Battle on the Slopes: World War II's Ski Troops

First of a five-part series.

A group of 10th Mountain Division soldiers on skis move uphill over a snowy path near Camp Hale, C i i

hide captionA group of 10th Mountain Division soldiers on skis move uphill over a snowy path during training near Camp Hale, Colo.

Denver Public Library; 10th Mountain Resource Center TMD 776
A group of 10th Mountain Division soldiers on skis move uphill over a snowy path near Camp Hale, C

A group of 10th Mountain Division soldiers on skis move uphill over a snowy path during training near Camp Hale, Colo.

Denver Public Library; 10th Mountain Resource Center TMD 776

Hear Part 2 of This Report

Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division on Riva Ridge in Italy, 1945. i i

hide captionSoldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, members of the 86th Regiment, Company F, pause on Riva Ridge in Italy, 1945.

Denver Public Library; 10th Mountain Resource Center TMD 712
Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division on Riva Ridge in Italy, 1945.

Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, members of the 86th Regiment, Company F, pause on Riva Ridge in Italy, 1945.

Denver Public Library; 10th Mountain Resource Center TMD 712
Soldiers carry a colleague who was wounded during attack Mount Belvedere i i

hide captionSoldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, 85th Regiment, 1st Battalion, carry a colleague who was wounded during the attack on Italy's Mount Belvedere, Feb. 20, 1945.

Denver Public Library; 10th Mountain Resource Center TMD 367
Soldiers carry a colleague who was wounded during attack Mount Belvedere

Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, 85th Regiment, 1st Battalion, carry a colleague who was wounded during the attack on Italy's Mount Belvedere, Feb. 20, 1945.

Denver Public Library; 10th Mountain Resource Center TMD 367

During World War II, the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division served in combat for only four months, but it had one of the conflict's highest casualty rates.

The division started out as an experiment to train skiers and climbers to fight in the most difficult, mountainous terrain in Europe.

Some of the men who joined the division were skiers already, while others had never seen a ski in their lives.

Their training at Camp Hale, near Pando, Colo., included skiing, snowshoeing and rock climbing. They also learned cold-weather survival tactics, such as keeping warm by building snow caves.

The men lived in the mountains for weeks, working in altitudes of up to 13,500 feet, in five to six feet of snow and in temperatures that dropped to 20 degrees below zero at night.

At the end of 1944, the 10th Division was finally deployed and began the first of a series of daring assaults against the German army in the northern Apennine Mountains of Italy.

Mount Belvedere was the highest mountain in the Apennines, and the Germans had stymied the U.S. Army there for nearly six months.

On Feb. 18, 1945, the 10th Division took Riva Ridge — to prevent the Germans from being able to survey U.S. positions below — in a nighttime operation. The steep mountain was covered in snow and ice. At night, the Germans did not bother with guard patrols, because the conditions were so difficult that they did not believe any American unit could climb the ridge — day or night.

But the Germans were wrong, and the soldiers of the 10th climbed, silently, to the top and secured Riva Ridge with minimal casualties.

The next day's operation, the assault on Mount Belvedere, would prove to be very different. The American soldiers ended up victorious, but not without a price: Nearly 1,000 of the 13,000 soldiers in the division died.

In the postwar years, many veterans of the 10th returned to Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, and formed the foundation of the U.S. ski industry. They worked as ski instructors, ski school directors, Olympic and college coaches, and helped found resort areas in Colorado, such as Winter Park, Arapahoe Basin and Vale.

One veteran didn't stop skiing until he was 90; others are still skiing (with oxygen tanks) in their 80s.

In this audio history, former soldiers Newc Eldredge, Dan Kennerly, Robert Nordhaus, Bob Parker, Al Waverek and Dick Wilson share memories of their days as men of the 10th Mountain Division, including the assault on Riva Ridge and battle at Mount Belvedere in 1945. (Nordhaus and Wilson died earlier this year.)

Joe Richman of Radio Diaries produced this story, with help from Deborah George and Ben Shapiro.

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