Battle on the Slopes: World War II's Ski Troops The U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division served in World War II combat for only four months, but it had one of the highest casualty rates. Veterans of the ski troops recall their arduous training and a punishing assault to take Italy's Mount Belvedere.
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Battle on the Slopes: World War II's Ski Troops

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

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

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

Over the next several days, NPR is airing a series of World War II stories. Our stories coincide with filmmaker Ken Burns' new documentary series, "The War," which begins Sunday night on PBS.

Today, we bring you the story of an extraordinary group of men - the 10th Mountain Division. It was in combat for only four months, but it had one of the highest casualty rates of the Second World War. The division started out as an experiment to train skiers and climbers to fight in the mountains. After their deployment, the men of the 10th went on to lead a series of daring assaults against the German Army in the mountains of Italy.

Producer Joe Richman of Radio Diaries brings us this audio history.

Mr. BOB PARKER (Retired; U.S. Army): Well, right now we're on top at about 11,000 feet at the Santa Fe Ski Area. I'm Bob Parker, formerly of the 10th Mountain Division. I'm now 84. And this is the 70th year that I've skied. I'll probably continue until I drop dead on the ski slope. I think now I'm ready to go. I've got my poles ready. My oxygen is working. So let's go skiing. All right. Here we go.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBERT J. NORDHAUS (U.S. Army; Retired): My name is Robert J. Nordhaus. I'm 95 years old. I served in the 10th Mountain Division from the time that it was organized in 1942.

Mr. NEWC ELDREDGE (U.S. Army; Retired): My name is Newc Eldredge. I was in L Company.

Mr. AL WAVEREK (U.S. Army; Retired): My name is Al Wervick. I was in Company K at 15th Infantry.

Mr. DICK WILSON(ph) (U.S. Army; Retired): My name is Dick Wilson, and I served with M Company, the 85th Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division.

Mr. DAN KENNERLY (U.S. Army; Retired): My name is Dan Kennerly. I was born in Georgia, September 21st in 1922. I was one of the few people in the 10th that never learned to ski.

Mr. NORDHAUS: The 10th really got started in 1940 - I believe it was. The U.S. Army decided they were going to form a mountain unit.

Mr. ELDREDGE: And the reason was, our infantry just weren't ready in terms of equipment or clothing or anything for winter warfare. If we had to go into Norway or Finland or if we had to fight in the Alps, we'd have to know something about how to fight in the mountains.

Mr. WILSON: I heard about the 10th Mountain Division being formed. At that time, it was called it's just the ski troops. And I knew that I was going to be drafted sometime, and I didn't want to go into some outfit that didn't appeal to me. And, of course, being a skier that was a very glamorous idea.

Mr. KENNERLY: I went and talked to our personnel man. Paratroops is filled up. So just out in the clear, blue sky, he said, how about ski troops. And he said, where are you from, soldier? And I said, Georgia. He said, you know how to ski in Georgia? I said, yes, sir. He said, where? Well, furthest north I've ever been was Gatlinburg, Tennessee. And I told him, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, of course, it's a big southern ski area now. He says, what do you wax your skis with? And I never had seen a ski, I said, bees wax. He kind of grinned, and looked over to his assistant. Then he says, you know, I think this fellow could make it. Seven days later, then I was on my way to Camp Hale, Colorado.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KENNERLY: Camp Hale was in the Pando Valley. It's just across the continental divide on the west side. And we got there and I got off the train, and I saw this big, white snow bank, seven feet high, and I thought to myself, what have I gotten my tail into.

Mr. WILSON: Me, being a boy from the flatland of Monroe County in New York to get up there and see that type of mountain, I just didn't know they existed - just amazing.

Mr. PARKER: So when we got to Camp Hale, they issued us wool ski pants, two kinds of parkas, wool socks, gloves with trigger fingers. And after a while, you learned how to use them.

Mr. ELDREDGE: Oh, I was excited about by the equipment - the lovely white skis and the finest bindings I'd ever seen. I couldn't wait.

Unidentified Man #1: F Company reporting for ski instructions, sir.

Unidentified Man #2: Very good, sergeant. At ease. You men are here to learn military skiing. Some of you has skied as civilians and followed certain standard techniques. You will find that the Army has added to the best of these techniques to create better ones of its own. That's all. Good luck and good skiing.

Unidentified Man #1: Left face.

Mr. NORDHAUS: It was a little more hazardous because you had a 40 to 50-pound pack, and coming down with the big pack and then you had these bindings that didn't come off, bear trap bindings. You even have to know how to fall or you'd a break a leg.

Unidentified Man #3: And here they come, shooting down the long white slopes like a string of comets. Watch them do that first fast turn, still keeping formation as they change direction. Yes, those long weeks of training are showing amazing results.

(Soundbite of wind rustling)

Mr. WILSON: It was very rugged training. We lived in the mountains for weeks, working in altitudes of up to 13,500 feet.

Mr. WAVEREK: I was out in five, six feet of snow in the 9th, 10th, until we get around 20 degrees below zero. But you had to learn to do the right things because you couldn't put a boy in that below-zero weather all the time, unless he knew what he was doing - he'd be dead.

Mr. PARKER: We had a lot of older guys with us who knew the score and knew what to do. We had old mountain men. And if you listen to them and did what they told you to do, well, you didn't get frostbite. The old-timer said rub bacon grease all over your face, ears, noses, fingers. It really helped with frostbite, and it did. And if your feet are really cold at night, you wake up your partner. And he has to sit up, and you put your cold feet against his warm tummy. And after a while, you switch, and he puts his cold feet against your warm tummy. It does wonders for feet that are starting to get too cold.

Mr. WILSON: We'd actually dig snow caves. And then with candles, just candles alone it would ice up the inside of the cave and pretty soon, it was warm as you could be just because the heat from your body and so forth. And the candles, you could strip right down to your shirt and shorts and be very comfortable in the snow cave.

Mr. KENNERLY: And then I learned something very quickly - is you never drink any liquid after, say, 4 o'clock, because the worst thing in the world is getting out of a nice, warm sleeping bag 20 degrees below zero to have your call of nature.

Mr. ELDREDGE: It was cold all the time; it was snowy all the time, and, you know, hunger. But it also was overall satisfying because we knew after we did it a while, we were getting in better and better shape, and we were getting stronger and stronger.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WAVEREK: Oh, you got to remember the war was really moving along.

Mr. KENNERLY: After we finished our training, they really didn't know what to do with us. I think all of us would have hated to think that we put all that training in this, and then end up missing the war entirely.

Mr. WILSON: Our division was probably originally designed to fight in Norway. But the Germans got there first. Then the next real mountain fighting that was going to take place was in the Apennines in Italy.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PARKER: It was Christmas Day, or something like that, they boarded us out on the ship and said, okay, you guys are headed for Italy.

Mr. ELDREDGE: We were finally in a combat zone. We hoped, in many ways, just to prove ourselves, which I think eventually we did.

(Soundbite of blowing wind)

Unidentified Man #4: In the closing months of 1944, forward units of the American 5th Army were faced with the task of breaking through these ridges of the German Gothic defense line.

Mr. PARKER: After the fall of Rome, the German army retreated to the northern Apennine mountains. There was the Gothic line, and then there was the winter line. And that's where the Germans made their stand.

Mr. NORDHAUS: Mt. Belvedere was the highest mountain there, and U.S. troops had been stymied there for about six months.

Mr. WILSON: You have to realize that the Germans had literally years to prepare, number one, their defenses. I mean, they had fantastic defense system setup in these mountains. And they did this because this was really the last bastion. As long they control those strategic points, nobody is going to get on through Italy.

Mr. ELDREDGE: Men who haven't been trained in the mountains look at the mountain and they think it's too much of an obstacle for them. And our guys just said we know we can do it. So, our commanding officer, General Hays, he planned a nighttime assault on Riva Ridge on the 18th of February, 1945.

Unidentified Male #4: Here was the situation of the front as General Hays saw it from his command post.

Lieutenant General GEORGE HAYS (10th Mountain Division): On my left is Riva Ridge and it was essential to capture Riva Ridge to prevent them from looking down in our flank and rear.

Mr. KENNERLY: Riva Ridge, was a vertical granite on the south face of it - so you could stand on top and you can see miles and miles and miles out there. You can see everything that moves.

Mr. ELDREDGE: At that time, the mountain was covered with snow, ice, very steep, very, very difficult conditions. And so at night, the Germans went to bed. They didn't even keep guard patrols going up there because they didn't believe that any American unit could climb that ridge night or day, and drive them off of the ridge top. Well, they were wrong.

Unidentified Male #5: Expert rock climbers began climbing the ridge's jagged rocks, and without making a sound, fixed ropes for the use of units that were moving up from below.

Mr. PARKER: Even pounded pitons in them. They had their piton hammers wrapped in cloths so that the Germans wouldn't hear them pounding in the pitons at night.

Mr. WILSON: These men were climbing with heavy packs full of ammunition.

Mr. WAVEREK: They got to the top of the rock wall in just about daylight. And they got into a pretty vicious firefight up there. And the Germans counterattacked, but they held them off. And they captured that rock wall.

Unidentified Male #5: At dawn, a single platoon of Company A reported that it had occupied the northern end of the ridge.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Male#5: The 10th Mountain Division, still considered green, had chopped the key threat out of the Gothic Line.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PARKER: It was an incredible operation. So, it was the next night that we attacked Belvedere, that was a different cup of tea.

Mr. ELDREDGE: There weren't that many casualties on Riva Ridge. But on Belvedere, there were a lot of casualties.

BLOCK: Our story about the 10th Mountain Division and their fight against the Germans in the mountains of Italy continues in a moment.

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