Remembering the Ski Troops
In the years since World War II, the ski troops of the 10th Mountain Division have evolved to be legendary figures. On March, 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 350 members of the New England Chapter of the "Pando Commandos," former members of the 10th who perpetuate its traditions through annual gatherings, will descend on Mt. Cranmore.
They will be reliving memories of their assault on the Italian Apennines during the last days of the war. Among their activities will be cross country and downhill competitions, a demonstration of military ski maneuvers, and a memorial service Sunday morning in in honor of their comrades who failed to return from the Italian campaign.
The 10th Mountain, so the story goes, was the last division to go to Italy, and the first to return home, although during the course of 114 days of fighting, its members succeeded in surging across the Apennines and breaking into the Po Valley. No other group trained so long or fought so briefly. The division suffered the heaviest casualties of any in Italy, however. Of the 15,000 who entered the country in early 1945, 992 were killed, and 4,145 wounded.
10th Mountain troopers were not an ordinary collection of soldiers, but then, 1940, the year the division was started, was not an ordinary time. War was everywhere, and the future seemed obscure, at best. Germany had already bowled over Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and France, and much of London was in flames as a result of Luftwaffe bombings. Pearl Harbor was almost two years off, and feeling against entering the war still ran high in the U.S. Still, there was a certain amount of anxiety along the East Coast, stirred by the prospect that once England fell, as it seemed she would, the next Nazi objective might well be the U.S.
The question was, what route would the German's take, and if they chose a northern path of invasion, especially in winter, what would stop them? Prior to World War II, skis and combat on snow had been something of an oddity, but by 1940, Americans had awakened to the sport, and were keenly aware of reports of Finland's valiant but futile wintertime fight against the Soviet Union the previous year. On silent skis, shrouded in white garments, the Finns had swooped in on Soviet columns, attacked, and glided away to safety. In the end, Russia, a nation of 190,000,000, overwhelmed 3,000,000 Finns, but a precedent had been set.
England and the United States both learned a lesson from the Finnish war. The Imperial General Staff began training ski troops in Scotland, and the U.S. Army created six ski patrols as well. In the meantime, unaware of these bureaucratic goings on, several Americans, all avid skiers, were discussing and worrying about the possible implications of a winter invasion of the U.S. Charles Minot "Minnie" Dole, one of the founders of the National Ski Patrol, Roger Langley, Alec Bright and Robert Livermore concurred that the idea of training ski troops was a logical response to the potential threat, and Langley suggested offering the services of the National Ski Association. Langley's offer was turned down by a form letter from the War Department, however.
Dole, an Establishment Bostonian out of Andover Academy and Yale, was not to be thwarted by such a reply. In June 1940, he countered by sending a circular letter to the 93 members of the National Ski Patrol, asking permission to offer their services to the War Department directly. The attached questionnaire came back with more than 90 percent of the membership voting in favor, and Dole undertook a campaign of countless letters to key people in the War Department.
His persistence was rewarded in December of 1940, when a Winter Warfare Board was initiated to start equipping troops. On October 22, 1941, Dole received word from General Marshall that in November the 1st Battalion 87th Infantry Mountain Regiment would be activated at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Three weeks after the 87th was activated, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the following day, the first recruit reported to Fort Lewis. Significantly, he was a ski racer from Dartmouth named Charles McLane, and his athletic and educational background was indicative of the thousands who followed. During the early winter of 1941, a written contract between the government and the National Ski Association made the Ski Patrol an official recruiting agency, the only civilian group so designated. Every prospective draftee who wanted to join the 87th had to fill out a questionnaire and submit three letters of recommendation.
Among the volunteers were many of the great names of skiing, including Walter Prager, former Dartmouth ski coach, Peter Gabriel of St. Moritz and later Franconia, N.H., Torger Tokle, brilliant Norwegian ski jumper, Herbert Schneider of St. Anton and North Conway, and Friedl Pfeifer, eventually a U.S. Olympic Coach.
Locals who found their way to the 10th were Arthur Doucette, Dick May, John MacDonald, Toni Matt, Bernie Peters, Otto Tschol, Milton Porter, Charlie Broomhall, Brad Boynton, Thad Thorne, Francis Limmer, Bob and Nathan Morrell, Fred Hartwell, Earl Dwelly, Ed Tenney, Alec and Ned Behr, Ralph Beldor, and Carl Blanchard. Not all who applied were skiers, but all shared a love of the outdoors and the desire to make the group the best fighting unit in the U.S. Army.
From all reports, it was an elite group of individualists. Because of the heavy influx of collegians, the division ranked among the most intelligent in the Army. In one regiment alone, 64% of its troops ranked at or above the Officer Candidate School rating of 110, and 92% above the Army's average IQ of 91. The vast majority elected not to go to OCS, however, and the 10th was noted for an egalitarian relationship between its officers and enlisted men.
The winter of 1941-42 was a memorable time at Fort Lewis, 62 miles from snow capped Mt. Rainier. The encampment was dubbed "Paradise," after one of two high elevation hotels on Rainier, and army promotional literature pictured tanned soldiers in white camouflage suits enjoying their training in the spectacular surroundings.
In 1943, the War Department decided to expand the 4,000 member regiment to full divisional strength of 15,000, and from then on, some of the glamor faded. It was apparent that a new post would have to be built to house the growing ranks, and the site chosen was high in the Rockies near Colorado's Tennessee Pass. As it turned out, Camp Hale as it was called, was something of a disaster. At an altitude of 9,000 feet. it was higher than most alpine passes, and at the same height that the final ascent of the Matterhorn takes place. It was also extremely dry, and many troopers developed heart murmurs, respiratory problems, and a rasping cough referred to as the "Pando Hack."
The two regimens, the 85th and 86th, persevered. In the meantime, the 87th headed for Fort Ord, and then on to the Aleutian Islands. On August 15,1943, an attack was launched on Kiska Island and after several years of training, the 87th was primed for action. A day passed without contact with the Japanese, but as night fell, fighting broke out. Dawn broke; and as the awful truth emerged-there were no Japanese on the Island. The Americans had been firing on one another. In all, 28 men were killed, 50 wounded. Within several months, the 87th had been transferred to Camp Hale.
A year passed, and training continued. Walter Prager supervised ski maneuvers, and much emphasis was placed on cross country technique and endurance. Advanced rock climbing skills were also drilled into the troops. Weekends were spent on leisurely jaunts into the vast surrounding wilderness, and in recreational ski racing. Many of the ski troopers visited the few areas then operating in the West, and Peter Seibert, a member of the 10th, discovered the location for the resort he planned to build after the war. Seibert realized his dream and today heads operations at Vail.
The fact was, however, that three years had passed since the founding of the mountain troops, and there was little to show for their perpetual training. But in November of 1944, word was received that part of the 10th was headed for Italy, and by the beginning of 1945, the entire division was in Europe. The 86th was the first to see action in the Apennine hills, but all the mountain troops were soon moved into the combat zone.
Although hailed as ski troops, the 10th's most famous victories were won by rock climbers. Every hill between Bologna and a point 24 miles north of Florence remained in German hands, and they had dug in securely on the most strategic peaks. One was Mt. Belvedere, another Riva Ridge, and on the night of February 18th, a patrol ascended Riva, surprising the enemy at the top of the ridge, and after a brief fight, captured the position. Soon after, Belvedere was secured. The previously solid German line crumbled, and fell back to the Genghis Khan line.
The conquest of Belvedere ultimately proved to be the launching pad for the entire spring offensive of Clark's Fifth Army. The 10th pushed the Germans back through the Dolomites while Patton's Seventh Army proceeded southeast from the Rhine, down the Danube, and into Innsbruck from the other side of the Alps. The 10th never reached its objective, the Brenner Pass. Patton's troops came 10 miles downhill into Italy, met a detachment from the 88th Division, and set up a signboard, the mere mention of which still infuriates members of the 10th: "You are now entering Brenner Pass. Courtesy of the Seventh Army."
Following the German surrender, the 10th became an occupational army in Italy, and eventually in the summer of 1945 was reassigned to duty in the Pacific. The division was en route when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and members spent the last few months of active duty in the U.S.
During the ensuing decades, rhetorical questions have been asked concerning the 10th Mountain Division. While in Italy, the division sent out exactly three ski patrols. By mid-February the snow had thawed so much that most of the fighting took place on foot. Hindsight is easy sport, however, and what remains are memories of a division of mountaineers unlike any that will ever exist again. If you visit Mt. Cranmore this weekend you'll discover what becomes of old ski troopers. They keep on skiing.
Photos courtesy of J. Arthur Doucette