The Mountain Soldiers of the U.S. Army: From WWII to Today
While the fabled 10th Mountain Division doesn’t train for the mountains quite like they used to, the Army hasn’t completely abandoned the high country. And the stories of the 10th’s heyday are as good as they come.
At the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School, soldiers trains with ropes instead of guns. Nestled in the Green Mountains of northern Vermont, this military school takes in soldiers from units across the country and trains them as mountaineers, sending them back to their units as mountain soldiers, who can guide their unit through rugged, mountainous terrain. Though graduates of the Mountain Warfare School can proudly call themselves “mountain soldiers,” but the nation’s original mountain troops were around almost a half century before the school’s founding in 1983. The 10th Mountain Division, the first mountain warfare unit in U.S. history, no longer exists as a designated “mountain unit.”
Nevertheless, the story of the 10th, which undertook some of the most daring missions in U.S. military history, is nothing short of miraculous.
Constructed from a ragtag group of climbers, skiers and outdoorsmen, the 10th Mountain Division of the United States Army was formed late in 1941, largely due to a lobbying effort from Charles “Minnie” Dole, founder of the National Ski Patrol. Noticing the successful efforts of outnumbered and outgunned Finnish ski divisions hampering Soviet efforts during their 1939 invasion of Finland, Dole became convinced the U.S. military needed a similar unit, specifically trained for combat in harsh alpine conditions, in the event that the U.S. entered the war. He began to lobby for one’s construction, writing President Roosevelt in July 1940 and offering his assistance in its training and formation. Citing more than two million experienced skiers in the country, Dole wrote, “It is more reasonable to make soldiers out of skiers than to make skiers out of soldiers.”
It was late October 1941 before Dole received written approval from the Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, and the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, confirming the activation of his long sought after “mountain unit,” the 87th Mountain Infantry. Dole began recruiting Olympic skiers, trappers, adventurers and climbers to form the unit. They began training at Fort Lewis, Washington in earnest, but after several training operations on and around Mt. Rainier, the unit moved to Colorado. It began specialized mountain training at a newly constructed Camp Hale (9,200 feet), and later Camp Carson (6,000 feet) towards the end of 1942. Major General George Price Hays, a Medal of Honor recipient and WWI veteran, was given command of the unit just prior to its deployment. Though it originally consisted of only the 87th Infantry, by the time it deployed to the Italian front in late 1944 the unit numbered three regiments, the 87th, 86th and 85th, and was known collectively as the 10th Mountain Division.
The highest peak in the watershed between the Reno and the Panaro Rivers, Mt. Belvedere (3,740 feet) was the cornerstone for German power in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy. Its garrison resisted attacks by American units and partisans throughout the fall of 1944, and was still firmly in German hands when the 10th arrived. This was largely due to Mancinello-Campiano (Riva) Ridge, an impregnable ridgeline running perpendicular to Belvedere. The ridge housed a slew of defensive positions and fortifications, affording the German defenders a clear line of sight to fire on any attackers attempting to climb Belvedere’s slopes.
Hays and the 10th, with their mountain training, were assigned the task of taking control of Belvedere almost as soon as they arrived. “When Hays gets this job, his first division level mission, it’s this almost impossible task,” said Sepp Scanlin, the 10th Mountain Division’s museum director. “He says, ‘Well, I’ll take Mt. Belvedere, but I want to take Riva Ridge first.’ And everyone looks at him and says, ‘You can’t take Riva Ridge, it’s unclimbable. The Italians tell us it’s unclimbable, we’ve been here a little while and we can’t figure out a way up, and the Germans act like it’s unclimbable.’” General Hays, unperturbed, famously responded, “Well, you’ve never had a mountain division before.”
The 10th had their work cut out for them, and began preparing for an assault on Riva Ridge. Reconnaissance found five climbable routes up the ridge, but on the day of the assault the men found one useless due to heavy ice. Of the four remaining routes, two required fixed ropes. Each company selected one platoon, made up of its best mountain men, to act as the “assault platoon” and lead the climb up the ridge. “The strength on the ridge at any one time was estimated to be 40-50 [German] men,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Henry Hampton, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 86th, in an after-action report. “They manned well-dug-in positions, covering all possible routes of approach.” Thus, the men decided the climb would have to be made under cover of darkness, so the men could get in close without being spotted.
On the night of February 18, the 1st Battalion of the division’s 86th Infantry began the operation. On all but one route, the platoons reached the top of the ridge without firing a shot, but on the second route, “as the assault platoon reached the top,” wrote Hampton, “the Krauts opened up with machine guns and machine pistols. Taking advantage of lessons learned not to return fire at night, the leading echelon continued to move forward and the Krauts pulled out.” Despite this brief, one-sided firefight, units reached their objectives atop the ridge without a casualty, as the Germans on all other positions had already pulled back into their dugouts for the night, without leaving a single guard on the ridge.
By early morning, a heavy fog moved in, and the men of the 86th began to attack the German positions. They easily took most of the positions. (At one point, Hampton reported, German soldiers waved at the approaching Americans, assuming they must be friendly forces, as no enemy could possibly have climbed the ridge). Still, the German counter attacks were relentless, consisting of constant assault over the next three days. One platoon, isolated from the rest of the ridgeline, called in an artillery strike on its own position amid a massive German assault, but survived the barrage unscathed. “On several instances the Red Cross flag was used by the Krauts in an attempt to get into our positions,” wrote Hampton, but these attempts failed as well. The 86th managed to hold the ridgeline until relief arrived five days later, reporting 17 killed, 38 wounded and 3 missing, all casualties of German counterattack.
A day after the Riva Ridge operation began, on the night of the 19th, the remainder of the 86th, the 87th and the 85th began climbing the slopes of Mt. Belvedere and its neighbors, Gorgolesco and Della Torraccia. Thanks to the heavy fighting on Riva Ridge, Belvedere’s attackers only had to deal with the enemy atop their objective. Despite heavy casualties, mostly due to indirect fire and an extensive layer of land mines, the majority of the peak was secured by the 24th. With the fall of Belvedere, the Apennines, the gateway to northern Italy, were finally in Allied hands.
Museum Director Scanlin, who visited Riva Ridge and Belvedere in 2016, noted, “the Italian Alpine Guides that were with us when I visited said they’d climbed all the routes [on Riva Ridge], in February, and were shocked we’d been able to do it.” The easiest of the routes is possible as a hike in summer, and Scanlin described even it as “ridiculously steep.” He added, “and I did it in the daylight, in the summer, with nobody waiting at the top to shoot me.”
After their success in the Apennines, the 10th continued to lead the push north up the Po River Valley, becoming the first American unit across the Po River. They later took control of Mussolini’s villa on Lake Garda. Soon after, German forces in Italy surrendered. In scarcely more than 100 days of total combat, 1,000 men of the division were killed and 4,000 wounded, but the stories of the 10th’s bravery and service have since inspired countless books and films, such as the 1996 documentary Fire on the Mountain.
These days, the 10th Mountain is a “mountain unit” in name only. Disbanded after WWII, the Army reactivated the 10th as a light infantry division in 1985, and it has since become the most deployed unit in the U.S. Army, but its brigades are no longer collectively trained as a mountain warfare unit.
There is, however, one brigade in the modern 10th, the 86th Mountain Infantry of the Vermont National Guard, which possesses a mandate to operate as a mountain unit. With companies stationed across New England and Colorado, the brigade has its headquarters at Camp Ethan Allen, Vermont, next to the Mountain Warfare School. Though its mandate is to train its men as military mountaineers, only a quarter of the men in the 86th possess mountaineering training from the Mountain Warfare School. Still, there is a burgeoning movement within the military to restore the 10th’s status as a true mountain infantry unit, and this push is spearheaded by the work done at the Army Mountain Warfare School.
Based in the small town of Jericho, the school offers courses in basic and advanced mountaineering, as well as three speciality courses: a mountain planners course, a rough terrain evac course, and a mountain rifleman’s course.
Sergeant First Class Tim Mclaughlin, 34, a veteran of multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, has taught at the school for a decade. “Any given unit will have a certain number of allotted slots to send soldiers to the school,” said Mclaughlin. When these select soldiers return to their units after attending the Mountain Warfare School, their job is to assist their unit with mountain navigation and mobility. Their specialized skill set includes “setting up rappels, building one-rope bridges, checking peoples’ harnesses and hookups,” and more.
Sergeant First Class Max Rooney, 43, has also taught at the school, for around ten years. Completion of the two-week basic course earns soldiers a Level One certification and the Ram’s Head Device, a special skill badge inspired by the ram’s head on the crest of the 10th’s 85th Infantry. “For the basic course,” said Mclaughlin, “the goal is to extend the unit’s combat capabilities into Class 3, maybe Class 4 terrain, as well as building a skill set in case the unit runs into isolated pockets of more technical terrain.” In the basic course, soldiers learn belay skills and climb on top rope.
To earn a Level Two certification, soldiers must complete the advanced course, and complete training during both summer and winter, for a total of six weeks. They do two weeks of training in lead climbing on both rock and ice, anchor building and risk management, as well as other general mountain skills, including skiing. “It’s still very much an intro course from a mountaineering perspective,” Mclaughlin said.
“The overall challenge of this model,” Mclaughlin added, “is it really takes more experience and judgment to manage an inexperienced group in moderate terrain than it does to manage yourself in more technical terrain,” and that’s exactly what these soldiers are expected to do when they return to their units.
The courses often enter the alpine, with the school located only a few miles to the southwest of Mt. Mansfield, the tallest peak in Vermont at 4,395 feet. “It’s Vermont, it’s not like we’ve got any high alpine here,” admitted Mclaughlin, “but there are several crags in the area, and we use these to simulate more extensive alpine terrain.” In the winter, soldiers go to Smuggler’s Notch, a pass to the north of Mansfield, for their culminating exercises. As far as skill requirements go, Mclaughlin said students are only expected to be able to lead a minimum of 5.6 by the end of the course, with the emphasis being more on technical skills than difficulty.
Admitting that it’s impossible to create a mountaineer in a handful of weeks, Mclaughlin and Rooney both noted they believe the real goal of the school is to ignite a passion. “We give them the technical toolbox,” said Mclaughlin, “with the hopes that they’ll go out and keep developing the skills on their own to the point where they’ll become an asset to their unit. We want them to get that fire in their bellies, and be stoked to continue climbing.”