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10th Mountain Division - The Formative World War II Years

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   "Face The Flag"
           John Wayne
Song Info & Buy Link Below

Steve Waterhouse
Last year, Linda and I were very moved by a local event here in Vail involving a talk by Charles Sanders, author of a great new book, "The Boys of Winter," that tells the history of the 10th Mountain Division through the personal stories of 3 outstanding members, all of whom died in WWII.  One of those 3 individuals was Jake Nunnemacher '42, Captain of the 1941- 42 Dartmouth Ski Team.  As you may have seen highlighted on NBC during the current Olympics coverage, the 10th Mountain Division was a very special group in the history of skiing and warfare.  Jake was one of the greatest.  He and many other Dartmouth alumni were totally involved in this remarkable piece of American history....  I can only say that it made me very proud to be a Dartmouth grad skiing the mountains of Colorado.  For those with the "right stuff," we will ski Riva Ridge, named after one of the greatest 10th Mountain Division battles in Italy. 


"The Cost Of Freedom Is Not Free"

The History
of the
10th Mountain Division

Shoulder Patch

Description:  The shoulder patch for the 10th was approved on January 7, 1944.
Symbolism:  The blue background of the patch and the crossed bayonets suggest the infantry, the bayonets also form a Roman number "X" (10) representing the unit’s number. The overall shape of the patch is of a powder-keg suggesting the Division’s explosive power. Red, white, and blue suggest the national colors. The word "MOUNTAIN" is white on a blue tab affixed directly above the patch.

Distinctive Unit Pin


Description: A gold color metal and enamel device consisting of a white mountain formed of five peaks above a blue wavy bar and crosses in front overall two red swords point up; behind the mountain peaks a glory of gold rays radiant from center and enclosed by a gold scroll inscribed "CLIMB TO GLORY" in blue letters.
Symbolism:  The white mountain symbol and the blue wave represent the Division’s World War II combat history in the Northern Apennines and Po Valley Campaigns in Italy. The crossed swords are symbolic of wartime service and further suggest the Roman numeral X, the unit’s numerical designation. Scarlet is symbolic of courage and mortal danger, blue denotes steadfastness and loyalty. The gold is for excellence and the white is symbolic of mountain tops and of high aspirations.

Birth of the Division

In November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. Finnish soldiers on skis annihilated two tank divisions, humiliating the Russians. Charles Minot (Minnie) Dole, the president of the National Ski Patrol, saw this as a perfect example of why the U.S. Army needed mountain troops. Dole spent months lobbying the War Department to train troops in mountain and winter warfare. In September 1940, Dole was able to present his case to General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, who caused the Army take action on Dole’s proposals to create ski units.

On December 8, 1941, the Army activated its first mountain unit, the 87th Mountain Infantry Battalion (Later became an entire Regiment) at Fort Lewis, Washington. The unit was dubbed "Minnie’s Ski Troops" in honor of Dole. The 87th trained on Mount Ranier’s 14,408 foot peak. The National Ski Patrol took on the unique role of recruiting for the 87th Infantry Regiment and later the Division. After returning from the Kiska Campaign in the Aleutian Islands near Alaska the 87th formed the core of the new Division.

10th Mountain Division - World War II

Historical Pictures - Soldiers on Pontoon Bridge.

This unique organization came into being on July 13, 1943, at Camp Hale, Colorado as the 10th Light Division (Alpine). The combat power of the Division was contained in the 85th, 86th, and 87th Infantry Regiments. The Division’s year training at the 9,200 foot high Camp Hale honed the skills of its soldiers to fight and survive under the most brutal mountain conditions.

On June 22, 1944, the Division was shipped to Camp Swift, Texas to prepare for the Louisiana maneuvers of 1944, which were later canceled. A period of acclimation to a low altitude and hot climate was necessary to prepare for this training.

On November 6, 1944, the 10th Division was redesignated the 10th Mountain Division. That same month the blue and white "Mountain" tab was authorized.

Combat - 1945

Historical Pictures - Ski Patrol.

The division entered combat on January 28, 1945 in the North Apennine Mountains of Italy. The division faced German positions arrayed along the 5 mile long Monte Belvedere-Monte della Torraccia ridge. Other divisions had attempted to assault Mount Belvedere three times, even holding it temporarily, but none had succeeded. To get to Mount Belvedere the division first had to take a ridge line to the west known to the Americans as the Riva Ridge. The Germans on Riva Ridge protected the approaches to Mount Belvedere. The assault on Riva Ridge was the task of the 1st Battalion and F Company, 2d Battalion, 86th Mountain Infantry. After much scouting, it was decided the assault would be at night, a 1,500-vertical-assent. The Germans considered the ridge to be impossible to scale and manned it with only one battalion of mountain troops. The attack by the 86th on February 18, 1945, was a complete success and an unwelcome surprise to the Germans.

Mount Belvedere was assaulted next. Belvedere was heavily manned and protected with minefields. Shortly after the 86th assault on the Riva Ridge, the 85th and 87th Regiments made a bayonet attack without covering artillery fire on Belvedere beginning on February 19th. Again the surprise of the assault was successful and after a hard fight, the peak was captured. Realizing the importance of the peak, the Germans made seven counterattacks over two days. After the first three days of intense combat, the division lost 850 casualties to include 195 dead. The 10th had captured over 1,000 prisoners. The 10th was now in a position to breach the German's Apennine Mountain line, take Highway 65 and open the way to the Po Valley.

On April 14, 1945, the final phase of the war in Italy began. With the 85th and 87th leading, the 10th Mountain Division attacked toward the Po Valley spearheading the Fifth Army drive. The fighting was fierce with the loss of 553 mountain infantryman killed, wounded, or missing in the first day.

Medal of Honor - Private First Class John D. Magrath - April 14, 1945Private First Class John D. Magrath.

On April 14th, Private First Class John D. Magrath, from East Norwalk, Connecticut, assigned to Company G, 2d Battalion 85th Infantry, became the division's only Medal of Honor recipient. His company was pinned down by heavy artillery, mortar and small-arms fire near Castel d’ Aiano, Italy. Shortly after the company had crossed the line of departure, it came under intense enemy fire and the company commander, Captain Halvorson was killed. Volunteering to accompany the acting commander with a small reconnaissance party moving on Hill 909, radioman Magrath set out with the group. After going only a few yards, the party was pinned down. But instead of flopping to the ground as the others had done, Magrath, armed only with his M-1 Garand, charged ahead and disappeared around the corner of a house. Coming face to face with two Germans manning a machine gun, Magrath killed one and forced the other to surrender. Five more of the enemy emerged from their foxholes, firing at Magrath and retreating toward their own lines. Discarding his rifle in favor of the deadlier German MG-34 machine gun, Magrath mowed down the fleeing enemy, killing one and wounding three. He then saw another German position, moved forward, and exchanged fire until he had killed two and wounded three and captured their weapon. The rest of Company G followed his lead with amazed admiration. Later that day, Magrath volunteered to run through heavy shelling to gather a casualty report. As he was crossing an open field, two mortar rounds landed at his feet, killing him instantly. John Magrath, age nineteen, was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously. In June 1995, Fort Drum, New York renamed its Soldiers Sports Complex as the John D. Magrath Gymnasium. A plaque and portrait at Magrath Gym honor his memory.

Crossing the Po, Lake Garda, War’s EndHistorical Pictures - Group of Soldiers.

Early on April 20th, the seventh day of the attack, the first units of the 85th Infantry Regiment broke out into Po Valley. Five days of attack had cost 1,283 casualties. With the German’s mountain line broken, the next objective was to cross the Po River.

On the morning of April 23rd, the 10th was the first division to reach the Po River. The first battalion of the 87th Mountain Infantry, the original mountain infantry unit, made the crossing under fire in 50 light canvas assault boats.

The final combat for the 10th Division took place in the vicinity of Lake Garda, a canyon lake at the foothills of the Alps. On April 27, 1945, the first troops reached the south end of the lake, cutting off the German Army’s main escape route to the Brenner Pass. The drive was delayed by destroyed tunnels and road blocks. Using amphibious DUKWs, these obstacles were bypassed and the towns of Riva and Tarbole at the head of the lake were captured. Organized resistance in Italy ended on May 2, 1945.

The 10th completely destroyed five elite German divisions. In 114 days of combat, the 10th Division suffered casualties of 992 killed in action and 4,154 wounded.

Since the 10th Mountain Division was one of the last to enter combat, it was to be used in the projected invasion of Japan. These plans ended with the surrender of Japan in August 1945. After a brief tour of duty in the Army of Occupation in Italy, the 10th was sent to Camp Carson, Colorado. There on 30 November 1945, the 10th Mountain Division was disbanded.

Postwar Growth of Skiing

Veterans of the 10th Mountain Division were in a large part responsible for the development of skiing into a big name sport and popular vacation industry after World War II. Ex-soldiers from the 10th laid out ski hills, built ski lodges, designed ski lifts and improved ski equipment. They started ski magazines and opened ski schools. Vail, Aspen, Sugarbush, Crystal Mountain, and Whiteface Mountain are but a few of the ski resorts built by 10th Mountain veterans.

The United States Army
Installation Management Agency


Plaque At Vail Ski Trooper Memorial

Vail Ski Trooper Memorial

The vinyl recording, which you are hearing,  was released in 1973 when Watergate raged and Vietnam lingered. After 9/11, the John Wayne Estate reissued it on CD feeling that, "Duke," remained an American symbol of right, strength & patriotism. 

In "Face The Flag," his too often used "son" may offend past WWII through present "woman warriors."  Understood.  No slight is intended, for in our now all volunteer armed forces this is not the case, nor frankly ever was the case.  However, the draft which was in existence during past wars singularly called upon men... often to make the ultimate sacfrice.  Yet, there is no mistaken the true cost of all sacrifices of life or limb endure lifetimes for all involved family and friends, plus the nation.

So, gender reference in context, "Face The Flag" represent the idealism of equality, opportunity, and free speech. 
The cost of these freedoms is not free.


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