FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Jan. 17, 2023) -- Soldiers across the 10th Mountain Division (LI) are honoring their alpine legacy this week at Fort Drum during the annual D-Series winter challenge.
The weeklong competition harkens back to the infamous divisional maneuvers (D-Series) at Camp Hale, Colorado, in 1944. Roughly 12,000 Soldiers of the 10th Light Division (Alpine), endured some of the harshest conditions imaginable throughout multiple weeks of war games in the mountains.
Strapped with 90-pound rucksacks packed with survival gear and rations, the military mountaineers climbed elevations rising above 10,000 feet and endured snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures. The Camp Hale newspaper reported that in great depths of snow and some of the most rugged terrain in the Rockies, Soldiers faced problems of maneuver and supply such as had never faced a U.S. division before.
“Infantrymen on skis and snowshoes, packing weapons, ammunition and all their personal equipment and paraphernalia of winter warfare on their backs, pushed doggedly through the deep drifts and spruce forest in a night-long, back-breaking trek to outflank the ‘enemy’ and gain favorable positions for an attack on the invading forces.”
After the maneuvers, the division commander at the time, Maj. Gen. Lloyd E. Jones, wrote:
“Isolation, cold, snow, lack of comfort for several weeks at a time – these call for a fortitude and a strength of character which most men in this outfit have definitely proved they have. In fighting the weather, the altitude and the dangers of the mountains, they have shown themselves ready for combat.”
However, four years before the first D-Series kicked off and 1,800 miles away from Camp Hale, experimental winter maneuvers in the North Country laid the groundwork for the future Army training that would be associated with the 10th Mountain Division.
The Plattsburgh Daily Press reported in February 1940 that the ongoing Russian invasion of Finland demonstrated how a superior invading force could be stymied by unfamiliar winter warfare tactics. The question that remained was whether the American military would devise a practical winter training program to teach Soldiers how to fight and survive in that environment.
The answer to that rested on the Soldiers – mostly from the 28th Infantry Regiment and 26th Infantry Regiment – who arrived at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) that winter to conduct an experimental winter training exercise.
The cold-weather uniform covered them from head to foot, with dark goggles to protect them from snow blindness. Each Soldier was issued a pair of skis with ski poles and a pair of snowshoes, with their automatic rifles slung on their shoulders.
A year before the training commenced, skeptics said there was no conceivable notion why the Army would send Soldiers into the North Country for intensive winter training. The fear was that it would result in numerous cold-weather injuries, not to mention fractured ankles and legs.
However, Soldiers adapted well to the new skills training, and it was said that many of them spent their rest time practicing their skiing and snowshoeing.
Said one Army official: “The success of this experiment, it seems to me, will revolutionize winter training for the Army. If it is officially adopted as part of the Army program, it will mean that we will be able to train the men the year round.”
The experimental training – supported by Lt. Gen. Hugh A. Drum, commander of the Eastern Defense Command – validated ski maneuvers 10 months before the U.S. Army ordered formal test ski patrols and five years before the 10th Mountain Division’s historic assault on Mount Belvedere and Riva Ridge in Italy.
Around the same time, Charles Minot Dole, founder of the National Ski Patrol, was advocating for the organization of a ski and mountaineering unit in the U.S. Army. Corresponding with Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Dole’s services were roundly rejected by the War Department. He later met with Marshall and made a convincing argument that specialized mountain training would strengthen national defense, if the Germans mounted an attack in the northeast.
Dole solicited his colleagues from the American Alpine Club to combine efforts and figure out what equipment was needed for mountain warfare, and they experimented with different configurations for varying climates and conditions.
Members of the American Alpine Club and National Ski Patrol then set their sights on convincing Army officials that no matter how good the gear is, it would only be wasted if not handled by specially trained Soldiers who were acclimated to surviving in extreme weather conditions.
After 18 months of lobbying efforts by this contingent of concerned civilians, the War Department embraced their vision and activated the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington. Thus, began the formation of a new elite alpine unit – the 10th Mountain Division.
Today, Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division (LI) continue their alpine heritage with events like the D-Series Winter Challenge and training at the Army Mountain Warfare School in Vermont. Recently, the Light Fighters School at Fort Drum provides a Mountain Warfare Prep Course to prepare Soldiers for the rigors of mountain training.