FORT DRUM, N.Y. (June 9, 2021) -- Just as moviegoers are eagerly returning to the theaters, so were 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers – especially when the film celebrates their history.
More than 200 Soldiers and invited guests attended a special screening of the documentary “Mission Mt. Mangart” on June 7 in Fort Drum’s Multipurpose Auditorium.
The film centers on a ski race held in the Julian Alps on the border between Italy and former Yugoslavia in June 1945. Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division organized the race after enduring months of intense combat. After Germany’s surrender, the division’s next assignment was to secure the border and prevent Yugoslav forces under Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito from invading. The mountain troops were more than happy to be back in the mountains again, where they could rekindle their love of skiing.
As legend has it, the Soldiers used ski equipment they appropriated from German warehouses, and 76 skiers participated in the race. Only a third of them finished, because their skills had somewhat diminished from neglect. Swiss-American skier Walter Prager, the Dartmouth College coach who would later helm the 1948 U.S. Olympic ski team, won the race.
The documentary also covers the origin of the 10th Mountain Division and the concept of training professional skiers as Soldiers, as well as the battles leading up to this ski race. The film ends with a re-creation of the race on the same slope – 73 years to the day of the original event.
Chris Anthony, a professional skier and ski guide, said that he created the film out of fascination that a group of Soldiers – just out of combat – would organize a ski race.
“Why were American Soldiers on a mountain on the border of Slovenia in 1945 having a ski race? It made no sense to me,” he said. “It takes some really unique individuals – during wartime – to look up at a mountain, take gear that they stole or captured from the Germans, and have a ski race.”
Through his research, Anthony learned that these were no ordinary Soldiers, but members of the 10th Mountain Division – a unit specially trained for mountain warfare and composed of some of the world’s best skiers and mountaineers.
“I had been skiing on those same slopes in the Julian Alps for some time,” he said. “And it was a good 17 years before I ever found out that the same division – the 10th Mountain Division – who trained 30 miles from my home in Colorado was on the Yugoslavian border.”
Anthony said the 10th Mountain Division patch can be found everywhere in Colorado, but the unit’s origin was never subject material he learned in school. It was only later in life did he come to appreciate the unit’s legacy.
“The story of the 10th Mountain Division is really about diversity,” he said. “These were all immigrants who came together to fight under one patch and one flag. What is especially unique about the division is that it was an all-voluntary force, and they actually had to have three letters of recommendation to even get in. Their ultimate success was because of the bond among the Soldiers. They were there because they wanted to be there – be there for each other, and they all believed in the same thing.”
One of the stories that inspired Anthony to learn more about the division had nothing to do with the Soldiers’ training or combat.
“I hear about this crazy group of Soldiers out of Camp Hale, and they marched from Camp Hale over these mountains and into Aspen,” he said. “Then the next morning they hitchhiked back around and got back to Camp Hale on time, and they did this on a weekend pass. That was nuts to me that they would use a weekend pass to go over this huge range of mountains with all their experimental gear to hang out in Aspen for the night.”
While interviewing some of these World War II veterans, Anthony said that everyone spoke of their love for the mountains, the outdoors and the bond they shared with each other. Their post-war stories are equally interesting.
“There is a reason why those guys are called ‘The Greatest Generation.’ I mean, they came back from war and started rebuilding our country,” he said. “Pretty much our whole outdoor industry was created by veterans of the 10th Mountain Division. Fifty-six ski areas were developed by men from the 10th Mountain Division, including Vail and Aspen. From ski resorts to Nike shoes, the list is unbelievable of what they did after they left service.”
Piecing together the documentary became a labor of love over the course of seven years, and Anthony said he was never at a loss for material. In addition to interviewing and filming 10th Mountain Division veterans, he continued to receive contributions from veterans and descendants throughout the editing process.
“Those special moments kept happening over and over again,” he said. “So many times, I had to restart editing and go back to the beginning because I had to make room for something new. Eventually you just need to stop, which is also kind of depressing because you know you are not telling everything. Hopefully, I did the best I could with what I had, but there tons of stuff still out there to tell.”
Prior to the screening, Anthony toured the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum and saw the monuments at Memorial Park.
“Just the fact that I got to come out here to Fort Drum, I just feel so unbelievably honored, and the pride you all must have is amazing,” he said. “I can see that all around, and it is really cool to be here with you to share this story. It has been inspiring to me, for sure.”
To learn more about “Mission Mt. Mangart,” visit www.facebook.com/MissionMtMangart.