'Only a good man could love the mountain'
August 29, 2013
Unpretentious, slight, quietly measured in all he does and says, William Morrison is not the type of person who looks for attention.
Those who know him well say the man with piercing blue eyes and a sure cane in hand to help a knee riddled with shrapnel is more comfortable serving at his local church in a suburb of Albany than appearing before crowds as an honored guest.
His daughter, Bonnie O'Shea, said the president of the Upstate New York Chapter of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division is known for helping the pastor of New Scotland Presbyterian Church in Slingerlands with everything from light maintenance to laundry to dishwashing after social functions.
That unassuming manner, in part, and his physical distance from Fort Drum, can make it hard to understand what his strong connection to the military community here is all about.
'A big piece of who he is'
Morrison, a schoolteacher by trade, worked and lived for years in relative obscurity from the Army when, suddenly, the division he had served with decades earlier found a home only three hours away.
It was 1985, and his deep connection to the 10th Mountain Division became a bit more tangible as it was reactivated at Fort Drum.
But to many of his loved ones, Morrison's interest in the 10th Mountain Division was at best ambiguous.
"He never talked about it," said O'Shea, one of Morrison's eight children. "As kids, we knew nothing of it -- except that he had a Purple Heart somewhere, and we were always trying to find it!"
Around the time of the reactivation, O'Shea said she caught a glimpse into her father's past. While watching the evening news with her husband one day, she saw her father at a Fort Drum event, which was covered by a station with an affiliate in Albany.
"And there was my father, on TV, crying to the sound of taps," she recalled. "That's when I said, 'Wow, this is a big piece of who he is.'"
Years later, O'Shea volunteered to drive her father to a Memorial Day ceremony at Fort Drum where, as guest speaker, he represented the World War II contingent of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division.
"We'll go up and see what you are doing there," she told him.
O'Shea said the poignant ceremony had a strong impact on her.
"It was really very moving for someone who had no connection to the military at all," she said. "There's a camaraderie here. You are welcomed here -- even me. And I'm just the driver!"
It was about halfway through World War II when the Scottish-born Morrison, not even a U.S. citizen at the time, turned in his three required letters of recommendation to join the newly formed elite 10th Light Division (Alpine).
Nineteen at the time, Morrison left his Connecticut home for Camp Hale, Colo. He was assigned to the division's 3rd Battalion, 86th Mountain Infantry Regiment.
"Ski troopers" of the 10th Light, especially instructors, had been recruited by the National Ski Patrol under the authorization of the War Department, which acknowledged potential benefits of mountain warfare in the years after two Soviet tank divisions were defeated by Finnish soldiers on skis in 1939.
Morrison said the intense rigors of mountaineering, winter survival and warfare training at Camp Hale, often navigated with skis and snowshoes through subzero temperatures and heavy snow, would well prepare the young men for war in northern Italy.
His unit also spent time training in the sweltering heat of Camp Swift, Texas, before shipping off to Italy with the division, which was re-designated the 10th Mountain Division in late 1944.
Morrison stepped ashore in Naples on Dec. 22, 1944. From there, he was transported on a landing craft more than 300 miles up the coast to Livorno. The men camped out at Pisa, where he said some of the first troops of the division were killed by a mine.
After being shuffled up into the hill towns of the northern Apennine Mountains, Morrison's unit was put on a steady diet of security patrols, most of them after sundown. He said he is impressed with memories of Mount Belvedere at dark, when large searchlights shone on its slopes throughout the night.
He also remembered the fickle way fate spared him once. While scaling a hill early one morning, a rock tumbled toward him, but first struck the ankle of a comrade out in front. So Morrison offered to switch out.
Minutes later, the other Soldier was shot and killed.
"It has always kind of bothered me," he said. "My question is: If I had not changed places with him, what then? One never knows."
The division faced German troops for the first time in January 1945. A key mission for the 10th Mountain Division was to secure Riva Ridge, to the west of Mount Belvedere, which was another objective Allied Forces had tried securing without success.
On Feb. 18, 1945, Soldiers from several other elements of Morrison's regiment were ordered up Riva Ridge, a treacherous 1,500-foot vertical climb. Taking place at dark, the assault stunned German troops positioned at the top of the ridge, and they were quickly overrun.
"The next morning, the rest of the division took on Belvedere," said Morrison, a rifle squad leader. "The spring of- fensive happened in April. That's when we actually broke out of the mountains.
"What a joy to come down from the mountains and race across the Po Valley," he continued. "The plan was to then head to the Alps to make sure the Germans couldn't escape."
Morrison's unit was ordered to provide security at the Yugoslav border while Josip Broz Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia's anti-Nazi movement, fought to end his nation's occupation.
He said the war unofficially ended for members of his unit by May 2.
Ultimately, the 10th Mountain Division, which was deactivated after the war, lost nearly 1,000 Soldiers and suffered more than 3,800 casualties during its four months in theater.
Seventy years since his experiences in Italy, Morrison is still struck by a slogan he heard tossed around by Italy's elite "Alpini" mountain warfare troops during World War II: "Only a good man could love the mountain."
At Whiteface Mountain, where annual ceremonies honoring the 10th Mountain Division have occurred since the 1980s, Morrison said he feels strongly reconnected to the "mountain."
"It's a good way for guys like me to connect with the modern 10th Mountain," he said. "And we very much appreciate what they are doing for us in (places like Afghanistan)."
In speeches at Whiteface, as well as at Fort Drum, Morrison likes to say that being called an "elite" division is much more than just "fancy talk."
In addition to the specialized mountain training the division received during World War II, today's group of 10th Mountain Division Soldiers belong to an organization that is capable of deploying anywhere in the world within hours.
Mike Plummer, president of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division, said the traits that made the division Soldiers so successful in 1945 are characteristic of elite fighting units around the world.
"And they are found in abundance in America's only light infantry division," Plummer said. "The 10th Mountain Division has been fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan since 2001, and they will pass on the legacy of their World War II predecessors to a new generation of light infantry Soldiers."
With so many division sacrifices made since 1943, Morrison said he is particularly appreciative of Fort Drum leaders and their ongoing effort to honor division Soldiers and Family Members, past and present.
"I think the 10th Mountain Division does a great job of making people feel appreciated and welcomed -- that their (loved one's) service is valued," he said.
"Greater love has no man than laying down his life for his friends," he added, paraphrasing a Bible verse.
Morrison said honoring the sacrifices of the 10th Mountain Division was one reason Soldiers and veterans began gathering at Whiteface Mountain near Lake Placid more than 20 years ago.
Also, there was the fact that ski school operators at Whiteface had served with the division during World War II.
Pure geography was another reason for locating ceremonies on one of New York's highest peaks.
"It connected the division to the mountain," Morrison said.
A plaque atop Whiteface Mountain is inscribed with the following: "In tribute to the men of the 10th Mt. Division, this rock was brought by the government of Italy from Mt. Belvedere, scene of the division's greatest battle in World War II."
'What makes America great'
Morrison, who turns 90 in a few weeks, became a U.S. citizen after his service in World War II.
Those who know him say he not only reflects the best of America's Greatest Generation but also, as a Soldier who stood in formation at Camp Hale the day the division was stood up on July 13, 1943, the best of the 10th Mountain Division.
"Bill is a living example of what makes America great -- the people who serve something greater than self," Plummer said. "He served his nation in World War II; he served his Family and community as a businessman and husband; and he is still serving his community and nation as an active volunteer now."
O'Shea said that although her father is a leader in educational and community programs in the Albany area, he considers himself a "nobody," not only because of the immense sacrifices of the Soldiers fighting with today's division, but also because of those comrades he never saw again.
"He's just one of thousands who fought for democracy and human dignity," she said. "He was just fortunate enough to come home from those battles.
"He's very proud, though," she added. "I can tell he's very, very proud of what he did. And it's amazing, because it was really such a short amount of time, compared to his whole life, and to what the 10th Mountain does now."
Morrison said as the sun sets on the division's World War II emissaries of history, it is up to the men and women of today's 10th Mountain Division (LI) to carry the torch.
"They are the ones to carry things on, because nobody else is going to be around in time," he said of the division's future. "There's something about the spirit of this division that's kind of contagious.
"And they will have many war stories to tell … my God," he added.