Members of the renowned 10th Mountain Division will gather in the Mt. Washington Valley once again this weekend to renew acquaintances and relive the memories of their combat duty during World War II.
More than 300 members of the New England Chapter of the "Pando Commandos," former members of the 10th, will descend on Mt. Cranmore February 29-March 2 , and their activities will include cross country and downhill competitions, military ski maneuvers, and a memorial service to honor their comrades who failed to return.
The 10th Mountain troops were not an ordinary collection of soldiers. Modeled on the Finnish ski troops who vainly defended their country against a Soviet invasion in 1939, the division was created by Charles Minot "Minnie" Dole in 1940. Dole's driving concern was the potential threat of a winter invasion of the United States, and felt that training ski troops was the logical response. Alec Bright, Roger Langley, and Robert Livermore, who had co-founded the National Ski Patrol with Minot, jointly offered the services of that organization to the War Department, but were turned down with a brusque letter. 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 ski 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.
In 1943, the 10th was expanded to a regular regiment, comprised of 15,000 men, and training facilities were moved to Camp Hale, Colorado. Aside from brief combat duty on Kiska Island in the Aleutians in 1943, it was not until 1944 that the balance of the 10th Mountain troops saw active fighting. By the beginning of 1945, the entire division was in Italy.
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.
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.
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.
Though decades have passed since the end of the war, the strength of the 10th's traditions is apparent simply in the numbers who religiously gather each year to remember their war experiences. This weekend's activities begin with social gatherings on Friday evening, the 29th, and will continue with a slalom race at Mt. Cranmore at 10 a.m. on Saturday, followed by a cross country race at 2 pm. On Sunday, the public is invited to watch a skiing demonstration by Pando Commandos at 11 am, which is supported by the contemporary 10th Special Forces, popularly known as the Green Berets. Afterwards, a memorial service will be conducted for members of the 10th who perished in World War II.