The Forgotten Soldiers of WWII | Teen Ink

The Forgotten Soldiers of WWII

November 22, 2019
By Anonymous

When one thinks of the Second World War, one thinks of the big battles, D-Day, the Battle of Britain, Battle of Stalingrad, and the Battle of the Bulge. They think of the bombings, the battleships, and the invasions, but one thing nobody ever thinks about skiing. Yet, throughout the ladder stages of WWII, the 10th Mountain Division skillfully coordinated attacks on Axis positions in the mountains in order to provide the rest of the Allied infantry a safer and easier offensive while using their superior skiing ability to get in and out of combat swiftly and silently. 

The 10th Mountain Division was formed in 1943 after the United States (U.S.) military saw the need for an elite division specially trained for mountain and winter combat. The 10th was made up of roughly 16,000 men, all specially trained in mountaineering and intense combat. At their base camp in Camp Hale Colorado (elev. 9,200’), the 10th climbed the rocky cliffs and honed their skiing skills on the slopes. The 10th were some of the best skiers in the world and were capable soldiers as well, their skills earned them the reputation of being some of the toughest and most gritty soldiers in the U.S. military. 

Along with specialized training, the 10th, commonly known as the Mountaineers, received special equipment in order to keep them safe in the harsh conditions of the mountains. Mountain goggles protected their eyes from snow glare, heavy white parkas kept them warm and camouflaged in the snowy conditions, tough boots covered their feet, load bearing packs balanced the weight effectively across their backs as not to hinder their skiing ability, large snowshoes allowed them to hike more easily in deep snow, and specialized skis allowed them to move silently and quickly down mountain slopes whenever necessary. 

The Mountaineers saw little combat in WWII but they had their opportunity in early 1944 when they were ordered to aid the Allied offensive through Italy. The Mountaineers were sent to the Northern Apennine Mountains of Italy to perform a series of assaults on the German army. One of the division’s greatest accomplishments was aiding the Allied army in their assault on Mount Belvedere. The Allied assault on Mount Belvedere had been stalled for months when the 10th arrived, unable to push up the mountain towards the fortifications the Germans occupied. However, alongside the 1st Brazilian Infantry Division, the 10th was able to continue the assault.

In a nighttime operation on 18 February 1945, the 10th climbed the snow and ice covered Riva Ridge, a strategic position nearby Mount Belvedere. The Germans never saw them coming in the harsh conditions and the 10th suffered minimal casualties while taking the ridge. Riva Ridge provided the Germans a view of the American positions below so taking this ridge was strategically important. The 10th was able to use their superior mountaineering skills to silently climb the rough terrain and quickly and carefully take down the German troops.

The next day, the 10th made their assault on Mount Belvedere. Fighting through the frigid conditions the Mountaineers made their way up the mountain, pushing the Germans back farther and farther up the mountain with the help of accurate artillery from mobile howitzer cannons. Their superior training in the mountains of Colorado proved advantageous in combat and allowed the Mountaineers to push up the mountain eventually defeating the Germans. The 10th had fought up the snowy slopes in the bleak, wintery conditions and had withered the heavy gun fire from the Germans in order to secure the mountain. However, despite their victory, the 10th suffered heavy casualties, nearly 1,000 of the 13,000 men in the division were killed in the assault. 

The Mountaineers had proved their worth in combat and continued to participate in assaults in the mountains of Italy as the Allies chased the Germans out of the country. The 10th gained the reputation of being skilled mountaineers and soldiers who could carry out silent and coordinated attacks in the toughest settings while using their skills as advanced skiers to quickly get in and out of combat.

When the German forces in Italy were finally driven out, the 10th was sent to the Pacific theatre where they trained to take part in the invasion of mainland Japan. However, before they could take part in any sort of invasion, the U.S. dropped a pair of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima forcing the Japanese to surrender effectively ending the war. The invasion was called off and the 10th was sent home to Camp Hale where they were demobilized and deactivated on November 30, 1945. Some members of the division were awarded medals including one Medal of Honor awarded to John D. Magrath and thousands of other Mountaineers received medals for their efforts in the war.

After the war, the men of the 10th Mountain Division went on to take part in various other things. Many of the men of the 10th continued to ski post war, an activity that was not very popular and was generally reserved for the upper class. Since the end of the war at least 62 ski resorts have been started by men associated with the 10th Mountain Division notably Vail, Aspen, and Sugarbush. Many men of the 10th joined the National Ski Patrol and started to teach people how to ski.

Notable other former Mountaineers include Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike, and numerous politicians. The legacy of the 10th Mountain Division lives on despite not being a well known division in the U.S. military. The Mountaineers will forever be remembered for their contributions to the sport of skiing and for the sacrifices they made for the United States.

The author's comments:

I like to ski and I like to learn about little pieces of forgotten history

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