By Mrs. Michelle Kennedy (Drum)February 19, 2015
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Driving around Fort Drum's main post, you may see familiar street names representing important places where 10th Mountain Division Soldiers have made their presence known during the last 14 years -- Tigris River Valley, Pech River and Euphrates River Valley, for example.
Some street names may be less familiar. Names like Po Valley, Mount Belvedere and Riva Ridge; those names are reminders of the division's not-so-distant past. Those are places are where the 10th Mountain Division earned its reputation during the Italian Campaign of World War II. Those are places where the Army's first mountain infantry Soldiers, who were expertly trained in winter warfare, experienced the harsh terrain of the Apennine Mountains.
What began as a wild idea, unlikely of gaining support of the U.S. military, became the Army's first mountain unit. From its beginnings on mountain summits in Washington and Colorado to the ridgelines of Italy's Apennine Mountains, 10th Mountain Division Soldiers took the fight to the enemy in the mountains of Afghanistan, furthering the legacy of "skilled, tough and dependable" Soldiers from the storied unit.
The first ski troopers
According to a document written by the late Lt. Col. Earl E. Clark, a 10th Mountain Division veteran who served in the Battle of Riva Ridge, the idea of a unit of highly trained Soldiers who specialized in winter warfare came from seeing the damage the Finnish army inflicted on Soviet troops during the Invasion of Finland in 1939.
While the War Department and the Army were unconvinced, leaders realized that if the Nazi Regime won in Europe, the U.S. could face an attack via an invasion in the St. Lawrence River Valley.
Charles Minot "Minnie" Dole, founder of the National Ski Patrol, was put in charge of gathering information about the possibility of a U.S. mountain unit. He and his team collected information about every foreign mountain unit and winter troops they could find. In September 1940, Dole met with Gen. George Marshall, Army chief of staff, to tell him about their findings.
As time went on and Dole continued his research into what the U.S. Army had in terms of winter equipment, he realized that all of their information and equipment were outdated or nonexistent; they would have to start from scratch.
Dole sent a "last-resort" message to Marshall in October 1941. Within days, Dole had received notification that the Army would activate the 87th Mountain Infantry Battalion, the nation's first mountain unit, on Nov. 15, 1941, at Fort Lewis, Wash. The unit spent its first couple of years training on nearby Mount Rainier.
Clark's document included portions of a letter Dole wrote outlining the beginning of the unit.
"The result was what counted and past worries were forgotten," Dole explained. "For a long time, we labored under the delusion that our letter had turned the trick.
"It perhaps helped, for it arrived almost simultaneously with a report from one of our attachés in the embassy in Rome detailing the debacle of the Italian winter campaign in Albania: 'ten thousand frozen to death -- 25,000 dead -- if a global war is contemplated or envisioned, men must be trained in mountain and winter warfare and time is of the essence as these troops cannot be trained overnight,'" he continued. "The activation of the 87th was a little less than one month later -- 22 days before Pearl Harbor."
Dole also was tasked with finding civilian volunteers who were already familiar with cold-weather environments. Applicants had to submit three references attesting to their ability to operate in winter environments, including skills in mountaineering, rock climbing or skiing. This was the first time a civilian organization was responsible for recruiting, screening and approving applicants for military service, according to the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division. Between November 1941 and 1944, the organization had recruited more than 7,000 men for the division.
As leaders contemplated who would take the reins of the division, it was decided the unit would eventually be placed near Pando, Colo. Construction of Camp Hale, Colo., began in April 1942.
The Army began adding units, including the 85th and 86th Infantry Regiments, to what would soon become the 10th Light Division (Alpine) at Camp Hale. On July 15, 1943, the division was activated with then-Brig. Gen. Lloyd E. Jones in command. Just a month later, Soldiers from 87th Infantry participated in the Kiska Campaign in Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
The U.S. officially entered the Italian theater in September, but it wasn't until after the 87th Infantry returned to Camp Hale and reorganized into a light infantry regiment that the division would set its sights on completing a mission that other Allied units before them had failed to do.
The 'forgotten front'
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, American troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, essentially making the war in Italy "the forgotten front," according to the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division. Many of the units stationed in Italy were pulled from the front and sent to southern France.
With many of the Allied forces moving toward France, the German army was quick to rush in and fortify their outposts scattered throughout the Northern Apennines.
American units made headway but took heavy losses when trying to take the Germans' mountain strongholds. Bad weather and hard living in the mountains left Soldiers exhausted, and units were getting low on supplies.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the 10th Light Division was preparing to take on Italy. In November, the unit was renamed the 10th Mountain Division and reorganized into a modified triangular division, and Soldiers received their distinctive blue and white "Mountain" tab. Later that month, Brig. Gen. George P. Hays took command of the division.
By January 1945, the division was in Italy. Hays was given orders to take Mount Belvedere. The 1st Battalion, 86th Mountain Infantry Regiment was given the arduous task.
The unit replaced the 900th AA Battalion and was "heavily laden with winter equipment," according to a report written by Lt. Col. Henry J. Hampton, who served as commander of 1st Battalion, 86th Infantry Regiment during the operation.
"There was from four to five feet of snow on the ground in this location," he explained. "The relief was made at night after an all-day motor movement from Quercianella to three miles east of Poretta Terme."
Each Soldier carried a pack that weighed between 45 and 55 pounds, and each was issued four blankets because sleeping bags were not available, Hampton noted. Soldiers later received snowshoes, but upon arrival, the trucks on site were not equipped with tire chains, so one of the companies marched 18 miles on icy terrain.
The unit was responsible for defending an area of 11,800 yards of rugged terrain.
"The (Germans) held all the high ground, and one felt like he was in the bottom of a bowl with the enemy sitting on two-thirds of the rim looking down upon you," Hampton said. "There was about as much concealment as a goldfish would have in a bowl."
Although enemy mortar and artillery fire was infrequent, other than conducting three patrols a day, the Soldiers' movement was restricted to a minimum. As time went by, Soldiers were allowed to operate more openly -- a strategic move.
"Traffic during the day was allowed to increase, so if and when an operation was started against Belvedere an increase in volume of movement would not unnecessarily alarm the (Germans)," Hampton wrote.
However, taking Mount Belvedere was a task that could not be accomplished without first capturing the Germans' position on Campiano-Mancinella Ridge, also known as Riva Ridge. The enemy's encampment overlooked Mount Belvedere, giving their artillery a clear view of the peak and Route 64, one of only two main paths to the Po Valley.
Five Soldiers were sent on a mission to report on the location and enemy strength on the ridge. The team used skis but hid them away before reaching the top. The men free climbed to the top of the cliff. The men took out three German soldiers but were chased from the area by machine-gun fire.
"From then on, there was increased activity on the ridge," Hampton explained. "There was continual improving and digging of old and new positions. The result of this patrol was that we had one trail over which a small force of well-trained mountain men could advance."
The unit continued searching for existing trails as well as creating new ones that would allow for troop movement and mules. By the end of January, the 85th and 87th Mountain Infantry Regiments arrived.
Taking the ridge
By Feb. 12, snow was no longer a problem on the trails because it was either melted or packed down enough for easy troop movement.
The continual reconnaissance allowed leaders to develop a plan. Five columns of troops using five different trails would be used to assault the ridge.
Soldiers trained for the assault for roughly two weeks. The mission was tentatively planned for Feb. 19 and 20.
"The (enemy) strength on the ridge at any given time was estimated to be 40 to 50 men," Hampton noted. "They manned well-dug-in positions, covering all possible routes of approach.
"As the only approaches to the ridge were along narrow trails, a well-placed machine gun could prevent the advance of the columns up any of these routes that had been selected," he continued.
Hampton knew this would not be an easy task. The only way the troops would be successful was if they moved in absolute secrecy; they had to be close to the enemy and they had to have the ability to observe them clearly.
The troops marched 14 miles to the base of Riva Ridge and rested in nearby villages. As additional support arrived, the Soldiers had time to review plans, make preparations and draw supplies.
Hampton explained that after an aerial reconnaissance, the final mission for 1-86th Infantry was three-fold: take Riva Ridge and "occupy, organize and defend its key terrain features; protect the left flank of the 10th Mountain Division in its attack on Mount Belvedere; and support by fire and aid by observation the left regiment (87th Mountain Infantry) in its attack against Mount Belvedere."
The attack on Riva Ridge kicked off at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 with 700 1-86th Infantry Soldiers beginning the 1,700- to 2,000-foot climb up Riva Ridge. During their late-night trek, the Soldiers never returned fire when Germans attempted to engage.
"Taking advantage of lessons learned previously not to return fire at night, the leading echelon continued to move forward and the (Germans) pulled out," Hampton wrote. "Not a shot was fired by our men. All columns reached their objectives without a casualty."
The Germans, suspecting no threat, moved back into their dugouts, leaving no one in position to provide observation.
"The ultimate had been gained, surprise was complete, and an important, difficult, rugged terrain feature had been taken without a casualty," Hampton said.
As the night went on, fog set in. While it made some of movement difficult, it also concealed them from the Germans.
Throughout the early morning and into the night of Feb. 19, the infantrymen stood their ground, overtook enemy posts and succeeded in taking Riva Ridge.
While 1-86th Infantry's assault on Riva Ridge was under way, six battalions from the 85th and 87th Infantry moved into position to take Mount Belvedere. From Feb. 19 to 25, the units fought and succeeded in taking control of the Mount Belvedere ridgeline.
In all, 213 Soldiers were killed, 782 were wounded and four were taken as prisoners of war during the battles for Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere.
The division's successes in Italy from Feb. 18 to 25 set the stage for the unit's future operations in Italy that took place until May -- controlling the Po Valley, capturing additional ridgelines and making advancements for the Allied forces.
Of the nearly 20,000 10th Mountain Division Soldiers who served in Italy, nearly 1,000 were killed and nearly 3,900 were wounded during their six months in country. One notable casualty was Pfc. John Magrath, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
On May 2, 1945, the Germans who were stationed in Italy surrendered, although the fight in northern Europe continued.
The 10th Mountain Division was called back to the U.S. in July. Upon their arrival stateside, the unit began preparing for the invasion of Japan, which was planned for Nov. 2. However, Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, following the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On Nov. 30, the 10th Mountain Division was inactivated until July 1, 1948. The division served as a training division until 1953 where its personnel prepared troops for the Korean Conflict. In 1954, the division became the 10th Infantry Division, replacing the 1st Infantry Division in Germany until it was inactivated June 14, 1958, at Fort Benning, Ga.
It was reactivated as the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) on Feb. 13, 1985, at its new home at Fort Drum.
The assault climbers who fought in the Battle of Riva Ridge and who took Mount Belvedere paved the way for today's 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers.
William Morrison, president of the Upstate Chapter of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division and veteran of the Italian Campaign while assigned to 3rd Battalion, 86th Infantry Regiment, said he is proud of the legacy that he and his peers left for the current Soldiers.
Morrison had just finished high school when he applied to join the Army's newest division. He remembers reading an article in the New York Daily News about the new Alpine division that piqued his interest. The next year, Morrison was stationed at Camp Hale.
"We got to Italy quite late in the war," he said. "We were very fortunate to have control of the air. We were well- trained and motivated to get the job done.
"We had some great guys and some great leaders in the 10th," Morrison added. "I wish the 10th Mountain Division a great deal of success. The country owes them a lot of gratitude."
Morrison was one of a few thousand men who were hand-picked to finish the job in Italy -- men with an extraordinary set of skills, according to Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, Fort Drum and 10th Mountain Division (LI) commander.
"When the Army decided to create a mountain division in WWII to fight in the mountains of Europe, they brought together a cast of Americans that was really quite remarkable -- skiers, mountain climbers, trappers, outdoorsmen," he said. "The 10th Mountain Division of WWII had the highest ratio of college graduates of any unit in the Army. That's just an example of the type of people that the 10th Mountain Division attracted.
"That legacy is part of what we are today," Townsend continued. "If you look at our Mountaineer statue here on post, you'll see a WWII trooper on top of the mountain, and he's got a rope down to the modern 10th Mountain trooper. That WWII trooper is helping the modern trooper to the summit. That's exactly how we think about our legacy and our forefathers of WWII."
Just like today's 10th Mountain Division Soldiers, the men who wore the mountain tab 70 years ago epitomize what it means to wear the patch, Townsend said.
"The legacy of the WWII 10th Mountain Division is skilled, tough and dependable," he said. "When the WWII 10th Mountain Division arrived in Italy at the end of 1944, they were given this challenge that several other units had (unsuccessfully) attempted -- to clear the Germans from the ridgeline of Mount Belvedere.
"Over a series of patrols and weeks, they secretly scouted routes up the mountain," Townsend added. "They went up the sheer rock face of both mountains and set up rope installations and secretly emplaced pitons / anchor points so they could put up ropes quickly in the dark. They took both Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere in a very short period of time. They took the Germans by surprise, because they didn't expect anyone to climb those cliffs. The 10th Mountain Division had trained for over two years in the U.S. doing exactly that -- climbing cliffs."
The overtaking of Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere led to the fall and capture of northern Italy, Townsend explained.
While Fort Drum isn't known for its high peaks, Soldiers who are assigned to the northern New York post get their fair share of winter warfare training. When the temperatures plummet, troops are still training for the fight -- rain or shine, snow or sleet.
"In 1943, they trained here in the Northeast, they trained in the Rockies, they trained at Mount Rainier in Washington state and they trained in Texas before they deployed," Townsend said. "They deployed late in the war. They actually saw less than five months of actual combat. However, in those five months of combat, we lost about 1,000 Soldiers killed in action and 4,000 Soldiers wounded in action. Those five months were extraordinarily intense five months.
"What I was really fascinated with was the composition of the division -- the college graduates, the outdoorsmen, the skiers," he added. "There was an Olympic ski jumper in the 10th Mountain Division; there were Ski Patrol people in the 10th Mountain Division; folks who were attracted to this mission of a mountain division. Today, we're not a 'mountain' division -- we wear that mountain patch as our legacy. We are a light infantry division -- we can go anywhere and fight anywhere. We don't really have specific mountain training, but we do get extreme cold-weather training. It comes with the territory."
Townsend said he is confident that today's 10th Mountain Soldiers will continue the legacy of the first mountain troopers.
"This division has been the most deployed division in the Army since the early 1990s," he said. "When it came time to fight in the mountains of Afghanistan, this division was called upon by our Army first. Many divisions have fought in Afghanistan over the course of the war -- none more than the 10th Mountain Division.
"We were the first in Operation Enduring Freedom, and we were the last combat division in Operation Enduring Freedom," Townsend added. "I think that that's our legacy. We'll continue to be viewed by the Army and the nation as skilled, tough and dependable mountaineers." o