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in: Military History, Podcast

February 19, 2020 Last updated: March 26, 2020

Podcast #586: The Story of the Skiing Soldiers of WWII

In the winter of 1940, a group of civilian skiers was sitting by a fire in a ski lodge in Vermont shooting the breeze about how the US Army needed an alpine division like the militaries in Europe had. That conversation transformed into a concerted effort to turn their idea into a reality, and the creation of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division — a unit which would play a vital role fighting in the mountains of Italy during World War II.

My guest today has written a book on these skiing, snow-bound soldiers. His name is Maurice Isserman, and he’s a professor of history and the author of The Winter Army: The World War II Odyssey of the 10th Mountain Division, America’s Elite Alpine Warriors. We begin our conversation discussing why the US Army didn’t have an alpine division before WWII and how a group of civilian skiers led by a man named Minnie Dole spearheaded the movement to create one. Maurice then shares why the 10th Mountain Division heavily recruited from top tier colleges, and how the unusual make-up of the division influenced its unique culture. We then discuss how the military figured out what new equipment this new mountain division needed and the vigorous training its members undertook high in the mountains of Colorado. Maurice then digs into the 10th’s involvement in the war and whether they actually got to use the skills they trained for years to hone. We end our conversation discussing the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division, including their role in America’s post-war boom in recreational skiing.

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Show Highlights

  • Why didn’t the US military have a mountain division prior to WWII?
  • So how did the military develop the training and curriculum for this alpine division?
  • Minnie Dole and the National Ski Patrol
  • Why civilians played such a big role in this division’s creation 
  • The outdoorsy, unique culture of the 10 Mountain Division 
  • The technical innovations in outfitting and equipping these guys 
  • How this group captured the imagination of the American public 
  • When and where did the 10th start seeing action?
  • The major battles and achievements of the 10th Mountain Division
  • The impact these veterans had on the consumer ski environment 
  • Did the 10th leave a lasting impact on the military?

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay:

Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art Of Manliness Podcast.

In the winter of 1940, a group of civilian skiers was sitting by a fire in a ski lodge in Vermont shooting the breeze about how the U.S. Army needed an alpine division like the militaries in Europe had. That conversation transformed into a concerted effort to turn their idea into reality, and the creation of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, a unit which played a vital role fighting in the mountains of Italy during World War II. My guest today has written a book on these skiing, snowborne soldiers. His name is Maurice Isserman. He’s a professor of history and the author of The Winter Army: The World War II Odyssey of the 10th Mountain Division, America’s Elite Alpine Warriors.

We begin our conversation discussing why the U.S. Army didn’t have an alpine division before World War II, and how a group of civilian skiers, led by a man named Minnie Dole, spearheaded the movement to create one. Maurice then shares why the 10th Mountain Division heavily recruited from top-tier colleges, and how the unusual makeup of the division influenced its unique culture. We then discuss how the military figured out what new equipment this new mountain division needed and the vigorous training its members undertook high in the mountains of Colorado. Maurice then digs into the 10th’s involvement in the war, whether they actually got to use the skills they trained for years to hone. We end our conversation discussing the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division, including their role in America’s post-war boom in recreational skiing.

After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/mountaindivision.

All right, Maurice Isserman, welcome to the show.

Maurice Isserman:

Thanks. Glad to be here.

Brett McKay:

You just got a book out called The Winter Army: The World War II Odyssey of the 10th Mountain Division, America’s Elite Alpine Warriors. How did you come across this story of the 10th Mountain Division?

Maurice Isserman:

Well, in a very personal way. When I came to Hamilton College, where I teach history, some 30 years ago, one of my colleagues in a different department, geology, was named Don Potter, and he was a mentor to junior faculty. He was an avid outdoorsman, and so we shared that, a skier. In the course of getting to know him, he would tell me stories about training with the 10th Mountain Division in Colorado, skiing in the Rockies, and then going to Italy. He never talked about the actual fighting. Immediately after the war in May of 1945, he got leave and he went up to Mont Blanc in France. He climbed from Chamonix to the summit and skied down. Wonderful stories about his wartime experiences.

It planted a seed with me that this was a very interesting unit with a unique history. Over the years, I’ve written several books about mountaineering in the Himalayas and in North America, and I kept bumping into guys who were veterans of the 10th, who trained in Colorado, who fought in Italy, and would have little paragraphs describing their experiences. Then it just seemed to me there was a bigger story to tell there.

:

I discovered that the archives of the 10th Mountain Division were in Denver at the Denver Public Library. They have hundreds of collections of wartime letters and diaries and other documents from the veterans. I explored the archive and found this really rich and impressive history.

Brett McKay:

Why do you think so few Americans know about their creation and role during World War II?

Maurice Isserman:

Well, it depends where you are. In Colorado, you can get license plates that say Dedicated to the Memory of the 10th Mountain Division, and there are roads named for them and memorials for them. In my corner of the Northeast, where many of the original 10th soldiers were recruited, because they were recruiting skiers and people with mountain experience, Dartmouth College alone, which had a ski team, sent over 100 of their alums into the 10th, so they’re pretty well remembered here. But in the country as a whole, compared to, say, the 101st Airborne Division, they’re less well-known. Someday, somebody will make a movie about them, like Band of Brothers or whatever, and I think they’ll get their due acknowledgement.

Brett McKay:

Well, let’s talk about the creation. We’ve got to talk about the fact that before World War II, the U.S. military didn’t have a mountain division. Why didn’t they have a mountain division?

Maurice Isserman:

Well, before World War II, the U.S. Army never fought on a snowy mountain. There were a couple of mountain battles during the Civil War, but they were in Tennessee, and so they weren’t fighting in the snow. They didn’t have any specially trained troops, unlike in Europe, where, of course, a lot of the national borders run along mountain chains, the Pyrenees, the Alps, and so forth. It came naturally to Europeans to think we need specially trained troops, alpine troops. Germany had a long tradition of mountain troops. So did Austria. So did France. So did Italy. But the U.S. experience was quite different.

One of the founders of the 10th Mountain Division, a civilian who came up with the idea, Charles Minot Dole, or Minnie Dole, referred to the American army right up to before the Second World War as a tropical army, because mostly it was stationed in places like Hawaii or the Southern states or the Caribbean. They had small contingent in Alaska. They just didn’t think in terms of mountain warfare.

Brett McKay:

Let’s talk about this Dole guy because the idea of a mountain division, an alpine troop, it didn’t start within the military. It actually started with a bunch of civilian skiers sitting by a fire at a ski lodge in Vermont shooting the breeze and saying, “Hey, the U.S. needs an alpine division.”

Maurice Isserman:

Yeah, absolutely. That was in the late winter of 1940, and Europe was at war. The United States was not yet a belligerent, but as you say, these civilian skiers, who had no military experience in their background, but they were really good skiers… A couple of them were Olympic skiers, had competed in the 1936 Winter Olympics. One of them was this guy Minnie Dole. Minnie Dole was an insurance executive in Greenwich, Connecticut. He had started skiing in the early 1930s, when skiing was really in its infancy in the United States. There weren’t many ski resorts. There weren’t any ski lifts. It was a European sport that some Americans were beginning to practice.

Minnie Dole was an entrepreneurial guy. He was a take-charge guy. After suffering a ski accident himself on a slope in Vermont, he conceived the idea in the mid-1930s of creating a rescue unit of civilian volunteers, which became the National Ski Patrol System, which still exists, and aids injured skiers on resorts all across the country. When he got hold of an idea, he was pretty tenacious.

In that conversation in 1940, these four skiers, all civilians, said, “We’re going to get into this war, and if we fight in Europe, we’re going to come up against experienced and well-trained German, Italian alpine troops, and we don’t have anything comparable. We need to come up with a comparable unit.”

Minnie Dole started at the top, and he wrote to President Roosevelt, who actually responded. He got in touch with the Army, with General Marshall, the Army chief of staff. He got rebuffed several times, “Who is this civilian?” But in the end, he prevailed and persuaded the Army to create the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, which was the kernel of what grew into the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. They began training in November 1941 at Fort Lewis in Washington state, so just a very few days before Pearl Harbor.

Brett McKay:

This was completely new to the military. How did they figure out, “Okay, what skills does an alpine soldier need? How do we train these guys?” How did they develop the criteria for that, the curriculum for that?

Maurice Isserman:

Well, again, they relied largely on civilian advice, on Minnie Dole, on the National Ski Patrol System. One of the extraordinary things about the 10th Mountain Division, unique, really, in the history of the U.S. military, is that a civilian agency, the National Ski Patrol System, was in charge of recruiting for it. Minnie Dole’s belief was that it was easier to make soldiers out of skiers than to make skiers out of soldiers. That is to say, you wanted to recruit guys who already had the basic skills, who knew their way around outdoors in cold weather, who were skiers or mountaineers or park rangers or lumberjacks, a range of occupations.

Many of them were recruited out of the very few schools in the country, colleges and universities, that had ski teams at the time. Dartmouth, as I mentioned, and Williams College, University of Oregon, University of Washington, Colorado University, they provided a steady stream of recruits, some of them graduates, many of them just 19 or 20, dropping out of college to join this new elite unit because they wanted to apply the skills, the abilities that they’d learned as civilians in recreational pursuit to their duties as soldiers.

Brett McKay:

As you note in the book, because a lot of the guys who went and joined this 87th were from college, because the colleges had ski teams, the 87th had one of the most educated groups of soldiers out of all the military in the United States.

Maurice Isserman:

Yeah. It was an unusual unit. The subsequent regiments, the 86th and the 85th, which made up the division, same thing was true. The Army gave every incoming recruit a basic intelligence test, and I forget what the numbers were, but if you scored above a certain number, you could apply for officer candidate school. Typically, in a regular division, something like 10% of the recruits would be able to do so, but in the 10th Mountain Division, it ran to more like 40% or 50% who could have gone off to Fort Benning or one of the other places where they trained officers.

Most of them chose not to do. They didn’t apply for officer candidate school because they knew if they all went off, not too many of them would be able to come back to the 10th Mountain Division, because how many second lieutenants can you use? They would essentially be transferring themselves out of the mountain troops. Instead, they stayed put, and as a result, you had many very qualified corporals and sergeants in the ranks of the 10th Mountain Division.

Brett McKay:

What was the culture like? This is sort of like the Airborne Division, where it was seen as an elite unit, but also, like you said, they’re really educated, mostly from Ivy League schools, outdoorsy-type guys. I imagine that the regiments in the division developed a unique culture in the U.S. military.

Maurice Isserman:

Yeah, I think it did have a unique culture, as you say. For one thing, the recruits knew how to ski, and they’d spent a lot of time finding their way across mountains in very cold weather. But their officers, that was less true of, or their NCOs. What the Army calls cadre, the experienced soldiers who are shipped into a new unit around which you develop the unit, had to be instructed in skiing and other basics, and the people doing the instruction were often 19-year-old privates. You have a 19 year old private instructing a 30-year-old major how to ski. The power dynamics are kind of different.

There was a great deal of self-confidence in this unit. They had a lot of unit cohesion, a lot of initiative, precisely because of those dynamics. And they were all volunteers. You didn’t get drafted into the 10th Mountain Division. Later on, during the fighting, there would be soldiers transferred in who had no special mountain training, but the guys who trained in Colorado and then were sent to Italy, by and large, were already experienced before they joined the Army in their basic skills.

They were training in the mountains. A lot of what Army training consisted of, basic drill and going to the firing range and so forth, you couldn’t do in January. These new recruits would show up at Camp Hale in Colorado near Leadville, and they’d start skiing immediately. They’d start their specialized training before they did their basic training. They were trained how to salute and so forth, but the basic training often had to wait until warm weather returned.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. Some of the letters that you quote in the book, a lot of the guys talk about “It’s kind of like I’m on vacation. It’s kind of nice. I just get to go skiing.”

Maurice Isserman:

Yeah, I’m getting paid to go skiing eight hours a day. They cycled through their ski training, they did beginning ski training and more advanced ski training, but when they trained, and they’re up at 12,000 feet on deep powder snow, they were skiing five days a week, eight hours a day with some of the best ski instructors in the world, ski champions, the coach of the Dartmouth ski team, Walter Prager, among others. If you wanted to become an expert skier, the best place to do it in 1943 was as a soldier at Camp Hale. Then on the weekends, look where they are. They’re near Aspen, for example. They’d go off and they’d go skiing recreationally. They’d continue their training even when they weren’t training.

The comparison with Airborne is interesting, another elite unit, all volunteers, specialized uniforms, and so forth, but no members of the 101st Airborne, or I doubt very many members of the 101st Airborne, had ever jumped out of an airplane before they became paratroopers. They became well-trained paratroopers, but that was once they joined the Army, as opposed to the 10th Mountain guys, who were already coming in, many of them, with superior skills in their military specialty.

Brett McKay:

Going back to this idea of being self-reliant, this idea of improvisation, I think Minnie Dole talked about the Finnish Army, that he was impressed by their… That’s what he liked about the alpine soldiers there fighting off the Russians, their ability to improvise, their grit, their self-reliance, and he wanted that same sort of culture within an alpine division in the United States.

Maurice Isserman:

Yeah. We don’t really remember the Finnish War anymore. Before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union went to war with neighboring Finland, trying to acquire territory to the west of Leningrad for a buffer zone. The Red Army outnumbered the Finns and was better equipped than the Finns, but it was tied to the roads. So you’d have these big, lumbering columns of Red Army soldiers with their tanks and their trucks and what not, and these Finnish troops would come out of the woods and they would ski in an ambush, and then they’d ski off and they couldn’t be pursued. Minnie Dole was quite impressed by that.

Brett McKay:

Yeah. The other thing I thought was interesting about the 10th Mountain Division, talking about the United States, this is their first time ever dealing with alpine soldiers; they had to develop new equipment for these guys. Like you said, the military at that time was geared towards the tropics. What sort of innovations did the military make to get these guys outfitted and equipped?

Maurice Isserman:

Right. They developed white camouflage uniforms. Of course, you want to blend in with the snow. They developed skis with metal edges for better control, new kinds of boots that could double as climbing boots and as ski boots with a new sole, which if you buy a pair of hiking boots today, it’ll have a Vibram sole, as opposed to the old hobnailed boots. A lot of the equipment that would later be dumped as Army surplus and would equip the next generation of skiers and climbers was developed during the war.

Nylon ropes. Up until World War II, climbing ropes had been made out of hemp, Manila, and they were heavy. They picked up snow. If you fell while climbing with one wrapped around your rib cage, you were going to bruise your ribs. They have no give.

There were all of these technological innovations that were important both for the 10th during the war, but were important after the war in terms of the outdoor winter recreational industry.

Brett McKay:

Besides skiing, what else did these guys train in?

Maurice Isserman:

Well, they skied all winter, and then they climbed all summer. Camp Hale is in a high alpine valley in the Rockies. It’s about 9,000 feet. It’s surrounded by walls, where you learn basic rock-climbing abilities. And they went on maneuvers, of course, in the mountains both in the winter and in the summer, and had to learn how to keep, especially in the winter, had to learn how to avoid frostbite, how to pitch a tent in the snow or build an igloo, which they preferred to do because it was actually warmer, how to prepare your food, how to get supplies up by mules. You couldn’t bring Jeeps or trucks up into the hills.

It was a really different approach to fighting, and the Army was suspicious of them. Even after they created the 10th, they didn’t know what to do with them. General Eisenhower turned down the 10th. He was being offered different divisions for use in Western Europe. He looked at their table of organization and saw all those mules, and their weapons were lighter because you couldn’t carry the heaviest artillery up into the mountains, and he didn’t want any part of them, which is funny because the first fighting in Europe took place in Italy, and Italy is very mountainous. They could have used them at Monte Cassino, for example, in the winter of 1943, 1944.

But they were just too strange. It was a long time before they got into combat, which bothered them, because they weren’t just there to ski in Colorado. They were there to fight in the war. Their brothers were already in combat, and they wanted to join them. Over the course of 1942, 1943, 1944, many of them transferred out. Some transferred into Airborne. Some transferred into military intelligence. They wanted to get into the fight, but the Army didn’t give them a chance to do so.

Brett McKay:

While they weren’t being put into battle, they captured the imagination of the American public. I think today people still think it’s cool. A soldier who skis is a really cool idea.

Maurice Isserman:

Yeah. There were movies made of them, feature film, documentary movies, magazine articles, celebrating them as real he-men. I remember one of the titles of a magazine article said Real He-Men in the Mountains, they looked great. They would do this synchronized skiing, which was useless in combat, but when you filmed it, it looked terrific, especially because they’re skiing in the Colorado mountains and they’re cutting through that deep powder snow. It was a very glamorous image, but they weren’t in the war.

Brett McKay:

Right. But they were still training. As you said, they went on these maneuvers while they were in Camp Hale in Colorado, which was basically this camp that the military built pretty much overnight, really fast. And these maneuvers, yeah, it was skiing, but these were really tough maneuvers. tough training.

Maurice Isserman:

Yeah, because you’re up there in the mountains. It’s easy to get lost. You might not get resupplied. You have to deal with extreme cold. It’s a challenge.

There was one particular set of maneuvers the entire division went on, not just one of the regiments, and it was called D-Series, or Division Series, in the spring of 1944, and hundreds of men were hospitalized for frostbite. Thereafter, the joke in the 10th Mountain Division, even when they were in heavy combat in Italy in the spring of 1945, was “Well, this isn’t great, but it’s better than D-Series.

Brett McKay:

Right. That was interesting. The point you made throughout the book was the training they received in Camp Hale was a lot more extreme than the climbs and the elevations they would actually experience in Italy.

Maurice Isserman:

Right. When you’re doing mountain warfare, what you’re fighting for is control of the passes, not the summits. The summit doesn’t count. You want the high ground, but if you can control the passes, you can control all movement through the mountains. The passes in Italy, for example, the Brenner Pass that leads from Italy to Austria is less than 5,000 feet high, and they’re training at twice that altitude. Into all the other difficulties you have to add in altitude sickness. They acclimatized to it, but by the time you’re going to be shipped out, and you’re taking a train across the country and then 10 days in a boat, by the time you’re going to get to the battlefield and to the mountains, you’re going to have lost that acclimatization. In retrospect, and we’re all brilliant in retrospect, it would have made more sense to train at a lower elevation than they actually did.

Brett McKay:

Before they got to Italy, some members of the division got a taste for battle. I didn’t know about this battle. This is the one of the few battles that happened on American soil. It was in Alaska at Kiska. What happened to the mountain troops there?

Maurice Isserman:

Well, the Japanese around the time of the Battle of Midway occupied two small volcanic islands, unoccupied, no population there, called Attu and Kiska. Some people felt or feared that this was going to be the prelude to a Japanese invasion of Alaska or even the Pacific Northwest. Now, there was no way in the world that would ever happen, but they couldn’t take that chance.

The Army sent in flatland troops to take back Attu, and it was a bloody battle, not on the scale of Iwo Jima, but still a lot of soldiers died. But a lot of soldiers were knocked out of action because they didn’t know how to take care of their feet. They got trench foot. It was wet. It was cold. They got frostbite. But they captured Attu.

When it came time to turn their attention to the next and remaining island, Kiska, the Army said, “Oh, well, we do have these mountain troops. Let’s try them.” The 87th, one of the three regiments, was shipped from Camp Hale to California for amphibious training, which had, obviously, not been part of their training while they were in the mountains, and then shipped off to Alaska.

Classic World War II landing scene on an occupied island, they get off the landing craft very apprehensively onto the beaches, and nothing’s happening. Nobody’s shooting at them. Now, of course, the Japanese could simply have retreated to the interior and waited for the Americans to come to them.

The soldiers of the 10th, and there were other units, and there was Canadian soldiers there as well, they advanced their way up to the ridgeline of this volcanic island. It gets dark. The weather in the Bering Strait is the worst in the world. Clouds swirl, and visibility is cut to zero. These green troops, who are on the alert, hyper alert, imagine that they see movement, or maybe they see movement, but it’s not a Japanese moving, and they start to shoot. One person starts to shoot, and then the whole platoon starts to shoot. Nobody can see where the enemy is coming from, but they’re convinced they’re under attack.

In the morning, when the sun comes up, there are no Japanese bodies, but there are two dozen American and Canadian bodies, and almost all of them are from the 10th Mountain Division. The unit is bloodied, they are no longer green soldiers, but in the worst possible way; they killed their brothers in friendly fire.

Brett McKay:

What happened when they went back to Camp Hale?

Maurice Isserman:

Well, they felt they had something to prove. Young men can be cruel, and other soldiers mocked them. They called them buddy killers and similar names. A lot of them transferred out of the 10th Mountain, they were so demoralized. Not only were they not being used where they should’ve been used, in the fighting in Europe, but they were sent off on this tragic fool’s errand into the Bering Strait.

Brett McKay:

The 10th finally gets called up to Europe. When did that happen, and where do they get sent to?

Maurice Isserman:

Right. They had transferred from Camp Hale in the Rockies to Camp Swift, which is in Texas near Austin. Some of them feared that they were going to be converted into a flatland division, that their mountain training was going to come to nothing, because why else send them to Texas?

There was a change of heart in Italy among Allied commanders about the usefulness of having specially trained mountain troops. Finally, in November, they get the summons to… They don’t know where they’re being shipped, but they know they’re going to be transferred to a war zone. And they get a new commander, Major General Hayes, a Medal of Honor winner from the First World War, who is a very aggressive and creative commander, the perfect man to lead a still inexperienced division into battle.

At the end of December and the beginning of January, December of ’44, January ’45, 75 years ago, they are shipped to Newport News in Virginia, where they board troop ships and spend a week or 10 days crossing the Atlantic and then the Mediterranean, and disembark in Naples. From there, they’re trucked up to the front line, the last mountainous line of German resistance.

The Germans had been putting up a stout defense for a year-plus in Italy from one mountain redoubt to the next. They were at their last mountain redoubt, which is called the Gothic Line and runs through the northern Apennines. Florence, which had been captured by the Allies the previous fall, is to the south, and Bologna, which is still in German hands, is to the north. For the Allies to complete clearing of Italy from German control, they’re going to have to break out of the mountains and break into the Po Valley.

Po Valley, a big open area, includes Milan and leads up to the the Alps and the Brenner Pass. Once you’re in the Po Valley, all the Allied advantages of armor and air power can be brought to bear, as they can’t in the mountains. You can’t fight a tank battle in the mountains. It’s going to be the 10th’s job, as the spearhead of the entire Allied offensive in the winter, spring of 1945, to clear the way, to break through out of the northern Apennines into the Po Valley, and that’s precisely what they do.

Brett McKay:

What were the major engagements they had during that stint?

Maurice Isserman:

Well, we’re coming up to, again, the 75th anniversary of the signature battles of the 10th Mountain Division, which was seizing the high ground on two mountain eminences, one called Riva Ridge and the other called Mount Belvedere, and several mountains linked to it. First, they went up Riva Ridge at night in February in the dark, untested troops, over steep, icy trails, where their rock-climbing skills that they honed in Colorado really came into use.

The Germans were so confident that it was this steep cliff, that they couldn’t be attacked from that side of the mountain, that they didn’t post any guards. They didn’t bother laying any mines. They didn’t put down any barbed wire. So these 750 or so soldiers and the assault team from the 10th Mountain Division achieved complete surprise against the Germans. They captured the ridgeline at the cost of one man wounded, drove the Germans from the high ground. The Germans counterattacked, which is what they always did, and there were more casualties in the days to come.

But in their very first time in battle, all of that training and all of that sense of initiative and unit cohesion really played out well. It was a very significant achievement because it removed the Germans from a place where they could observe the attack on neighboring Mount Belvedere.

The next night, on February 20th, the rest of the division went in. This time, the Germans knew they were coming, and they had prepared the ground well with minefields and artillery and machine guns zeroed in on the main routes up the mountain, and so it was a more costly attack. Still, in five days, they seized three mountaintops. Military planners had assumed it was going to take two weeks to clear the Germans off. Again, that same combination of training and elan and unit cohesion served the 10th very well, and set up the advance that was going to take place a month later, breaking out of the Apennines and into the Po.

Brett McKay:

Did they actually do any skiing during that time?

Maurice Isserman:

Very little. Here you have ski troops, and somebody decided they didn’t need the skis. The skis all went to a warehouse in Boston, where they were later sold as Army surplus. They scrounged some skis, and they sent out some patrols to scout out German positions or try to take a prisoner in those weeks before Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere.

The thing about skiing in the Apennines, you’re not skiing in deep powder snow. In the Rockies, you can ski pretty quietly. The powder masks the sound to go, “Shh, shh, shh.” But when you’re skiing through corn snow, that is snow… This is a much lower elevation. This is 3,000 or 4,000 feet elevation. Corn snow freezes and melts and freezes, and you have ice crystals in it, and it goes scritch, scritch, scritch.

They found in the dark of night, they’re approaching a German outpost, and their skis are giving their position away. The Germans were firing. They don’t have to see them. They’re firing in the direction of the sound. After one or two experiences like that, they abandoned the skis altogether. They weren’t practical for the kind of terrain and the kind of fighting that they were going to do. So the ski troopers didn’t ski, but the skiing was important because, again, that sense elan that came from being specialized troops, elite troops, and also because they were tremendously fit.

Brett McKay:

Well, and speaking of the idea that the skis that they had that the military bought for the soldiers that didn’t get shipped there, a lot of the winter equipment that the military developed for these guys didn’t get shipped over there either.

Maurice Isserman:

That’s correct. It all gets dumped on the civilian market in late 1945, 1946, and it feeds a new interest, which the 10th partially helped create, in skiing as a sport. In addition, many of the 10th veterans, some 2,000 all told, found employment in the ski industry as instructors, they became retailers of ski equipment, and a number of them actually created those modern resorts.

Aspen had been a sleepy little failed mining town. It had a ski slope before the war, but it was 10th veterans who came and turned it into one of the premier ski resorts in the world. Vale, also in Colorado, was founded by 10th Mountain veterans in the late ’50s. There’s a statue of a ski trooper in the center of Vale to remind visitors just who was responsible for this wonderful ski resort. The longest ski run at Vale, and the most difficult, is called Riva Ridge. There’s another ski run there that’s called Minnie’s Mile, after Minnie Dole, the civilian who suggested the creation of the mountain troops. The 10th had this enormous impact during the war, but they would also have an impact in a different field after the war.

Brett McKay:

Besides the big impact they had on American culture, making skiing a popular pastime, what influence did the 10th leave on the U.S. military?

Maurice Isserman:

Well, the 10th is disbanded in November of 1945. The Army has some very specialized units, but not on the division level that are trained for cold-weather fighting. It’s only in 1985 that the 10th is reconstituted as 10th Mountain Division Light Infantry. They’re not ski troops in the sense that the 10th was during the war. That’s not part of their regular training. But they are trained in fighting in cold weather, on rough terrain, in exactly the kind of fighting that the U.S. Army has been doing for the last several decades in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

The 10th Mountain Division today, which is based at Fort Drum, which is just a few miles down the road from Hamilton College, where I teach in upstate New York, is the most deployed unit in the U.S. Army and has been for decades. In fact, I gave a book talk there in December. It was a great privilege to do so, on base to an audience of 10th Mountain soldiers who had just gotten their orders. This particular battalion had gotten their orders for deployment to Afghanistan. I imagine by this time most of them have been transferred there.

It’s not quite the same unit it was during World War II, but they have a great interest in their predecessors from that generation. Speaking of which, one of the visitors at Fort Drum that day who came to my talk was himself a 95-year-old veteran of the 10th. Several other talks I gave touring in Colorado, speaking locally, 10th Mountain veterans, 95, one of them was 101 years old, came to my talk, which was, of course, a great honor. Usually, I’m the one signing books at these talks for others, but I had these guys sign my copy of Winter Army.

Brett McKay:

Did these guys, did they fight at these battles you talked about in the book?

Maurice Isserman:

Yeah, one of them visited me in Boulder, Colorado, lives there in a retirement community, this guy named Hugh Evans. He was a sergeant who almost single-handedly captured one of the hilltops in the fighting for Mount Belvedere, for which he was awarded a Silver Star. He plays a prominent role in the book. Again, an author couldn’t ask for a greater honor than for one of the heroes of his book to actually show up and take part in the conversation.

Brett McKay:

Well, Maurice, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Maurice Isserman:

It’s on Amazon. It’s a, last time I looked, number-one bestseller in downhill skiing, which is something.

Brett McKay:

There you go.

Maurice Isserman:

You can find it at any number of outlets, Barnes & Noble and so forth, or in Colorado, in just about any bookstore.

Brett McKay:

Check those out. Well, Maurice Isserman, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Maurice Isserman:

Okay, my pleasure too.

Brett McKay:

My guest today was Maurice Isserman. He’s the author of the book The Winter Army. It’s available at amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at aom.is/mountaindivision, where you find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

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