By Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsDecember 13, 2019
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Dec. 13, 2019) -- Maurice Isserman, author and history professor at Hamilton College, visited Fort Drum on Dec. 13 to discuss 10th Mountain Division (LI) history and share excerpts from his latest book "The Winter Army."
Isserman said that he was inspired, in part, to explore the history of the 10th Mountain Division (LI) by a longtime faculty colleague, Donald B. Potter, who had served in the 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment during World War II. They would talk about mountaineering and skiing, and Isserman said that he spoke about his training at Camp Hale, but never about the war.
"He never told me stories about combat, and it wasn't until he died a few years ago that I learned that he got a Bronze Star in Italy," Isserman said.
He said that his interest was also piqued while writing earlier books on the history of mountaineering.
"In each case, the 10th Mountain (Division of World War II) makes a cameo appearance because the 10th is best known for its skiers, but also a lot of famous and soon-to-be-famous mountaineers," Isserman said.
He said that this was his first venture into writing the history of a combat unit and, in the process, he discovered that he was doing so in a disagreeable way.
"I was channeling a lot of war movies," he said. "When I was a kid, it was all World War II movies all the time. Movies like "The Great Escape" and "The Guns of Navarone" and my favorite of all, "The Longest Day."
In the latter film, John Wayne portrays an officer in the 82nd Airborne Division and in his distinct style he says twice "Hit the dirt, men." Isserman found himself using such clichés in his writing - and often relying on the word "heavy" too often - heavy combat, heavy casualties, for example.
"So where was I going to turn for words that weren't corrupted or obscuring? Well, my solution was to go to the source directly, and that was the words that men of the 10th wrote home," he said.
Isserman said that the Denver Public Library, which he visited on three separate occasions, has a collection of roughly 20,000 letters in its 10th Mountain Division archive. He said that many Soldiers wrote home daily while training in Colorado and Texas, and then whenever possible while deployed.
"In these letters I found the kind of unvarnished, direct connection to the men I was writing about," Isserman said. "It helped me, to some extent, imagine what their experience must have been like."
One prolific writer was Sgt. Denis Nunan, of C Company, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment. In a letter to his mother from Castel d'Aiano, Italy, in March 1945, he wrote:
"Thanks to the failure of the press, and to the stupidity of Hollywood, the Home Front has no real conception of war, and only by [Soldiers'] letters home can the truth be known."
Isserman said he made extensive use of such letters and was guided by their words, observations and insights to tell the 10th Mountain Division story.
He wrote about Hugh Evans, a noncommissioned officer from the 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment, who lost rank during the infamous divisional series, or D-Series. Evans refused to report the names of Soldiers who complained about the severe conditions of the training maneuvers. He regained his stripes by the time they reached Italy and wrote an account of the attack on Mount Belvedere:
"Our attack was to begin a couple of hours before dawn. In other words, we were to carry out a night attack on a division scale, which means superb organization and timing on the part of the higher-ups. A night attack also requires trained troops because men must not fire their rifles, must keep quiet, and need skill in keeping contact. We had been keyed to this high pitch in all our training. We were ready."
Isserman said that Evans, who recently attended one of his book discussions, became a hero of this campaign. One of his close friends was killed while they mounted an offensive on the German stronghold on the summit of Mount Gorgolesco.
Enraged by the loss, Evans picks up his weapon and leads a few men on an uphill assault. Under enemy fire, they broke through German fortifications in a mad dash. In his own words, Evans recalled "throwing grenades and firing my machine pistol." His weapon was empty by the time the remaining Germans surrendered to him.
During the Q&A with the audience, Isserman said that one of the things he found inspiring about the 10th Mountain Division was how its creation was due to civil-military collaboration. It took the insistence of Charles Minot Dole, founder of the National Ski Patrol, to convince the War Department that such an elite unit had practical purpose in the U.S. Army. It also depended on military leadership to train and develop a mountain division that would help win the war.
Isserman said that writing "The Winter Army" was an enjoyable experience.
"It's such a compelling story because the people are so intriguing, both for what they did before the war and, in some cases, during and after the war as they became the founders of the modern winter sports industry," he said.
Sepp Scanlin, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum Museum director, said that Isserman captured what division Soldiers truly thought while training as the Army's first mountain troops and later as they experienced combat for the first time.
"He honors these veterans using their words through interviews, letters and manuscripts to tell their story," he said. "His is the story of the division told from the view of the lieutenants, sergeants, the Soldiers - not military reports, or the autobiographies of general officers. He gives them a voice on this 75th anniversary of their baptism of fire."
Scanlin said that this history will resonate with current members of the 10th Mountain Division (LI), especially those currently deployed or preparing for deployment this winter.
"It is through the histories in Dr. Isserman's book that we will honor our veterans and prepare ourselves today to be the best Soldiers in the field of battle."