Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division train for combat by skiing uphill along the Continental Divide. 

Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division train for combat by skiing uphill along the Continental Divide. 

Books, Film, Music

Bullets, Ice, and Snow

How a ragtag bunch of skiers became the U.S. Army’s first alpine soldiers.

By Miles Bryan ’13 | May 6, 2020

For Allied commanders seeking to pry Italy out of Nazi control as WWII raged in 1944, the 10th Mountain Division was not the obvious choice to spearhead an assault. The troops were green and had never seen combat. And those skis they were so proud of? A dead giveaway to sharp-eared German snipers.

But the men of the 10th had something others didn’t: they could climb. And climbing was the only way to reach Riva Ridge, an icy German outpost that provided crucial protection to its soldiers on nearby Mt. Belvedere, which U.S. forces had already twice failed to capture.

This time was different. On February 19, 1945, 10th Mountain Division soldiers climbed silently and single file up icy paths with such stealth that, when they finally reached the top of the ridge, they found the Germans asleep in their foxholes. They took the ridge, and then Mt. Belvedere. The German hold on the Apennine Mountains, known as the Gothic Line, had been broken.

The transformation of a motley bunch of college students and European expats into an elite fighting force is told in glowing detail by historian Maurice Isserman ’73 in his new book: The Winter Army: The World War II Odyssey of the 10th Mountain Division, America’s Elite Alpine Warriors. It’s a colorful, unlikely story—and the origins of its telling are at Reed.

Maurice traces his interest in mountaineering to the moment when his plane from Connecticut began to descend into Portland in 1968 and he saw “real mountains” for the first time. Arriving on campus, he was soon swept up in the revolutionary spirit of the era. He joined the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society and helped lead a revolt against Hum 110 (now a Reed tradition). That revolution stalled, but he caught the history bug in classes with Prof. Eugene Lunn [history 1968–70]. When the United States invaded Cambodia in 1970, Maurice dropped out of Reed to join the Portland Revolutionary Youth Movement. He spent two years with the group, writing for underground newspapers and helping found the People’s Food Store (now the People’s Food Co-Op). He also climbed Mt. Hood and other mountains in the rugged Pacific Northwest.

Returning to Reed, Maurice wrote his thesis on the Communist Party in America in the 1930s. That led to a PhD at the University of Rochester and a series of seminal books on the American left. But around the year 2000, Maurice—by then a tenured professor at Hamilton College in upstate New York—hit the academic equivalent of a midlife crisis. As he began casting around for a new topic, his mind drifted back to his days climbing Oregon’s peaks.

The 10th Mountain Division was also the product of a midlife crisis of sorts. In 1940, Charles “Minnie” Dole was on a ski trip with friends when the conversation turned to the astonishing news from Finland, whose troops on skis were mounting a spirited defense against Soviet aggression. With war on the horizon, the U.S. Army, the friends agreed, should have soldiers who could ski. Dole had founded the National Ski Patrol System a few years earlier, but he had no connections to the military. The friends’ first letter to the War Department in balmy Washington was met with a polite dismissal. But Dole kept pushing, and after two years American military officials finally relented.

At the time skiing was an elite pursuit, and the Mountain Division quickly filled up with volunteers from Dartmouth and Harvard, as well as with Europeans who had come to America to escape the Nazis. The soldiers were sharp, too: about half of them qualified for officer school. Reed grad Harris Dusenbery ’36 was one of them. Harris didn’t have to fight—he was married and had a child before the attack on Pearl Harbor—but he volunteered for the mountain troops anyway. Like a typical Reedie, Harris read Marcus Aurelius and Dante in Italy and his outlook shines through in his letters to his wife, which feature prominently in Winter Army. In December 1943 he wrote:

The army tries to teach us to hate our enemies, but as far as I am concerned . . . these attempts at indoctrination of emotion have completely failed. I can get roused up about and hate Fascism with a great good will and also the leaders of those governments arouse similar feelings. But to hate the German people or the Japanese people or even the German soldier or Japanese soldier, I seem utterly incapable of doing that.

It was a chance encounter between Maurice and Harris at Reed Reunions in 2002 that planted the seed for Winter Army. Both men had just published books: Maurice’s on the divides of the 1960s, Harris’s on his time in the 10th. They started talking and ended up buying each other’s books. Harris died in 2015, at age 101, but his voice anchors the reader throughout the 10th’s journey.

For most of the war, that journey consisted of “hurry up and wait.” The 10th trained in the Colorado Rockies while their comrades were shipped off to Europe. When the 10th was finally deployed to the Aleutian Islands, it was a disaster. Ordered to push the Japanese off the island of Kiska, the 10th expected stiff resistance, but the Japanese had secretly evacuated the island weeks earlier. Nevertheless, 19 of the 10th’s troops were killed—all by friendly fire.

When the 10th’s mettle was finally put to the test, however, the division became a legend. After the victory at Riva Ridge, it played a key role in the conflict—not once failing to take an objective despite suffering the highest casualty rate of any U.S. division in the Italian campaign for their time in combat.Ironically, the division’s most lasting legacy may lie not in combat, but in the influence of its veterans after the war. Some of them moved to a rundown mining town in Colorado and transformed it into America’s premier ski destination—Aspen. Other veterans include David Brower, the prime mover of the Sierra Club; Bill Bowerman, cofounder of Nike; Senator Bob Dole of Kansas; computer scientist Franz Alt; climatologist John Imbrie; and many others. This book is a fitting tribute to an extraordinary group.

--

Miles Bryan ’13 is a freelance radio reporter, editor, and producer based in Philadelphia.

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music