Men of steel andsons of Mars,
Under freedom's stripes and stars.
We are ski men,
We are free men,
And mountains are our home.
White-clad G.I. Joe,
We're the Phantoms of the Snow,
On our ski-boards we're the mountain infantry,
And from Kiska to the Alps,
Where the wind howls thru our scalps,
With a slap slap slap
Of a pack against our back,
We will bushwack on to victory!
—A song of the 10th Mountain Division
Many of them arebalding and softening now, bifocaled perhaps, white-collared, willing to seethe world as defined each evening from Walter Cronkite's good gray lips. Manyoffer their utmost serious concentration each morning to the advice ofhelicopter pilot-announcers who tip off the serious commuter as to which of thecity's concrete cloverleafs are suitable for passage that day. They aremiddle-aged—in their late 40s and early 50s mostly—caught irretrievably in theharness of modern survival. Admen, insurance men, postmen, tax men,salesmen.
Life is the usual:In basket, Out basket, telephone bill, change storm windows, change oil, changechannels, mortgage due, daily bread, can of beer. The usual.
Yet all of themare quick, very quick, to make it clear that they were once part of somethingunusual, something unique and exciting, historic in its way. That would be the10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army during World War II.
It was anextraordinary outfit, full of esprit and vigor. Even now—a full quarter of acentury after the 10th Mountain was disbanded for all time—there are enoughbarstool liars around so that the number of claims to membership in thedivision probably far exceeds its total allotment of officers, men, mules andRed Cross doughnut girls combined.
Authentic veteransof the 10th are readily identified by the nostalgic paraphernalia they haveaccumulated. There are the framed photographs of the aging veteran as a youngsoldier, kneeling in the snow, grinning and looking rakish, with dark skigoggles snapped atop his beaked Alpine cap, or draped like some moon creaturein baggy camouflage-white parka and pants, hefting a white-painted M-1rifle.
An authenticveteran of the 10th will own stacks of the division's lively newspaper,Blizzard. And he will invariably recall that the paper's regular pinup picturewas not a girl, but a hill—the Mountain of the Week. McKinley and Rainier gotmore exposure than Grable and Hayworth.
Occasionally therewill even be an old 78-rpm phonograph record that will give forth the hoarse,massed locker room sound of the 10th Mountain Division Glee Club, performingsuch numbers as Two Boards Upon Cold Powder Snow, Yo Ho or Ninety Pounds ofRucksack or Systems and Theories of Skiing, which goes like this, in part:
There are systemsand theories of skiing,
But one thing I surely have found
While skiing's confined to the wintertime,
The drinking's good all the year'round,
Walla, walla, walla....
The 10th MountainDivision's Phantoms of the Snow are more than delighted to rummage about intheir memories of walla-walla World War II. Most of them wound up believingthey were markedly better men by the simple fact of having belonged to the10th. Whatever civilian banalities may have been visited upon them in themeantime, there will always be that robust and ultimately ennobling servicewith the 10th to turn back to for moral resuscitation and repair of the soul.The 10th was an elite outfit—a little on the bizarre side perhaps, butindubitably elite.
It has often beennoted that 1940 was not a good year for the planet Earth. War was everywhere,and there was much to be feared for the future. Already the German blitzkrieghad bowled over Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and France.Luftwaffe bombs burst through the night and much of London burned. There was,logically enough, a certain amount of anxiety along the East Coast, some of itstirred by the prospect that once England fell the next Nazi objective mightwell be the U.S.
And where wouldthe Germans strike? U-boat sightings and imaginary rubber-boat flotillas werereported with almost every nighttime flood tide that year from Plymouth Rock tothe Roney Plaza. There also was an unusual amount of discussion in New Englandabout how an honest-to-God blitzkrieg just might work coming along the sameroute the British took in 1777—moving along the St. Lawrence River, down theChamplain Valley, through the Adirondacks and down the Hudson. Panzers inPoughkeepsie! And if any of it should happen in winter what was to stop them?What kind of snowbank mountain warfare was the U.S. Army equipped to mount? TheWar Department had been careful over the years to schedule nearly all Armymaneuvers either in the gumbo mud of Louisiana or on the frying-pan misery ofTexas at full summer heat. One might well have got odds in 1940 as to whetherthe U.S. Army could hold its own in the snow even against flintlock andcocked-hat British Redcoats, let alone a mountain-trained Panzer division ortwo. There was, of course, more American awareness of a wintertime war thanusual, for the sinewy little army of Finland was then fighting hopelesslyagainst the overwhelming invaders from the Soviet Union. On silent skis andshrouded in white garments that made them all but invisible against the snow,the Finns would swoop in on a Soviet column, attack with ferocity, then glideoff to some slick frozen surface of lake or canal. There they would removeskis, strap them to their backs, slip into a pair of Hans Brinker clamp skatesand escape off across the ice. The Finns were crushed, of course, but theirtactics were fascinating—at least to the millions who saw them on newsreels inthe darkened Roxys and Bijous of this land.
Such was not thecase at the War Department. Early in 1940 the National Ski Association offeredits services to form a full-fledged U.S. ski troop. It was put down with a"thank-you-very-much-for-your-patriotic-suggestion" form letter fromWashington. But then the War Department encountered a patriot named CharlesMinot Dole. He was a lean, Establishment Bostonian out of Andover Academy, Yaleand the New York insurance business. He also represented the primitive world ofrecreational skiing—when rope tows were powered by Model T Ford engines and thetoe strap had just been replaced by a binding known for good reasons as"the bear trap." He founded the National Ski Patrol System after beingstranded on a chill Vermont mountainside with a broken ankle. Minnie Dole (ashe came to be known by U.S. brass up to and including Chief of Staff George C.Marshall, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and F.D.R. himself) was distinctlynot a modest or retiring type. He felt no compunction about placing his viewson military tactics before the U.S. top brass—beginning with a personal letterto President Roosevelt. As he put it in his autobiography: "I was excitedby my vision of American troops trained under conditions similar to the Finns,ready to fight wherever snow was. And I persisted in my dream."
The War Departmentwas not entirely unaccustomed to the I-persisted-in-my-dream school ofunsolicited advice. One of the first junior officers Minnie Dole encountered inWashington told him that his idea for ski troops was approximately equivalentto the ever-popular suggestion that the Army should create guns that couldshoot around corners. But that did not deter the persistent dreamer. Soon hehad arranged, through Yale connections in Washington, an audience with GeorgeMarshall. And soon General Marshall had pretty much swallowed the Dole salespitch and ordered up a unit of mountain soldier-skiers. By December 1940something called the Winter Warfare Board had been formed to start equippingthe troops.
Unfortunately itwas basing its recommendations on a dog-eared old government catalog—AlaskanEquipment, Revised Edition, August 1914. Minnie Dole was properly scornful:"'God, it was all furry boots and dog harness and mukluks and polar-bearharpoons and damfool things like that." It was suggested, at one point,that this select corps of military skiers wear G.I. overshoes and use skis withtoe straps in combat. Minnie Dole stepped right up and told the Army:"Goddammit, that is a damfool waste of money, and you might as well send abunch of flatland farm boys wearing rubbers as equip our men that way."Nowadays when Minnie Dole, white-haired and perhaps a trifle stooped as henears 70, puts his name in a copy of his autobiography it is neithersurprising—nor even too overweening—that he would also include his title:"Minnie Dole—Founder of the N.S.P.S. & So-called Grand Daddy of the10th Mt. Division." Without Minnie the Army might well have fielded a fulldivision of harpoonists wearing mukluks or, worse yet, dropped a wad oftaxpayers' money trying to shoot around corners.
In November 1941Dole's dream became true flesh. Surprisingly, recruiting for the unit had beengenerally delegated to the civilian-operated National Ski Patrol System. Toguarantee the pure breed of clear-eyed, mountain-directed, right-thinking,frostproofed schussboomers the Army felt it deserved, the NSPS demanded thateach volunteer submit three letters of personal recommendation. Familyminister, athletic coach, headmaster, friendly neighborhood ski champion orhome-town mountaineer would be required to vouch for a young man's prowess onskis or in the woods, as well as for his sanitary character and flawless viewof sin. (Later, these notes from home came to be known as WCTU slips.)
Oddly enough, thesystem worked, though it could not be enforced with unvarying rigidity. MinnieDole recalled that one candidate applied with just one letter ofrecommendation: "This nominee will not become lost if there is no sun to goby. He will not starve if he has no rifle with which to shoot game. He will notfreeze if he has no cover and snow is on the ground. I know because I teachedhim myself. Signed/His Big Brother, Hiram." The man was accepted.
Recruiting largenumbers of skiers in America back then was not so easy as it would be now.Skiing was an exotic pastime in the '30s, unknown to most Americans andconsidered a sport best practiced by the leisure class, something a little likefox hunting or squash.
Thus many men whovolunteered for the unit were necessarily either the Dartmouth Outing Clubvariety of collegian or one of the dozens of European-born expert skiers whohad come to live in the U.S., such as Swiss-born Dartmouth Coach Walter Prager;Peter Gabriel of St. Moritz; Torger Tokle, the brilliant Norwegian ski jumper;Herb Schneider of St. Anton; and Friedl Pfeifer, who was to become U.S. Olympiccoach.
It was an eliteunit. When the 10th was fighting in Italy a Yank magazine correspondentdescribed the division this way: "It is very swank. With skiing thehigh-salaried sport it is in peacetime—the kind of sport where it costs twodollars for a lift up a hill—most of the volunteers are from well-to-dofamilies.... Some of the things about the division will seem like story-bookstuff to GIs who have been slugging it out steadily and undramatically here for18 months, things like the Pfc. who comes from a swank Chicago suburb andcarries the same .45 and holster his dad—an officer—carried in France in '17.Little things like regimental orders decreeing crew haircuts for every man. Andwidespread singing while they work." (It also was written that the men ofthe 10th yodeled as they advanced in combat. This was roundly denied.)
The tone of theYank article was furiously disputed, and the magazine was put on display aroundthe unit latrines. It was true, however, that the 10th had a bearing that otheroutfits of the Army simply could not match. Because of the heavy influx ofcollegians, the unit totted up a particularly high average of I.Q. scores. Amark of 110 qualified any enlisted man for Officer Candidate School: oneregiment of the 10th had no fewer than 64% of its troops ranked at or above theOCS level, and 92% ranked above the Army's average score of 91.
When drunk, men ofthe 10th tended to do what they knew best, such as donning a pair of crampons,taking a coil of rope and—starting from one wall of a lodge, lobby orbar—crawling flylike up the wall, across the ceiling and down the other wall.Or they would climb out of a hotel window—the higher the better—and simplyrappel down several stories of sheer brick to be received by the gawking crowdson the street below.
At first this actstirred attention outside Denver's Brown Palace Hotel during the 10th'sColorado training phase, but later the crowds actually seemed to get used toit. But at a downtown hotel in Austin, Texas it suddenly became death-defyingwhen performed for the lowland pedestrians, most of whom could scarcely bear towatch.
It also was truethat when there were mountains to climb or slopes to schuss many men of the10th would actually choose those recreations over everything else, even aweekend pass. Francis Sargent, the good-natured and frank-spoken governor ofMassachusetts, was a member of the 10th, and he recalled, "My God, half ofthe sonuvaguns in the outfit would rather go climb some rock than go down totown and look for booze and broads. I remember thinking it was the damndestthing for soldiers to act like that. But, of course, when the 10th got a fewdrinks under their belts they'd go into their hotel-climbing act, which noother outfit could top. And there never was anything wrong with the 10th whenit came to girls, come to think of it—not once they came down the mountains andgot their skis off, anyway."
There are manyother recollections by 10th Mountain men of scenes that could scarcely haveoccurred in any other division of the Army. Of a university professor-privatefirst class gently reading aloud to his bunkmates from Dante in 14th centuryItalian. Of a barracks in which there were only artists—talented young artists.Of the professor-platoon leader who suddenly halted his hypertense squad as hewas leading them across the dank and fogged terrain of Kiska. "Look!"he whispered hoarsely. As men all around him fell to the ground expectingJapanese rifle fire, he pointed toward a small tree and said gently, "It'sa Peale's falcon, very rare, very rare."
During theferocious weeks of combat the Blizzard, an uncommonly literate publication,published information about the distinctive bouquet of various wines made indifferent regions of Italy, certainly not the sort of information one mightexpect in a service paper, but just the right touch for the division gourmets.The paper also carried declensions of Italian verbs for those who wished tolearn the language. Earlier, when the division was stationed in Texas, the menof the 10th got all involved in a watercolor-painting contest and, later, apoetry competition. The best poems were published in a thin pamphlet titledBrief Bugle. This was no exercise in locker-room doggerel. Many wereexceedingly sensitive. One poem, called The Captains and the Kings Depart, waswritten by a Pfc. C.K. Moore and read in part:
What becomes ofthem,
The action lovers?
Benders of nature,
Extroverts of the will,
Determined of mind,
Not to be subdued,
Not to be thwarted
In their prime:
When their years are light
As April rain,
Do they die in a spurt
Of orange flame over Stuttgart—
50th Mission "incomplete"?
Or is life full for them
As a brimming glass
At a little flat in the East 50's,
New York City,
When the wife is at a matinee
And Jeff and Ruthie are sophomores
At Park Lane High?
Is it all over
But the shouting?
Are they dead—the action lovers?
The 10th MountainDivision was an amorphous entity during much of its brief and curious life. Formonths its headquarters was an office in the Graybar Building in Manhattan.Then, at last, the first volunteer arrived at Fort Lewis, Wash. He was a formercaptain of the Dartmouth ski team, with his skis on his shoulder and ordersfreshly cut to join the 87th Mountain Infantry, which was the forerunner of thefull 10th Division. He was greeted with cold amusement. No one at Fort Lewishad heard of any ski troops; the MPs laughed and told him he had made history,because he was the only man ever to serve all by himself in an Army regiment.But soon enough others arrived, mostly three-letter men (as their NSPSrecommendations had led them to be tagged); but many were no-letter men of theregular Army, appalled at the prospect of spending a winter in the snow. Amongthose arrivals were those paragons of transportation without which any mountainunit is all but useless: mule skinners and their mules.
Perhaps one of themore extravagant surprises awaiting the three-letter men who volunteered to skiwas the revelation that they would be required to learn the care, feeding andfriendly persuasion of mules.
The unit spent thewinter of 1941-42 on Mount Rainier, where the annual snowfall sometimes totals500 inches; at times snow was banked as deep as the eaves of their barracks,and the men used a network of tunnels in the snow to get about the place. Oftenthere were eerie, opaque fogs that obliterated all sense of place or time, andpowerful winds shrieked for endless hours during blizzards upon the mountain.The regimen was desperately hard, but most of the men thrived on it. Even thedrawling young men of the South came to revel in the joys of the snowplow andthe stem Christy, even though they persisted in slurring references to skis asbed slats, or "tawtchah boads."
By the end of thatbitter season the 87th was in prime physical condition, and the decision hadbeen made in the War Department that this hard nucleus of mountain troops wouldbe expanded to 4,000 that summer and to full division strength of 15,000 by thewinter of'43.
By this time thenation was deeply involved in the war. The setting was perfect for the creationof a myriad of popular and glamorized symbols of the magnificent American"war effort," and few things could enhance the image better than topair it with something wholesome, pristine and preferably athletic—like skiingin new powder snow or, perhaps, climbing a really good-looking mountain.
So the grandpropaganda machinery started to grind, and the nation soon was filled withfilms and photos and sketches and splendid four-color billboard facsimiles oflife with the U.S. Army's ski troops, or Alpine Commandos, as they came to beknown. Paramount and 20th Century-Fox studios put together a number ofshort-subject features. The newsreels did their part, too, so the U.S. moviebuff got lots of looks at the tanned, well-toothed fellows, dramatically drapedin white camouflage, dipping and leaping over sun-washed trails as they foughtabove Sun Valley to defend the nation's heritage. Warner Bros, released a20-minute film—in Technicolor—titled Mountain Fighters.
There were manyshots, too, of Alaskan huskies pulling sleds loaded with machine guns. Suchtactics were never seriously practiced, but it was felt that the dogs and sledsmade excellent copy for animal lovers. There also was a certain amount ofattention paid to the art of fighting a war tied in with the romantic sport ofrock-climbing. Thus there were rotogravure photos of young soldiers danglingnonchalantly from sheer rock faces, crampons set, ice axes firmly snagged insome safe crevice, their rifles slung upon their backs as they gazed out in akind of Byronic rapture over the view of valleys (and perhaps the war) far, farbelow.
The 10th MountainDivision probably got more publicity than any single military unit during theearly stages of the war.
There was nomention of the need to skin mules or of the almost daily need to shovel severaltons of snow away from the mess-hall door before anybody could get in to eatbreakfast. Recruitment grew at a marvelous rate, and the War Department decideda new post should be built for the division. After being rejected byYellowstone National Park the Army settled on a site near Tennessee Pass highin the Rockies of Colorado. The name of the post was to be Camp Hale: altitude9,300 feet, with mountains rising to 13,000. It was anything butShangri-La.
The elevationcaused critical problems for many men. Some wobbled about in states of chronicdizziness and nausea; some simply could not catch their breaths. Those who didacclimate to the height discovered they could consume inhuman quantities ofliquor when they went down to the richer air of Denver, nearly a mile lowerthan the camp. They also learned that a man who had imbibed to a point thatmade him interesting in Denver (perfectly capable of rappelling the BrownPalace) would revert to a flopping, falling-down drunk the moment he got offthe bus back in the thin air at camp.
There were plentyof other problems: an epidemic of respiratory ailments; wood ticks carryingRocky Mountain spotted fever; countless cases of high-altitude sunburn; evenlightning strikes on the mountaintops.
Yet all was notbleak. Some 25 years later 10th veteran Andrew D. Hastings Jr. produced agraduate-school paper about the life and times at Camp Hale, noting: "Thewill to preserve their glamorous preconceptions of the mountain troops and agrowing pride in newly acquired skills and ability to withstand hardship causedmost of the men to sublimate their misfortunes through a plethora of parochialjokes and glowing letters to the relatives. After all, the food was good(mountain rations specified 4,000 to 4,500 calories per day)..., and the skitows were indeed free as advertised.... Their slowly acquired agility to copewith the elevation, mountain storms, and difficult rock faces generated afierce pride which relished and thrived on adversity in a manner bordering onthe masochistic. In a kind of service snobbery, the notion of 'the boys belowthem on the plain' was transferred to a qualitative concept as well, soflatland soldiers were thought of as being below (perhaps 'beneath' is a betterterm) them in every sense of its meaning. It really amounted simply to a unitmorale feeling, but mountain men professed to be tougher, more versatile,better disciplined, more resourceful and even brighter soldiers than foundelsewhere in any arm of the service."
By July 1943 the10th was classified as a true division, the 10th Light Infantry Division(Alpine). Two of its regiments—the 85th and the 86th—were at Camp Hale. The87th, now toughened and wise in the ways of mountainside combat after itspioneering days on Mount Rainier, had been whisked off to Fort Ord, Calif.,where it was submitted to the science of amphibious-landing assaults. By theend of July the 87th was aboard heaving transports in the chill waters of theNorth Pacific Ocean, bound for one of the most bizarre actions of World War II,the invasion of Kiska Island.
D-day on Kiska wasAug. 15, 1943, and American Intelligence had reported that the Japanesegarrison was dug in for a ferocious defense, intent on holding this speck ofland in the Aleutian Islands chain no matter what the price. Already in theinvasion of Attu, U.S. troops had encountered the Japanese tactics of fightingin the demented weather conditions of the Aleutians. The violence of thewilliwaw type of storm was common to the region, and higher areas of themountains were almost constantly under a soaking, dense layer of fog. Thus thecombination of powerful, shrieking winds and a pea-soup atmosphere caused a manto be practically blind and deaf. On Attu the Japanese would simply lie in waitin the gale and the fog, with their automatic weapons at the ready. When theysaw the groping shapes of American troops emerge in the mist they would waituntil several silhouettes had advanced to within a few feet of their position,and then they would direct machine-gun fire out of what seemed to the Americansto be a solid wall of fog. Within seconds the Japanese would melt away again inthe mist to set up another invisible emplacement not many yards away. It was apeculiarly nightmarish kind of combat, and the psychological toll was extremelyheavy.
The assault onKiska was launched in the dawn, and men of the 87th were primed for the samekind of terrifying tactics by the Japanese. In the growing light, as they creptacross the beach and up the mountainsides, there were occasional wild shots.But there was never any concentrated heavy fire from the locations where theJapanese were supposedly dug in. After a tense day passed without contact withthe enemy, the Americans grew edgier. Then, during that chill night, somesavage fire fights broke out at scattered points on the island. It was notuntil pale morning that the 87th and other units discovered that they had beenfiring upon each other, that the shapes emerging from the fog had been theirown troops moving from another part of the island. In all, 28 men were killed;50 were wounded. Within 72 hours the awful suspicion that had begun to dawn onD-day plus one proved to be true. There were no Japanese troops at all. Theyhad withdrawn a few hours before the attack.
The men of the87th had been blooded in battle, all right. But it would be difficult toimagine a sadder combat debut.
At Camp Hale, the10th Division now received its own shoulder patch—a red-white-and-blue Romannumeral X, formed by crossed bayonets on a powder keg. Bayonets? Powder keg?The returned veterans of Kiska were so disgusted with the design that they worethe patch upside down. The winter training at Hale proceeded in grim routine inthe thin and frigid air of the Rockies. The men worked on close-order drillwhile wearing skis, did kick turns on command and hauled those 90-poundrucksacks for miles through deep snow.
The winter of 1944was unusually cold in Colorado, and temperatures were frequently at the —40°level. During a four-week stretch in March and April the 10th Division heldwhat may have been the most intensive and demanding set of maneuvers in modernmilitary times. The whole division went up into the mountains on skis andsnowshoes, with mules packed, and there they stayed for around 30 days. Somemen slept outside every night during that whole period. Some of the time it was30° below zero, yet campfires were forbidden in order to maintain maximumsecurity. Damp socks were dried by wearing them next to one's chest the nextday; no man left his boots outside his sleeping bag at night, for by dawn theywould be hard, as if they were cast in iron. The men of the 10th had learned tobuild igloos, to pitch tents in a howling blizzard, to burrow snugly (andsafely) into a snowdrift for the night, to construct snow forts for protectionagainst an enemy (loosely packed snow stopped bullets better thanhard-packed).
Few soldiers werebetter fitted for the brutal demands of combat than the 15,000 men of the 10thDivision after that marathon of survival. Yet no one wanted the division, andthere was even a real question as to whether it would ever be needed. As thediscerning Hastings wrote in his thesis: "The 10th Light Alpine Divisionhad been offered to various theater commanders and had been rejected onlogistical grounds. No theater seemed willing to cope with the highlyspecialized table of mountain equipment. Where would they procure such thingsas mules, pack howitzers, skis, pitons or ice axes...?
"At this pointthe Department of the Army decided to send the Division to Texas for conversionto flatland infantry.... The depth of degradation was reached when the word'Alpine' was stricken from the Division designation. That summer, the Divisionwas subjected to a variety of tests to qualify it for flat-land operations,river assault and jungle infiltration, during which it had to contend withscorpions, copperheads and coral snakes...."
Their"tawtchah boads" and mountaineering equipment had been mostly leftbehind in Colorado; the newsreels had long ago forgotten them, and they hadn'tbeen called Whiz Kids or Spectacular Specialists or Miraculous Men of theMountains or Glory Guys for months and months. The future seemed to hold littleof dramatic potential, except for an occasional scramble down the side of ahotel in Austin.
Of course, therewould be no legend of the 10th Mountain Division, no proud vets, no bands ofliars to make specious claims of membership if it had all petered out at CampSwift, Texas, would there? Certainly not. Three years had gone by since theelite mountain troops had first been formed and, really, what had they to showfor it? The tragedy of Kiska, a brilliant display of stamina in what was nomore than a war game and perhaps a certain way with mules and scorpions.Something better than that had to happen. It did. Andrew Hastings continued inhis dissertation: "Then came the surprise announcement which produced ametamorphosis of attitude even more instantaneous than that of the previousJune. It arrived on Thanksgiving Day 1944 and the occasion couldn't have beenmore fitting; the outfit was redesignated the 10th Mountain Division. The titlehad a warm, musical ring to it. Somebody up there liked them!"
Perhaps, perhaps.About the same time it got the new name, the division also got a new commandingofficer. And, finally, it got a promise of new action.
Major GeneralGeorge P. Hays, a veteran of the Normandy invasion and holder of aCongressional Medal of Honor from World War I, arrived to take over from MajorGeneral Lloyd E. Jones, a rather frail officer whom Minnie Dole remembered as"always sitting on a radiator; he could never seem to get warm."
The battle forItaly had bogged down in late '44 at the Germans' famed Gothic Line in theApennines, about 35 miles from Florence. It was the Nazi defense thatbarricaded the entire chain of valleys forming a gateway to the Po River. Theterrain contained little of the challenging grandeur of the Rockies; it wasmade more in the likeness of the furry peaks of New England. The weather wassimilar, too: nasty enough, always chill, though rarely near zero, and given tofalls of damp, never truly powdery, snow. Most of the roads were primitive andquickly became gluey mud. Because the region had been under repeated assault bythe divisions of General Mark Clark's Fifth Army, most of the ancient stonefarmhouses showed shell damage and much of the higher ground was scarred withcraters, shattered trees and fresh graves.
The Nazi positionson Monte Belvedere had been the target of three massive attacks. Each assaulthad faltered and was ultimately broken on the abrupt ridge that lay at the footof the valley leading to the powerful Nazi fortifications. The Italian campaignhad come to be called the Forgotten Front, for it had produced little Alliedprogress in months.
It was here thatthe 10th Mountain would make its stand and, ultimately, its reputation. Thedivision was reissued mountain gear (there were almost no skis, however), andearly in the winter of 1944-45 it arrived in Naples. The troops moved quicklyinto the combat zone and found a quagmire of mud. There was no opportunity forthe swift, clean thrill of skiing into battle as so diligently practiced inColorado, although there was some ski work on patrols. A few members of the10th put on skis to pose for publicity shots for Yank.
Still there was nodoubt that the 10th had arrived. German leaflets began turning up among thetroops, saying: "You have seen Naples, now you will die. This is not CampHale, where you had 15,000 men skiing at the foot of Tennessee Pass." TheGermans also had propagandized their own men, as was learned later in diarieskept by the Nazi troops, by warning them: "The 10th Mountain Division ishere. Be triply alert, for it is a crack outfit." The Germans were toldthat the 10th was incredibly barbaric and that it had sworn an oath never totake prisoners.
The key to theentire campaign to come lay in whether or not the 10th could take theSerrasiccia-Campiano Ridge, which effectively protected the approach to theGerman emplacements on the essential high ground of Monte Belvedere. Andperhaps the single most critical bit of real estate in that whole region was asteep and icy cliff, quite rocky and about 1,500 feet high, at the top of whichlay an essential attack-approach to the key German defenses. It came to beknown as Riva Ridge. There were more than 80 German guns with four battalionsdug in beyond Riva along the Serrasiccia-Campiano Ridge, another four inimmediate reserve, and the roads, plateaus and even the mountainsides had beenthickly strewn with mines.
Through lateJanuary '45 and early February the bulk of the 10th Division moved into thevillages and stone farmhouses that lay below the Germans' Belvederefortifications; much of the advancement was done after dark in the hope thatthe Nazis would not discover the size of the force. The assault was to begin atdusk on Feb. 18 and proceed through the night when—hopefully—the 1st Battalionand F Company of the 86th Regiment would have secured the terrain at the top.The other two regiments of the 10th would then attack Belvedere at otherpoints.
The black andslippery climb up Riva, as it turned out, was the only significant action inwhich the 10th Mountain Division actually had to use the expertise it haddeveloped in its months of labor on Mount Rainier and at Camp Hale. All thesinging about "two boards upon cold powder snow" and "thewhite-clad G.I. Joe" went for naught once the 10th went to war. Yet no onein the 10th—or perhaps in all of the War Department—would dispute that the RivaRidge performance made it all worthwhile. On that dark night, with a biting wetwind snapping around them, the mountaineers clambered cautiously up the wetrocks. In some places it was so steep and slippery that they had to use pitonsand lines set by a tiny corps of climbing experts that had gone up the cliffahead. Each time a rock clattered down or a man cursed in the dark those aroundhim would pause breathlessly, never certain but what the slightest noise wouldbring a fusillade of bullets and grenades from above.
Before dawn theyreached the top, apparently unseen. The three-letter men had performed as theirpress clippings had said they should. The Germans were taken by surprise. Theyhad assumed that Riva Ridge was unclimbable, at least at night.
On top, the men ofthe 10th secured their positions, then for two days fought off a series ofsavage attacks from the German garrison. Eventually a supply line was rigged upthe ridge. With other units advancing from other angles, the 10th took MonteBelvedere on the following day. The keystone to the previously solid GermanGothic Line crumbled. Four days later Monte della Torraccia fell, and the Naziswere forced to fall back to the Genghis Khan Line.
This conquest ofBelvedere by the 10th ultimately became the launching pad for the entire springoffensive of Clark's Fifth Army. Through all of April the American forces sweptacross the Apennines and into the Po River Valley. Indeed, with the impatientGeneral Hays driving them along, the 10th became the spearhead of the springoffensive, crashing through the vaunted Genghis Khan Line in six days,ultimately becoming the first U.S. troops to cross the Po, then thundering oninto the Alps to close the Brenner Pass.
On May 2 GeneralFridolin von Senger und Etterlin sadly surrendered the German forces in Italyto General Mark Clark. As his own special tribute to the ferocity and skills ofthe "swank" 10th Mountain soldiers, von Senger asked that his Americanescort to the surrender site near Verona be the 10th's own General Hays. VonSenger said that though he had campaigned on all three of the European frontsthe toughest troops he had run into were the "elite men of the 10thMountain Division."
It had been aremarkable display. In just four months of combat the 10th had effectivelycrippled or destroyed nine German divisions and taken more than 20,000prisoners. Yet it was at a bloody cost. Few divisions were as horriblydecimated in so few weeks. Although there were eight U.S. divisions involved inthe Fifth Army's campaign through Italy, the 10th took a full one-third of thecasualties. In all, 990 men were killed (including the champion jumper, TorgerTokle). Another 3,000 were wounded.
British FieldMarshal Harold Alexander said later: "The only trouble with the 10thMountain Division was that the officers and men did not realize that they wereattempting something which couldn't be done, and after they got started theyhad too much intestinal fortitude to quit. The result was that theyaccomplished the impossible."
Perhaps the trueperceptions of those days have faded from the minds of the 10th Mountain boys,now turned middle-aged. Perhaps the fact that much of what they did in Italycould as well have been done by "flatland farm boys wearing rubbers"really does not matter in their memories. They had their own tradition, theirown sense of history.
Men of steel andsons of Mars,
We are ski men,
We are free men,
We're the Phantoms
Of the Snow.
THIS IS THE SPORT THE 10th BUILT
Once tagged with such a glamorous title as Phantom ofthe Snow, it figures that a man would be hooked on skiing for life. Coming outof World War II, men of the 10th were exactly that: they fanned out and, ineffect, spurred the sport all across the U.S.
Former Phantoms discovered and developed ski areas,like ex-Sergeant Pete Seibert, who pioneered Vail, Colo.—even naming its mostpopular run Riva Ridge in memory of that famous Italian battle objective.Seibert later added the 10th's Bob Parker and Bill Brown as executives. Otherveterans developed more mountain resorts: Larry Jump at Colorado's ArapahoeBasin, Leon Wilmot at Ski Broadmoor, Gordy Wren at Steamboat Springs, FriedlPfeifer at Aspen. In the East, Dave Judson moved into Otis Ridge inMassachusetts, Herbert Schneider to Mt. Cranmore in New Hampshire and NeilRobinson to Glen Ellen in Vermont. Then came the teachers, such as WalterPrager, who coached Dartmouth for 20 years, and is now a Wilmington, N.Y. skishop owner; Curt Chase, chief of the Aspen ski school; Sigi Engl of Sun Valley;Kerr Sparks of Stowe; and Cliff Taylor of short-ski fame, now at SquawValley.
Ski business, too, is spotted with ex-Phantoms such asR.A. (Doc) Des Roches, executive director of Ski Industries of America; JohnWoodward, vice-president of A&T Ski Co.; Nick Hock of Lange Co.; and SteveKnowlton, U.S. Olympic skier in 1948 and now director of Colorado Ski Country,U.S.A. Outside skiing, other 10th men made it big, such as Kansas SenatorRobert Dole, also chairman of the Republican National Committee; FrancisSargent, the skiing governor of Massachusetts; and David Brower, formerexecutive director of the Sierra Club.
Perhaps Knowlton says it best for the old men of the10th: "I was ski crazy when I went into the division 30 years ago. When Icame out I was still ski crazy. I have been doing my level best to promote thesport ever since."
THOMAS B. ALLEN