Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Still learning after all these years.

Greetings from beautiful Vail, CO, where I'm spending a few days of R&R before heading back towards Minnesota. But what I had intended as a slow, lazy day turned into an educational one.

Out on a morning walk, I came across this statue, honoring the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, who fought in World War II. I had a vague recollection of reading about a division of skiing U.S. soldiers, but knew virtually nothing about them. I admired the statue for a moment and moved on.

Later in the day, I took off on a drive that my former boss, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, had recommended. (Rudy was gracious enough to let me use his Vail residence this week.) The drive first went through spectacular Glenwood Canyon, west of Vail, then turned up towards Aspen on Colorado Hwy. 82.

At Aspen, Hwy. 82 turns back towards the east, and becomes a long, winding two-lane road, climbing towards Independence Pass, which is at just over 12,000 feet of elevation, positioned near Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, two of the highest peaks in the lower 48 United States. I'm not always the best guy when dealing with heights, particularly on a narrow road that didn't always have guard rails between me and fall of several thousand feet, and it was a difficult drive. I crawled along the road, trying to keep my eyes from looking over the edge.

I finally reached the pass, took a moment to enjoy the view and headed back down the other side of the mountain. After another 30 or 40 minutes of white-knuckle driving, I ended up in Leadville, Colorado, a former mining town that appears to have fallen on tough times. The drive had been pretty tiring. After a brief stop in Leadville, I headed north toward the interstate, on the road back to Vail.

Just north of Leadville, I slammed on the brakes as I saw a sign for the "10th Mountain Division Monument." Just off the road I found this large tablet, honoring the 990 men who lost their lives as part of 10th Mountain Division. Next to the tablet was a history of the Division, and here's what I learned:

"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.

The 10th Mountain Division was activated on July 15, 1943 at Camp Hale, Colorado as the 10th Light Division (Alpine). "

In the display was this picture of the 10th Mountain Division training. They are traveling - on skis - from Camp Hale, near Leadville - over the Independence Pass and down to Aspen, a trip that took them 3-1/2days.

That's right, the same trip I had just made in a car, and considered a difficult drive, was a trip they made ON SKIS simply as part of their training!

Once they completed their training and were sent to Europe, these soldiers quickly made their mark in the Italian Alps. Their first battle came at a place known as Riva Ridge. The story:

"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. 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 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. 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. 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."

The 10th Mountain Division took part in several other battles before major hostilities ended in Italy in May of 1945. They were being redeployed to Japan in August when the Japanese surrendered, effectively ending the war. The unit returned to Camp Carson, Colorado, and was disbanded on November 30, 1945.

Clearly these men were heroes, taking part in heavy combat, and doing it all of it on skis and snowshoes, in cold weather, at high altitude. I cannot imagine the bravery and dedication it took.

Even after the war, they continued to serve their communities. From the division's history:

"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."

This morning, I barely knew of the existence of the 10th Mountain Division, and tonight I feel honored to have learned their story, and I'm grateful for their service. That feels like a pretty good day.

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