Thomas Price

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10th Mountain Division
Thomas Price

The History of Colorado's 10th Mountain Division

In November 1939, the Soviet Union suffered bitter humiliation when, during their invasion of Finland, Finnish soldiers on skis utterly decimated two tank divisions. Charles Minot (known as "Minnie") Dole, then president of the United States National Ski Patrol, was paying attention to this creative and successful battle strategy, and presented an exciting idea to the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall: to create ski units prepared for the strenuous and extreme conditions of mountain warfare. Initially uninterested, but later convinced, the Army activated its first mountain unit at Fort Lewis Washington in 1941, later moving it to Camp Hale, Colorado, on December 6, 1942.

Located near Leadville, Colorado, just north of Tennessee Pass, the men trained at an altitude of 9,300 feet, honing the soldiers' skills for survival and combat under the most extreme mountain conditions. On November 6, 1944, the Division was designated the 10th Mountain Division and the blue and white "Mountain" tab was authorized.

These were a unique group of men. Minnie Dole actually participated in the recruiting because it was hard to find men with the right skills. Many famous skiers and climbers signed up and, given the impression this was an "elite" duty, many Ivy Leaguers and "non-army" types joined. However, as a result of this effort, the 10th had the highest percentage of college educated men ever assembled in one division and the intelligence level was deemed so high that more than two-thirds would qualify as officers. In addition, the troops' level of outdoorsmanship was very high, with many already possessing the requisite backcountry survival skills.

Yet, the training was arduous and the conditions extreme — intentionally. "We climb to conquer" was the regiment's motto, justifiably so. Over 11,000 men arrived in the winter of 1942 and the realities of high altitude training became immediately apparent. The constant sub-zero temperatures combined with strenuous and never-ending drills took a toll on many a "lowlander." The snow was deep and lasted from autumn until summer. Many soldiers called it "Camp Hell" but also warned "Anyone who transfers to combat from the mountain troops is yellow!" Mules were necessary to transport through the rugged conditions.

As the saying goes, however, "iron sharpens iron" and out of Camp Hale marched one of the best and specially trained divisions in modern warfare. In addition to rock-climbing, alpine travel, obstacle courses and weapons training, the winter maneuvers were what truly set the 10th apart. Although the troops trained on skis, these were mostly for patrolling, and not used as much for actual combat. After two winters of extreme maneuver exercises, they were deemed ready.

The unit saw its first actual combat in Italy in January 1945 near Cutigliano and Orsigna, one of the last combat divisions to enter the war. This initial defensive was followed in February by a concerted attack on high peaks clearing it after heavy fighting. Other divisions had previously attempted to assault this sector three times, with no lasting success, but the 10th cleared it in several days of heavy fighting.

The 10th continued fighting north, taking several more key mountains, seizing strategic points, crossing the Po River by April, and even making an amphibious crossing of Lake Garda, despite heavy opposition, securing Gargano and Porto di Tremosine on April 30th. Within days, however, the German surrender in Italy, on May 2, 1945, changed the duties of the 10th, placing them on security detail.

Although the 10th Mountain Division was deactivated on November 30, 1945, it was reactivated in February 1985 and is currently the most deployed unit in the Army. Moreover, veterans of the 10th were largely responsible for the development of the ski industry in the United States after World War II. Former soldiers from the 10th laid out ski hills, built lodges, founded magazines, opened ski schools, and improved both lifts and equipment, creating a lucrative industry and a successful national sport and pastime for millions.

In Colorado, the men of the 10th are remembered with memorials at the former Camp Hale, now on the National Register of Historic Places, and at the summit of Tennessee Pass on Colorado Highway 24. Fritz Benedict, 10th Mountain veteran, also founded the 10th Mountain Division Memorial Hut System, which has been used by thousands of recreational cross-country skiers.

From high altitude battle to modern day ski resorts, the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division and its importance to Colorado and World War II is undeniable and significant.