, from 1942 to 1944, it became one of several US Army dog training centers. Due to its snow conditions and mountainous terrain, it specialized in the preparation of sled and pack dogs and their handlers. Hundreds of dogs were eventually put into military service, for everything from transporting equipment to retrieving downed Allied pilots in areas like Greenland and northern Canada.
Today, all that remains of the camp are a few foundations near the Moose Creek Campground. There is an exhibit at the Montana Military Museum in Fort Harrison, including historic photos and sleds like those these teams would have used. Much of it came from Dave Armstrong, a well-known local veteran who served in Camp Rimini’s dog training program and continued to work with dog teams throughout the war. He helped preserve and share the history of Camp Rimini, and he also became one of the founders of the Race to the Sky sled dog race.
Armstrong died last year at the age of 100. Ray Read, director of the Montana Military Museum, says that makes it more important than ever to create a permanent reminder of the dog training program.
“We felt he had come so far to tell the story that it was important for us to create a legacy,” he said.
Read says they have been working for decades to put up a historical marker at the Camp Rimini site. Recently, the US Forest Service helped them find a site near the campground, where Cogley once poured a concrete slab. The museum has come up with a project. Harris then had his students figure out what materials they would need and how much it would cost, and the museum staff ordered the materials.
Read says the collaboration with EHHS has been a big help.
“What they’re doing here, they’re giving us a resource that we can’t find,” he said.
Last week, Read and Cogley visited the classrooms to share some of Camp Rimini’s history, including showing archival footage of the dogs training.
“I appreciate their knowledge, their interest in this process,” Read said. “I couldn’t ask for a better group.”
“I thought that was very interesting,” Bushnell said. “It’s really cool that it happened in Rimini – somewhere so close and local.”
Once the classes have finished their work, the metal columns will be powder coated to give them a durable protective finish. Read says the plan now is to move the project to the Camp Rimini site once the weather improves. They hope to hold an official inauguration this spring.
“I just want them to be able to really understand the story and just have a good place to see what happened up there,” Bushnell said.
You can learn more about Camp Rimini and the War Dog Program at the Military Museum of Montana. It is open on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and at other times on request. As it is in Fort Harrison, visitors must bring photo ID to gain access.