World War II's Ski Troops: Fight for Mt. Belvedere

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During World War Two, 13,000 soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division were sent to Italy to fight the Germans. Close to 1,000 would die. This is the second part of an audio history of the 10th Mountain Divison, including the fight to take Mount Belvedere.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Melissa Block.

During World War II, 13,000 soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division were sent to Italy to fight the Germans. Close to a thousand would die.

From Producer Joe Richman of Radio Diaries, our audio history of the 10th continues with the fight to take Mt. Belvedere in Italy's Apennine Mountains.

Mr. KENNERLY: Well, I've always thought that anything as important as a war that you ought to keep a record of it of what you did. I decided that I was going to keep a diary of it. And I've tried to be as accurate as I could.

(Reading) Monday, February the 19th, 1945, we assemble for the attack. The moon is just rising above Mt. Belvedere. No one talks. I guess everyone is alone with his own thoughts. The order to move out is whispered around and we begin to file up towards the line of departure. Our success depends on the element of surprise. Sergeant Postman(ph) repeats: All weapons will be unloaded. No weapons will be fired until after daylight when the order is given. That was a smart move, because they didn't know where we were.

Mr. ELDREDGE: Keep in mind it was laced with barbwire, mines, the Germans were dug in. It was terrifying and difficult, but you kept on going because the guys next to you kept on going.

Mr. WAVEREK: I think I remember more than anything else was when the Germans started the phosphorous flares. Even though it was night, the whole countryside was just bathed in it. It's a very eerie-like and frightening.

Mr. KENNERLY: (Reading) The ground is becoming steeper and more difficult to climb. The first rays of the sun bathe the snow with a yellow glow. It's momentarily quiet. After several minutes, an American machinegun opened fire. Its sound is beautiful. Everyone rises and start running towards the saddle. All hell breaks lose. Men are yelling and screaming. Shells seem to be falling everywhere.

A German machinegun fire opens up. The bullets kick up dirt around us and make a loud popping noise as they split the air nearby. The two men I'm following go down. They yell for our medic. I pause to help but remember the general's words to keep moving.

Mr. WAVEREK: We were fairly close to the summit when I got wounded. I was hit by - I think it was mortar fire, but I'm not sure German mortar fire. And right away I knew I'd been hit, in fact I could see the two bones in my wrist sticking up in the flares.

Mr. KENNERLY: You know, a bullet, that's been shot at you if it comes close to you, it makes a popping noise.

(Soundbite of hands clapping)

Mr. KENNERLY: And then have artillery firing on us and they'd be hitting close by. And I start shivering. I just shake like this. And I guess it's fear. Because I sure hell had a lot of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Male #1: On the morning of the 20th, one whole battalion reached the top of Mt. Belvedere. But the trick, as they soon discovered, was not just to reach it, but to hold it.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

Mr. KENNERLY: (Reading) As I cross the small stream, we began to receive mortar fire. German shells land further down the valley. The valley looks peaceful. A farmer is plowing his field with an ox. How strange. Two powerful armies are locked in deadly combat, yet the farmer goes about his daily chores, paying no attention to the drama around him. That's the strangest thing I ever saw.

Unidentified Male #1: As the 87th swung to the northeast to firm up the Belvedere line, evidence of the cost of that action began to show.

Mr. KENNERLY: (Reading) The sound of battle begins to die down. We have taken the saddle but there's not much left of C Company. I hear they have lost their captain and over half of their men in the assault. Dead bodies are scattered along the slope. They are lying everywhere. Frozen in many different positions. Some have their arms or legs sticking straight up, nothing is supporting them. Others remain in a firing position. There's a strong scent. At first, I cannot place it. Now it comes to me, it is the odor of the slaughterhouse. What I'm smelling is blood.

Mr. WAVEREK: Belvedere was a bloody battle for the 10th Mountain Division, particularly, of course, the 85th, which we took the steep side.

Mr. NORDHAUS: I think there are about three or 400 killed at Belvedere alone.

Mr. KENNERLY: (Reading) Six p.m., the light is fading fast. I think of the friends I lost today. This morning, they were alive. Tonight, they're arriving in mattress covers. I stared up the endless sky and muttered, thank you, Lord, and fade into sleep.

Mr. WAVEREK: Belvedere was a tough, tough mountain to get.

Mr. ELDREDGE: It was a stalemate until we made that breakthrough. Once we made the breakthrough, the German army collapsed and our division just kept going all the way to the Alps.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Male #2: Headlines bring the people of the United Nations, the most sensational news of the war, the surrender of Italy. In New York, Americans of Italian descent are first to celebrate. Vino for victory.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Male #3: (Singing) I saw a peaceful old valley…

Mr. ELDREDGE: When the war was over, an awful lot of guys went to Colorado, went to Wyoming, Montana, and found once they were there that there was the possibility of making a living in the mountains.

Mr. WAVEREK: I mean, they were ski instructors. They were ski school directors. They were college coaches. They were Olympic coaches. Ski resorts started by 10th men. Winter Park, Arapahoe Basin, Vail. Just name any aspect of the ski business after World War II and you'd find one or more 10th men involved in it.

Mr. ELDREDGE: Jerry Cunningham invented the down coat. Bill Bowerman invented the running shoe.

Mr. WAVEREK: Hundreds of them, literally, went back into the ski world. Rightfully so they can claim that they were the foundation on which the post-war ski world took place in the United States.

Unidentified Male #3: (Singing) Fight for this country before I was born.

Mr. NORDHAUS: Well, that's the whole story. Oh, yeah, I miss skiing. I get up at the top of the mountain and watch and (unintelligible). Sure, I miss skiing but you got to quit sometimes. I skied until I was 90.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELDREDGE: As long as my artificial knees work, and my artificial eyes worked great, why not ski?

(Soundbite of ski on snow)

Mr. PARKER: That feels great.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: The voices of former 10th Mountain Division soldiers Dan Kennerly, Bob Parker, Newc Eldredge, Al Waverek, along with Dick Wilson and Robert Nordhaus who both died this past year. Our story was produced by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries.

You can find some photos of the 10th Mountain Division at npr.org along with the preview of upcoming stories in NPR's series on World War II.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News.

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