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 the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, 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 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.
If you’re watching the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, you’ve certainly seen American alpine stars Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin race down mountains and snowboarder Chloe Kim ride to a gold medal in the women’s halfpipe. They’re amazing athletes whose names are recognized around the world, but the names of the mountain men who helped popularize outdoor sports in the 1940s are not as famous.
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.
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.
Here are just a few of the many ways the 10th Mountain Division was unlike any military unit in history.
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.
1. They Built the American Ski Industry From the Ground Up.
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.
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.
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2. A Postwar Deluge of 10th Mountain Division Ski Equipment Invited Masses to the Sport
“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 historian David 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.”
3. The 10th Included Skiing’s Version of Nick Saban
Swiss-born Walter Prager, the first world champion in the downhill (1931), was already a legendary head coach at Dartmouth College when he joined the Army before WWII. Prager led Dartmouth to six national titles in the 1930s, fought in the war and returned to Hanover, New Hampshire, to win some more championships. He also coached the U.S. Ski Team and fellow 10th Mountain vet Steve Knowlton at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
4. Dozens of 10th Mountain Alums are Hall of Famers
Thirty-eight 10th Mountain Division alumni are members of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. Torger 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.
5. A Future Track and Field Legend in the Ranks
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.
6. They Didn’t Invent Mountain Climbing, But They Made It Safer
Paul Petzoldt, the accomplished climber who taught rock climbing and survival skills at Camp Hale, Colorado, 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, Colorado, where the division trained before the war. Tents, clothing, sleeping bags and camping stoves were among the many items training helped improve.
7. The Numbers Don’t Lie
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,” Little said.
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