World War II Veterans of the 10th Mountain Division Conquered Enemies Abroad and Created an Industry at Home
By Chad Stewart
You’ve heard the name before.
The Army’s 10th Mountain Division has spent most of this century fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning it the unofficial title of “Most Deployed Army Division Since 9/11.” But long before it battled Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, the 10th chased Nazi Germany through the mountains and valleys of Northern Italy near the end of World War II.
Today, the division lives in Fort Drum, New York, but it was born in the Pacific Northwest and raised in the Rockies.
The original soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division were innovators before and after WWII, first laying the foundation for winter warfare in the United States before returning to a jubilant nation brimming with newfound prosperity. Americans who endured a depression at home and won an epic clash abroad were ready to have fun. The veterans, free from service and armed with skills forged in training and combat, helped build the outdoor sports industry in America.
The 10th, the only combat division recruited by a civilian organization, was also the only unit that trained outdoorsmen, rock climbers and world-class skiers for a fight in the mountains. Its story is a one-of-a-kind expedition frozen in time.
When the outgunned and outnumbered Finnish army curtailed a Soviet invasion in the winter of 1939-40, it did more than humiliate the aggressors. Watchers around the world saw soldiers on cross-country skis take down Red Army tanks. The Finnish forces’ mobility on snow and their white camouflage were two advantages the Soviets could not match. Harsh winter weather, insufficient shelter and frostbite killed thousands of Joseph Stalin’s men while Finns, dressed in layers and seemingly invisible, attacked from all sides.
Finnish forces held out for months, but with a huge, 3-to-1 advantage in manpower, the USSR eventually won the Winter War in March 1941. Finland ceded 11 percent of its territory, but the fight put up by the Finns was remarkable and an American named Charles Minot “Minnie” Dole noticed.
Outfitting and training soldiers for mountain warfare was not a new concept—many European nations fielded divisions ready to fight in rough terrain—but the U.S. military of the 1930s was used to warm weather and low altitudes. Training usually took place in the South and places like Panama and Hawaii. The Army wasn’t equipped for rugged landscapes and frigid climates.
Dole, the founder of the National Ski Patrol, saw what Finland had done and he believed the U.S. military needed a specialized division ready to fight in rough terrain. He envisioned a Nazi invasion of the U.S. through the northern border with Canada and wondered if a German offensive could be repelled. The scenario seems far-fetched today, but Dole wasn’t the only concerned citizen in 1940.
“I think at that early stage of the war, anything was considered a possibility,” said Flint Whitlock, an author and historian. “If the Germans could take over France and invade Russia, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that they might be able to do it here.”
Dole petitioned the War Department and tried to sell the military on his idea. Initially, he was met with what he called “polite derision,” but he continued his push. He wrote letters to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, imploring them to reconsider. It wasn’t a few letters here and there. Whitlock, who researched his book “Soldiers on Skis” at the Denver Public Library, remembers library staff pulling out boxes of correspondence—thousands of documents by some estimates.
“I don’t know how he had time to run his business with all the time he spent trying to get the mountain division [created],” Whitlock said.
Dole eventually secured a face-to-face meeting with Marshall in Washington in September and gained an ally. The Army chief didn’t make any promises, but said the service would experiment with cold weather units later that year. It wasn’t an entire division, but it was a start.
Early in 1941, the Greek military forced Italian invaders back into the mountains of Albania in the dead of winter and 10,000 Axis troops froze to death. Another 25,000 were killed fighting in the rough terrain. The ill-equipped Italians could not beat the cold and the debacle delivered a serious blow to morale.
The U.S. Army knew it was ill-prepared for the winter warfare and hoped to avoid a similar disaster. In a report about Italy’s defeat, Lieutenant Colonel L.S. Gerow argued that mountain units couldn’t be created from existing troops, which tipped conventional Army wisdom on its head.
“Such units cannot be improvised hurriedly from line divisions,” he wrote. “They require long periods of hardening and experience, for which there is no substitute for time.”
Marshall and the Army finally came around. On November 15, 1941, 1st Battalion, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, was activated at Fort Lewis, Washington. The unit would eventually grow into the 10th Mountain Division.
Approximately 100 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, Company L, execute an about face on skis under the command of Lieutenant William J. Bourke on a flat snow-covered field. In the background, smaller groups of skiers are visible training in the trees at the base of one of the mountains surrounding Camp Hale, Colorado.
Members of the 10th wear their winter white uniforms at Camp Hale, Colorado.
Three 10th Mountain Division soldiers pose for a photograph on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado in February 1944.
Members of the Army’s first mountain division were hand-picked for their cold-weather and mountaineering skills.
A machine gunner and two 10th Mountain Division riflemen cover an assault squad routing Germans out of a building in Sassomolare Area, Italy, on March 4, 1945
After securing Riva Ridge, left, and Mount Belvedere, right, 10th Mountain Division soldiers move onto the next objective.
10th Mountain Division commander Army General George P. Hays, left, leads an American amphibious vehicle as it crosses an Italian lake during World War II.
Training in Paradise
A new unit was ordered, but who would fill the ranks?
The Army enlisted the help of Dole’s National Ski Patrol system and the National Ski Association to recruit men with experience skiing and hiking in the mountains. But they were looking for more than just sportsmen. They needed teachers, too. Fortunately, some of the world’s best ski coaches and instructors lived in the States.
“We got the entire Dartmouth ski team, including the coaches, to join,” said David Little, a historian and artifactologist who has spent more than 30 years studying the division. “That was the caliber of recruit they were looking for and getting. It was absolutely astounding.”
Dartmouth was the dominant force in collegiate skiing in the 1930s, winning six titles in the decade. In today’s terms, it would be like getting the Kentucky basketball squad or the Alabama football team to join the military.
To join, recruits had to submit three letters of recommendation from prominent people in their communities—teachers, coaches and others who could affirm the recruits’ high character and specialized skills.
Skiing was a sport for the affluent in those days, so many who volunteered came from well-to-do families. A significant number were either in college or had graduated before enlisting. Some left their Ivy League schools back east to join.
“Generally, you had individuals that had [money]. “They weren’t suffering if they could afford to play in this rich man’s sport,” Little said.
The American Alpine Club also helped fill the ranks, recruiting many of the instructors and men with climbing and hiking backgrounds. People like Paul Petzoldt, one of America’s premier mountaineers, joined and taught troops how to climb.
Tom Hames, the son of a 10th Mountain veteran, said there were others who weren’t Ivy League skiers or acclaimed rock climbers. They had other specialized skills that would help them survive in battle.
“They were muleskinners, they were guides and outfitters from the Western U.S.,” said Hames, who is the Tenth Mountain Division Foundation’s chairman of the board. “They were like my dad, who was a lumberjack. He worked outside year-round and could take care of himself—an outdoorsman. So that was the allure for a lot of them.”
The 87th Regiment spent the winter of 1941-42 training at 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, the fifth-highest peak in the lower 48. The soldiers tested equipment, clothing and food and spent the winter skiing, backpacking and learning how to ride and guide mules.
Walter Prager, the Dartmouth head coach, and Toni Matt, already a skiing legend, were just two of the luminaries present. Torger Tokle, a record-setting ski jumper from Norway who arrived in U.S. in 1939, might have been the most famous man there.
Tokle, Prager, a former Swiss world champion, and Matt, who left Austria in 1939, weren’t the only European-born soldiers at Rainier. It was just one of many unique qualities of the new unit.
“Another aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked is the influence of the foreign members of the division,” Whitlock said. “There were probably more foreign-born soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division than any other unit in the U.S. military.”
Men like Tokle, Prager and Matt were icons to the younger guys in the unit, or those who wanted in, and their participation likely bolstered recruiting.
“They had read about many of these guys, and all of a sudden here are their heroes signing up to join this new mountain unit,” said Whitlock, also the son of a 10th Mountain veteran. “They wanted to be a part of that. Many said that’s why they joined the 10th, so they could be [with their heroes].”
The men lived in two resort hotels—one aptly named Paradise Lodge—and often camped in the snow to test gear. An expedition climbed to the summit of Mount Rainier in the spring and Lieutenant John Jay captured the rare feat on film. Jay, a New York native, was the 10th’s version of a renaissance man, serving as the unit’s meteorologist, photographer and public relations officer.
By May 1942, two more battalions were activated at Fort Lewis and by December the 87th Regiment was moved to Camp Hale, Colorado, a new facility perched 9,200 feet above sea level.
The Mountain Training Center was tasked with the official work of developing procedures and manuals, evaluating equipment and training mountain warriors. The training at Camp Hale, more than 100 miles west of Denver, was more than learning how to ski and snowshoe. Company-sized elements experimented with building aerial tramways and suspension bridges over harsh terrain. Artillery units fired shells into ridgelines to perfect the art of man-made avalanches, a skill the Germans had in their repertoire.
“One of the things that they [practiced] was setting the fuses so the shells would explode as soon as it penetrated the snow,” Little said. “The Germans perfected that during World War I.”
When they weren’t training in zero-degree temperatures, some spent their time in the elements, skiing and traversing some of the highest peaks in the Rockies. There wasn’t much else to do. Hours from the closest city, Hale was effectively cut off from the rest of the world. Leadville, the nearest village, was deemed off-limits and even the USO was scared away by the altitude, according to “Climb to Conquer” author Peter Shelton.
With no outside influences or distractions, the soldiers remained focused on their preparation for combat. With the specialized nature of their dangerous training, Little said the smartest officers were the ones who listened to their enlisted experts. The traditional chain of command existed at Camp Hale, but it wasn’t as rigid as in other places.
“The guys talk about how casual the training atmosphere was up at Camp Hale,” Little said. “While you were expected to salute an officer, when you were in the field and trying to pitch a tent, it wasn’t unusual for an officer to go to an enlisted man and ask for help.”
Pulling rank could prove deadly in the Rockies, so officers with limited mountain experience who wanted to live followed the experts’ lead.
“You can’t let rank decide the route you’re going to check or the anchor you’re going to use,” said Hames, referring to mountaineering training. “It’s got to be someone who knows what they are doing.”
Even if that someone was four or five steps down the food chain.
“A lot of the new officers had set aside some of what they learned at Officer Candidate School and learned to listen to their sergeants and privates,” Little added. “That private or corporal might know a whole lot more about how to do what you want to do.”
Hames said that this aspect—the broken barriers of rank—probably saved lives during the two years the soldiers spent in Colorado. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, nobody was lost to an avalanche during training.
“If somebody was going to do something stupid, somebody was going to speak up and say, ‘We can’t do that here, sir, because it’s dangerous and we’re going to lose our lives,’” Hames said.
In mid-1943 and in dire need of more men to fill out the division, the Army started recruiting the old-fashioned way. They pulled “flatlanders”—soldiers with little mountain experience—from other divisions around the country.
The 87th Regiment was made up of the three-letter men—Dole’s recruits who arrived with three recommendations—and the 86th, activated in late 1942, was mostly volunteers with backcountry experience, but the Army needed to fill a third regiment. They were mostly draftees and transfers who came from Louisiana, Tennessee and Hawaii and many of them hated mountain warfare training. They nicknamed the place “Camp Hell” and requested transfers out, even if that meant combat.
Whitlock told an anecdote about one soldier who wanted out so badly that he intentionally skied into a tree with the hopes of breaking his legs and earning a ticket out of the Rockies. Little said it was more than just disdain for snow that motivated the draftees to get out. They were itching for a fight and it looked like the division might never make it out of Colorado.
“A lot of the guys that transferred out were frustrated,” he said. “They signed up to participate in the war. And here are the 10th Mountain guys, two years later still skiing down the hills, and the Army still didn’t know what to do with them. They wanted to get in the fight.”
Soon enough, the 10th would board vessels bound for the Mediterranean.
Riva Ridge and Beyond
After one last winter in Colorado and grueling training in the summer heat of Camp Swift, Texas, the newly renamed 10th Mountain Division set its sights on the Italian front.
The 10th was the last Army division to enter the war, but it wasn’t due to a lack of readiness. Marshall, weary of committing his only mountain-trained troops too early, was finally ready to let them loose.
“If he (Marshall) committed it in 1943 and they got chewed up, he wouldn’t have had them in ’44 or early ’45 when he needed them to punch the next hole in the German line,” said Little.
“The Army also didn’t really know what to do with the 10th because they were light—they didn’t have heavy weapons and tanks—and they had mules,” said Hames, whose uncle also fought in the division. “They were trying to figure out where to use them and how they’d be most effective and it took a while for the Army.”
With the entire division in country by mid-January, the untested unit’s first order of business was to secure Mount Belvedere, a peak long occupied by German forces. Other Allied forces had tried to take the high ground from the Germans, but none had been successful. By early 1945, the most of Allied forces in Italy were beat up and battered from a long, northward slog through the country.
“The Germans had done a good job of stymying the Fifth and Eighth Army’s drive to get into the Po Valley and advance into the Southern Alps,” said Whitlock, a former Army officer and Vietnam War veteran. “We were throwing very tired divisions at the Germans [and they] were feeling pretty good that they held the high ground.”
Not only was the 10th fresh, but its commander, General George Hays, recognized that knocking out German positions on Riva Ridge, to the immediate west, was the lynchpin that would help the Allies take Mount Belvedere.
“The 10th had never been in combat before and they really didn’t know how difficult combat was,” Whitlock said. “And they had this confident air about them—almost to the point of being overconfident.”
When they arrived at Riva, that confidence may have taken a slight hit. The warm weather had melted most of the snow in the region, rendering skis and their trademark winter whites mostly useless. Instead, many donned the drab khaki uniform worn throughout the Army.
The ridge they were assigned to take looked like a vertical 1,700-foot wall from a distance, but a closer inspection revealed pathways and ramps that eased the climb for experienced hikers.
Whitlock, who climbed the ridge with about a dozen 10th veterans in 1995, said it wasn’t a technically difficult climb like Mount Everest or Mount Rainier, but there aren’t any Germans defending those peaks.
“It wasn’t hand-over-hand, rope climbing up sheer cliffs,” he said. “Riva Ridge is not uniformly steep—there are parts that are steeper than others—but if you’re doing it in the dark, with an icy trail, it has some challenges.”
A surprise attack at night was the mission laid out before the unit. In the weeks leading up to the operation, teams devised routes up the ridge under the cover of darkness and stayed out of the enemy’s view during the day.
The Germans knew the 10th was in the area, but they didn’t think the Americans would try to climb the ridge. It was too steep, they thought. Only 40 or 50 enemy fighters occupied the ridgeline at any given time, even though companies of hardened German mountain troops were stationed nearby.
Hays’ plan hinged on the element of surprise, and starting at 7:30 p.m. on February 18, 1945, more than 700 men from the 86th Regiment climbed Riva Ridge in silence, carrying unloaded weapons to guard against the sound of an errant shot giving away their position. Using five separate routes, the soldiers reached the top with only one casualty, but at daybreak counterattacks ensued. It took six days to secure the ridgeline and proved more costly than the initial ascent.
Twenty-one were killed during the operation and another 52 wounded. The death toll could have been worse if not for an aerial tramway constructed by the 126th Engineer Battalion. The soldiers used the machine, powered by a small engine, to quickly haul supplies to the top and wounded troops to the bottom—30 men in the first day alone. There’s no doubt the tram saved lives.
“They took a four- or six-hour evacuation down to a four-minute ride down the tram. It’s a four-man process to carry a wounded soldier down a path like that,” Little said.
Mules were also instrumental in resupplying the troops fighting at the top. One route up the ridge was tame enough for the animals to navigate and the experienced muleskinners were able to guide them.
Controlling Riva Ridge enabled the 10th to launch an overnight offensive on Mount Belvedere later that day. With the canopy of darkness shielding them, the 87th Regiment and a battalion from the 85th mounted an attack on one of the strongest German positions in Italy without loaded guns. On their way up, they passed the carcasses of American tanks abandoned during earlier attempts to take the peak. Bullets and artillery started flying early on the 20th and didn’t stop until February 25, when the last German counteroffensives were rebuffed.
In the coming months, the 10th would force its way north through Italy, taking down five German army divisions along the way. The costs were high for the more than 19,000 who fought with the division. In 114 days of fighting, 992 were killed in action and more than 4,150 were wounded. The German army surrendered in Italy on May 2 and would cease fighting altogether five days later.
Despite the high price of war, by the time they reached Lake Garda and the foothills of the Alps, some didn’t want to leave. The climbing looked too good.
The war in Europe was over, but the Pacific raged. With its specialized skills and relative freshness as a unit, the 10th was slated to be part of Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of mainland Japan. Orders were to return to the U.S. for more training before a November 2 amphibious assault of Kyushu, the southwestern tip of the island nation.
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August relieved them of that duty. The entire division was inactivated in November 1945, just in time for winter’s arrival.
“Part of the reason why [the Army] didn’t maintain a mountain division after the war, is that they found out that the draftees with no experience—who weren’t outdoorsmen but had training—were able to survive and fight just as well as the three-letter men,” Little said.
Launching a Lifestyle
Many veterans came home and returned to the wilderness of New England and the rugged landscapes of the West with an entrepreneurial spirit. They came back to the land they loved and built an industry on it.
Paul Petzoldt, the accomplished climber who taught rock climbing and survival skills at Camp Hale, founded the National Outdoor Leadership School in 1965. David Brower, who helped write the manual the division used to teach ski mountaineering, served as a lieutenant with the 10th in Italy. He became a prominent environmental activist, leading the Sierra Club for decades.
Even the ubiquitous 7/16-inch nylon rope, still used in countless military and civilian applications, can trace its lineage to Camp Hale. Tents, clothing, sleeping bags and camping stoves were among the many items training helped improve.
Silver Star recipient Bill Bowerman returned to his native Oregon and became a legend in track and field, coaching 64 All-Americans and 33 Olympians during his 24-year tenure as head coach at the University of Oregon. He also co-founded a tiny company called Blue Ribbon Sports. You know it today as Nike.
Perhaps most impressive was the division’s impact on the American ski industry. Thirty-eight 10th Mountain Division alumni are members of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. Tokle—the legendary ski jumper from Norway—was killed in action, but he’s in the hall alongside his brothers from the 10th. Minnie Dole, the 10th’s founding father, is also an inductee.
Pete Seibert, seriously wounded in battle and told he’d never ski again, founded Vail Mountain Resort with Bob Parker, Ben Duke, William Brown and Dick Wilson, all division veterans.
Friedl Pfiefer, an Austrian who came to the U.S. in the late 1930s, helped grow Aspen, Colorado, from a fledgling mining town with one ski trail into a world-renowned vacation destination. Former Dartmouth ski racers and WWII veterans Percy Rideout and John Litchfield were co-directors of the original ski school.
Fritz Benedict, an architect from Wisconsin and former Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice, settled in Colorado and designed the master plans for Vail, Snowmass and Breckenridge, three of the nation’s top resorts. Prager, who returned to Dartmouth and won more national titles, coached fellow 10th Mountain vet Steve Knowlton at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
At least one ski trooper is still attacking the mountain. Richard Sadler, of New Hampshire, told The Associated Press in March that he still skis about 45 days a year. He’s in his early 90s but sees no reason to slow down.
They did more than build resorts and race down slopes. John Jay, already a pioneering ski filmmaker, continued to break new ground after the war. Others ran ski schools, owned ski shops and published ski magazines. A 19-year-old from Kansas named Bob Dole never learned how to ski in the Army, but he recovered from his combat injuries and spent nearly half a century in politics.
Besides a handful of patrols, the division didn’t use their skis in battle, but many made up for lost time after the war’s end. More than 60 U.S. resorts were founded or managed by, or employed, ski instructors who fought in the 10th.
The list of names just scratches the surface of the division’s influence on the sport. As Little explained, a deluge of surplus 10th Mountain Division ski equipment—at least 100,000 pairs of skis alone—flooded shops after the war.
“In 1950, 10th Mountain skis were being sold off as surplus for $1 a pair. Boots were being sold for $1. Ski poles were 25 cents,” said Little, who owns and exhibits one of the largest collections of 10th Mountain Division artifacts. “All of a sudden, the cost to go skiing went down astronomically. It became possible for the average person to go skiing.”
Little’s statistics show the sport’s massive postwar growth. In 1940, there were about 10,000 active skiers in the U.S. Today, there are more than 20 million. Little says each one is indebted to the original soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division.
“If you ski or snowboard, you owe your history to these guys.”
—Chad Stewart is the senior editor of On Patrol. This story originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.
Every day, America’s service members selflessly put their lives on the line to keep us safe and free. Please take a moment to let our troops know how much we appreciate their service and sacrifice.
Stories in this Series
Dec 5, 2015
Cousins Become Brothers in Arms
They were cousins who farmed during the summers, hunted on the family’s land and worked factory jobs during cold Michigan winters. Despite their heritage, George and Russell Gobba shared another very important trait—They were ready to fight in World War II.
Nov 14, 2015
Surrender at Bataan Led to One of the Worst Atrocities in Modern Warfare
When the Battle of Bataan ended on April 9, 1942, about 12,000 Americans and 63,000 Filipinos became prisoners of war. What followed became known as the Bataan Death March—a brutal journey that left thousands dead.