10th Mountain Division veterans return to Italy
July 12, 2012
LIZZANO IN BELVDERE, Italy (July 12, 2012) -- Nearly seven decades have passed since the U.S. Army's famed 10th Mountain Division received its initial baptism by fire in the rugged Apennine Mountains of northern Italy during World War II.
To mark this occasion, a small group of the division's World War II veterans traveled back to Italy on a reunion tour that took them through the hill country they fought in and the picturesque alpine towns and villages they liberated.
"It's like it all happened to someone else," said George Rosenfield, a former Army major who served as an enlisted infantryman with E Company, 85th Infantry Regiment. "But, I was there -- like I was looking at it."
Rosenfield, along with other Soldiers of the 85th, 86th, and 87th Infantry Regiments, and the division's support units, fought fierce uphill battles across the jagged alpine terrain -- terrain regarded as some of the most brutal and treacherous in the European Theater.
"I'm a little emotional right now," Rosenfield said with a trembling voice as he looked out over the countryside. "I got a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach."
Accompanying the veterans were nearly 150 descendants of 10th Mountain Division Soldiers of World War II.
"My whole focus on this trip was to go to hill 913 because my grandfather's last day (with the division) was there -- he was wounded there," said Jason Ferguson, a police lieutenant from Mason, Mich., whose grandfather served with L Company, 85th Infantry Regiment.
Ferguson explained that his grandfather, 2nd Lt. Paul Ferguson, rarely talked about his experiences during the war.
"The year he passed he told some stories, more than he ever had," Ferguson explained. "And after he passed, we found a box that has everything about his 10th Mountain Division service -- his entire service record, right down to his pocket book he kept in his uniform."
Ferguson went on to say, as a hobby, he began doing research on the 10th Mountain Division's World War II service and its battles during the Italian Campaign.
"I started reading books, and then this trip came up," he said. "Just being around these veterans and listening to their stories ... they're the best generation, and I love my time with them."
At its conception, the division was only a battalion and unique to the U.S. Army. Known as the 87th Mountain Infantry Battalion, it was activated at Fort Lewis, Wash., in December 1941, with many of its first Soldiers being handpicked or recruited for their abilities in mountaineering and skiing.
Over the course of the next two years, the 87th would grow to regimental size and sent to serve in the Kiska Campaign on the Aleutian Islands. On the Soldiers' return, the regiment was relocated to Camp Hale, Colo., where it would join up with the newly formed 85th and 86th Regiments and be organized as the 10th Light Division (Alpine).
In 1944, the division was moved from Camp Hale's 9,200-foot altitude to the almost sea-level Camp Swift in Texas. Ironically, within months of this move, the division was renamed the 10th Mountain Division and given its distinctive "Mountain" tab.
It was January 1945 when the division finally arrived in Italy. Allied Forces in Europe were still reeling over the Germany's counter attack in the Ardennes, but they had broken the Axis lines and were pushing back to the east. By mid February, an Allied victory seemed to be well within reach. Newspaper headlines boasted of American forces breaching Germany's Siegfried Line and of their rapid advance to the Rhine River. To many, it was clear Germany was collapsing as the Allied grip was tightening around the last remaining Nazi strongholds.
Seven hundred miles to the south in northern Italy, as Operation Encore was kicking off, the idea of a sweeping victory appeared to be exceedingly different.
German Gebirgsjäger, or mountain riflemen, were burrowed into the Italian mountainsides along the Gothic Line with little intent of moving. By owning the top of several of the mountains, they controlled the high ground, effectively halting any Allied advance north. One of these mountains, Monte Belvedere, had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside -- if anything moved, the Germans would quickly have it in their sights. Monte Belvedere was an objective that had to be taken.
Protecting the approach to Monte Belvedere was Riva Ridge, a steep ridgeline the Germans believed to be impossible to scale. However, Soldiers of the 86th Regiment proved them wrong.
With Riva Ridge neutralized, the division could now begin the assault on Belvedere.
"We went up at night," recalled Charlie Smith, a retired civil service worker from Plattsburgh, N.Y., who was assigned to 85th Regiment's Item Company. "Some of the places we moved through were rocky and slippery."
Smith explained that the command had collected up all of the Soldiers' personal gear before the attack.
"The only thing we carried was ammunition," he said.
For Smith, Rosenfield and other Soldiers of the division, the next three days on Belvedere would consist of intense, close-quarter fighting that left 850 American Soldiers dead or wounded, but resulted in a major victory with more than 1,000 German prisoners.
Smith recalled how the mountainside was nearly stripped bare of trees and how one of his sergeants jumped into a foxhole for cover near the town of Castel D'Aiano, only to be killed by an explosion from a hidden German booby-trap.
"It was horrible," he said. "I grabbed a bayonet from another dead Soldier and continued to fight."
As the battle raged on, Smith himself was wounded.
"It was a slight wound," he said. "I could have got out of combat with it, but I didn't."
Holding Monte Belvedere, the 10th pushed on, mountain after mountain, village after village, until they crossed the Po River and up to Lake Garda and to the war's end.
This reunion tour was not Smith's first -- he has returned to Italy twice before -- but this was the first time he was able to find the exact location of where he fought.
"I never knew where we were," he explained. "We always traveled at night and went where we were taken -- a lot of night walks."
Smith explained that he was personally given a copy of a book, "A Soldier's Story," written by division veteran and former Senator Bob Dole. The book mentions Smith and the locations where he fought.
"This is the first time I've known exactly where I was at during the war," Smith said with a smile.
During the tour, the veterans and descendants arrived in Rome and traveled to Florence, where they took an opportunity to visit the Florence American Cemetery. There they paid tribute to 998 Mountain Soldiers who never made it home by laying wreaths at the Tablets of the Missing, the cemetery's centerpiece.
Unlike previous tours, this one was joined by nine current members of the 10th Mountain Division (LI) assigned to Fort Drum, N.Y., and Fort Polk, La. The Soldiers were in Italy participating in a historical staff ride.
"As the division continues to deploy in support of current conflicts, it is absolutely vital that we take time to reflect and reconnect with our past," said Col. Richard Clarke, division deputy commanding general - operations, and the staff ride leader.
As part of the ceremony, five of the Soldiers served as the honor guard, holding the American flag and the 10th Mountain Division colors in the blazing heat of the Tuscan sun.
After the ceremony the Soldiers spent time with the veterans at the cemetery and the other stops along the tour.
Maj. Mike Stewart, executive officer for 3rd Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, and a staff ride participant, explained this was a unique opportunity for the Soldiers to connect with the division's history.
"To walk the actual battlefields with the veterans who fought there, and learn the veterans' individual stories and experiences along the way," Stewart said. "All nine Soldiers walked away with a better understanding of the division history and an appreciation for the accomplishments of our World War II generation."
One Soldier who was deeply moved by the veterans was Sgt. 1st Class Brady Smith from 3-6 FA.
"This was a great opportunity to learn about the history behind what most Soldiers see as street names on Fort Drum," Brady said.
Although the current 10th Mountain Division Soldiers departed early from the rest of the tour, their presence was greatly appreciated.
"We sincerely hope to continue to include serving Soldiers in this and other future events," said Steve Coffey, senior vice president of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division Inc. and the 10th Mountain Division Descendants Inc.
The National Association hosts reunions every three years, alternating with Italy trips every third year. The next national reunion will be held in October 2013, in Washington, D.C.
Maj. Mike Stewart contributed to this article.